4 Ways to Reboot and Adapt New Skills

Recently we discussed surviving rapid change in media technologies. There comes a point where we embrace the fear of change. We accept it as inevitable, and grow willing to adapt new methods and technologies. But how does one go about embracing new skills?

Going back to college for a second degree is not an easy choice, both from a time commitment and from a financial perspective. One could debate whether or not another college degree could prepare you for a new profession given how fast technology is changing everything.

Don’t get me wrong. I have a Masters degree in Communications, Culture and Technology from Georgetown. I still use the lessons learned, but my degree was from 2000. The long-term value was learning media dynamics, and how to think about the way people use communications tools.

Getting that degree was expensive, and it’s not something I can easily do again. So, in that vein when I need to learn new technical skills, I turn to alternative methods. Here are some ways I have embraced learning.

1) Experiential Learning

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Millennials (in general) have a great attitude about change. My friends Maddie Grant and Jamie Notter, co-authors of When Millennials Take Over, note that Millennials discard and adapt new technologies with the times. If one technology stops working, they move on to the next tool.

Learning by simply adapting a new method or tool can be extraordinarily difficult. Yet learning through experience can provide the deepest and most impactful knowledge. You know firsthand because you adapted by trial and error.

The challenge in this method is what I would call a sophomoric failure. A false confidence about how a technology or method works can carry you until a challenge arrives. There are often many tutorials online from people who have done the same thing, a virtual “YouTube University”, and sometimes these how-to articles and videos can help. But if the challenge is too stifling it could cost you a project or a job.

I would argue this is the challenge some social media experts face. They play with tools and talk about them, but cannot execute on projects based on their experience. A deficiency in the larger communications skill set is often the problem.

I self taught myself social media and learned several lessons along the way, including being more personal, reciprocation, etc. I became better with practice, but if I didn’t already possess other communications and marketing skills prior to my social start in 2006, I would have struggled a lot more.

2) Conferences and Seminars

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Seminars, one-day workshops, and conferences are a quick way to jolt your thinking. They help you think about challenges in a different way. These types of events usually offer a quick lesson(s), and some examples from a more experienced person(s).

The value of a seminar is a quick fix to stale thinking. It may be all you need. But make no bones about it, the impetus is still upon you to learn and excel after the event.

Further, it’s important to have a discerning eye at conferences. Not all events are created equally. At even the highest quality conferences, not all sessions are equal. To use the social media expert analogy again, you may be just getting more sophomoric knowledge from another sophomore. Look for real examples and experience to discern the value of the tips offered.

When I first sought outside experience in 2014 to break out of a stagnant period as a photographer, I paid for three workshops from KelbyOne, National Geographic, and Nikon. The lessons were valuable, and I still use them today.

3) Intensive Experiences

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A different method of learning is to take on an immersive experience. This basically puts you into a highly engaged full-time work simulation or learning environment. You are run through numerous exercises under the guidance of an experienced professional or instructor.

The effort is intense. It can blow your mind. But the new skills gained are invaluable and can really help you break out of a rut, and forge new ground. The trick is to continue using the skills in your regular work.

There are many examples of intensive workshop environments. Today’s coding academies are great examples. Language immersion seminars and schools are a more classic example.

The Santa Fe Photography Workshop I participated in over the summer was one such experience. I learned quite a lot, and have since used the tips Tony Corbell passed on in several situations, including the above photograph of my daughter Soleil.

4) Continuing Education

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Getting away for a week to several months may not be an option for many people. This is where traditional education and corporate training comes into play.

Learning through continuing education credits may not be as hip as a conference in a schwanky location or an immersion course, but it offers a proven way of learning new skills for work. The time commitment is much more reasonable (one or two evenings a week), and while homework isn’t necessarily fun, it offers a familiar routine for most.

Consider that many employers will compensate you for taking on a training program. It makes you more valuable to them. And continuing education and approved training courses are considered to be more acceptable and safe methods of learning.

When I worked at TMP Worldwide 15 years ago, I got moved into business development for a period of time (Yeah, I know, embarrassing, but I loved it!). At the time, my manager assessed my skills and suggested a Dale Carnegie sales training course. By the time two month-long class was over I had become the class SalesTalk champion, and I closed two multi-million dollar deals within the next year. Not too shabby.

These are just four ways I have learned new professional skills outside of the traditional college degree. What would you add for those looking to sharpen or reboot their skills?

Why Millennials Are Luke and Leia and Gen Xers Are Han Solo

Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant just published a new book When Millennials Take Over that details the processes and culture that businesses need to adapt. The book comes at a critical time. According to the authors, successful companies are moving to embrace the new work culture of the future (or the present, depending on your perspective) and drive business.

We thought it would be great to have a conversation with them at xPotomac on August 27th and discuss. To help prepare folks, I interviewed Jamie and Maddie last week in Georgetown. The interview is quite fun and even includes a funny reference to Star Wars as you will see. Don’t miss their session on August 27th (register today using the code “Geoff” and get 20% off).

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GL: Is GenX the lost generation?

MG: We’re not lost. I think we are purposefully the bridge. We have a foot in both places. Millennials don’t remember work before the Internet, but we do remember some of the old ways of working that still make sense. At the same time, we’re fully digital and we get that, too.

JN: Because we kind of invented all the Internet (laughs). We actually mention this at the very end of the book. It’s a little clichéd, but we’re all in this together. The millennials don’t actually take over. No one generation ever runs it all by themselves.

We use a Star Wars metaphor. Millennials are Luke and Leia. They’re the heroes.

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GL: So does that make us OB1?

Both MG and JN: No, that’s the Baby Boomers.

JN: We’re Han Solo. Yes, we’re cynical, we’re independent, we’re all about taking care of ourselves, but we might save the day in the end.

GL: What is digital’s role in the millennial movement?

MG: The four key capacities that come out of our research — which is this intersection about millennials, what they like, how they operate, and awesome cultures – are digital, clear, fluid and fast.

Digital is the first one and we define digital as the digital mindset, which is about a relentless focus on the user experience. The user is the employee as well is the customer. It’s also about customization and personalization for the middle of the market as well as your top players. Then there’s continuous learning, continuous upgrades.

Millennials are used to having apps on their phone. Any kind of software that they use upgrades itself all the time. They want that in their work experience, their professional development.

GL: Have you seen Slack? Is Slack an example of that?

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MG: Yes, we actually use Slack amongst the two of us. I am actually watching Slack pretty closely right now, and am fascinated by them. The reason it’s taking off is that acts in the same way that you can personalize your phones, every individual has a whole different library of apps based on what they want, need and use.

Slack acts in the same way, you connect all of your services, but at the heart of it is social, collaborative and chat, and the core of it is a chat stream. You can personalize your experience. It’s not about one ring to rule it all. It finds a middle way to connect.

JN: It’s just so pleasant to use. It follows what software designers should be doing right following an intense user experience. We argue in our book that you need that same intense user experience focus what it comes to your employees and you run your organization. Why are you not designing your organization with this radical emphasis on does this work for our employees?

The case study we use is a small nonprofit – they’ve only got 22 people – they designed the entire organization around the needs of the employee. Like most of the places we found for our case studies, employees say things like, “I can’t imagine working anywhere else.” Or, “I remember what it was like for XYZ company, and I’ll never go back again.”

When they have an opening they get applicants from the best tech companies in town. Not the other way around. Usually, nonprofits lose their best talent to the private sector.

They redesigned their office space and created it with the employee needs in mind, and not senior management. They put the boss out in front in a pod with everyone else, not in an office; because they found when everyone has senior access to senior managers they got their job done more quickly and effectively. There’s open space where they walk together, there’s a yoga room, they have a little coffee area, there’s wifi on the roof even though they are in Chicago. If it works for the employee, that’s what they do.

Their job descriptions are customized every year to the individual based on their career path. You could have two people in the same job with very different job descriptions because they are on different paths in their career. That’s harder work for the organization, but it’s better for the employee. It gets [the nonprofit] this kind of engagement that everyone is searching for in organizations, and they basically get more done than any of their peer organizations.

They put all of their content that they ever created for this association – The American Society for Surgery of the Hand – and put it online. They made it searchable across all platforms in an 18-month platform. It takes most associations 18 months to decide to do anything. They are faster and they get more done even thought they are only 22 people.

MG: Seven of their staff are full-time technology people.

JN: The average spend on technology in the association world is about 4%. They’ve got a third of just their personnel. They also have tablets and laptops and a database system. So they spend a lot more than that on technology.

That was one of our points in the book. You have to at least be on the right side of the technology curve. It’s still just an entry into the game.

GL: With technology today, would you say that we are in a constant stasis of change? How do people deal with that?

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MG: This is one of the things that the millennial generation is very comfortable with. They are very comfortable with switching from one piece of software to the next.

GL: What do you think their secret is?

MG: I think it’s literally just based on social media and mobile apps. You have this tool in your pocket every single day, and it changes all the time based on when apps change. They live with this, they communicate with their friends with this, they play games, they do all of these things that continuously change. So they get to the workplace and they don’t understand why they are still using Sharepoint.

JN: I think of the word disruption, and there’s sort of constant disruption. Older generations define that as a problem. I don’t think that word disruption is as problematic for the younger generation.

What the millennial generation is more capacity to deal with the short term. There may be a downside to that; are they looking at the long term enough? But they are really good at dealing with short-term disruption: “This doesn’t work? That’s fine, we’ll just move to the next app.”

In the old world, the scenario would be we spent six months learning this app. We have to use it for another 18 months otherwise there is no ROI on it. [Millennials} say no it doesn’t work anymore, even though six months ago I thought it would, so we’ll just use something new.

MG: This is where the generational difference is in the workplace. A boomer IT manager who is in charge of the budget doesn’t want to buy a new thing every six months. You have to articulate why it is actually good to be flexible in the software you buy. You have to buy it with the understanding that it might not work in six months despite the money and they training you just put everyone through.

GL: Is there one thing you would like impart on today’s Xers and Baby Boomers?

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JN: Most senior leaders need to radically shift their focus to their internal culture. Millennials care much more about culture than previous generations did. They literally ask them what matters most when it comes to a job, and culture comes first. Salary comes fourth. That’s not traditionally been how we focus on an inside organization.

So if you aren’t building cultures that make sense to millennials, you are going to lose for a long time. They are going to be your customers and your employees for the next 20 years.

They are the kind of generation that says if you are not doing it for me, I am going to go do it myself. That’s what they grew up with is the ability to do that because they have the social Internet. A lot of organizations say well if I don’t hire you, you’re going to have to go home and live with Mom. And [millennials] say, OK I’ll go home and I’ll start something.

How Does One Evolve Successfully?

The statement that we must evolve may seem obvious to many. Heads nod, people murmur their agreement, and they share their experiences.

Understanding what is coming next and how to evolve a skill set to meet that change both represent different problems. But to some the risks of failure, of looking like a fool used to far outweigh the rewards. Instead, people play it safe letting the young and the bold take the risks. So in my mind, successful evolution begins with an attitudinal shift, one that will become necessary for a majority of the workforce over the next few years.

The time of letting others innovate and then catching up when a trend becomes the norm is passing. A next generation of executives – millennials – are rising to the fore. Unlike Baby Boomers and to a lesser extent Gen Xers, millennials are less vested in tools and processes. Workers must embrace never-ending change.Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant, authors of When Millennials Take Over for xPotomac (post running on Wednesday). They discussed how generally millennials will simply move to the next tool set if it works better. There is little attachment to prior best practices. If something offers a better way, millennials simply migrate.

This new attitude towards change will become increasingly prevalent in the workforce. To stay relevant people must embrace change. Otherwise the consequences include limited career paths and possible unemployment.

Change with New Media

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Changes come in a variety of forms, from workspace structure and layout to simple changes in media types. The latter is oft discussed because they affect so many people.

Here is a current example: xPotomac co-founders Shonali Burke and Patrick Ashamalla wanted to use Slack to help foster our dialogue and communications. For those of you who are not familiar with Slack, it is a next generation messaging service that does a better job of threading and storing conversations. Slack is generating impressive growth as more and more people use the service and share it with their friends.

I was reticent to use Slack given that I am already on Google Talk and Skype, but they gently nudged me. Sure enough, the conversations have been easier to access and maintain. It would be helpful to have Slack better integrated into other tools, but overall it is an improvement for workplace messaging. So on it goes. Adios Google Talks.

The only reason why I experimented was because both Shonali and Patrick touted the values of Slack. I listened. Here was a majority of the three vouching for the new.

Whenever I hear multiple sources tell me about a new method or tool, I force myself to set aside the old and begin experimenting. I have to lay aside prejudices. Experience has taught me that the new will always replace old, sooner or later. When I avoid the new, I miss new tools and become antiquated.

When Pinterest broke out, I scorned the social network. Today, it is one of the most powerful networks out there. As a result I had to play catch up, and learn about Pinterest. I possess enough knowledge about the network to guide clients, but I’ll never be a leader in the world of Pinners. The time of early adoption passed me by.

The Value of Short Term Memory

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One attitude I try to practice is maintaining a short-term memory. Specifically, I intentionally try not to get stuck on past best practices, tools and technologies. Things change so quickly it’s not worth hardlining an older approach. It’s best to stay in the moment.

This willingness to forget is very intentional for me. I basically have to force myself to set aside skepticism (I guess that disqualifies me as a millennial). It’s important to approach things with an open mind, and without the baggage of preconceived notions.

To be fair, not every new medium or technology is a winner for me. Some are just the shiny object du jour. Others just don’t fit into my business or personal life. What’s important is that I am willing to try them. And if they don’t work, then I must forget them just as easily as I would forget an old technology or method.

It was interesting to see Chris Brogan openly experiment with and eventually reject Periscope as a tool last week. He saw its value for others, but ultimately decided it didn’t work within his media mix. I get that, often finding video to be difficult to incorporate (at least with the budgets I have to work within).

Moving forward, will I usually turn away from video? Probably not. At some point, a new format will make it the right medium to communicate in, or budgets will increase to produce the kind of videos I believe in, or video will become easier for me to produce. It would be smart to lay aside past experiences and experiment yet again.

Yeah, But…

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Attitude is the first thing. But without the methods and means to adapt to change, it’s like having a bike with a flat tire. You still get nowhere.

How can someone evolve their skills successfully and not get caught off guard? Part of that is foreseeing change as it is happening or is about to happen, and the second part is rapid adoption of new skills.

There is more to come on this topic. Stay tuned.

xPotomac Returns on June 12

My DC friends will be happy to know that Patrick Ashamalla, Shonali Burke and I have been very busy over the past few months. We can finally announce xPotomac 15 this June 12.

Our keynote this year is author Mark W. Schaefer, who just released The Content Code, which highlights how the marketing world has gone mad.  In his new book, Mark challenges communicators to break through information density by thinking about audiences in a new way

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This year’s xPotomac returns to the Georgetown University Campus, but will be held at the Healey Family Student Center, which includes an in-building parking garage. Special thanks to our event host and sponsor the Communications Culture and Technology programShana Glickfield, cofounder of the Beekeeper Group, will again emcee xPotomac.

The remaining three sessions and their speakers have been selected:

It’s a data driven world, but you still need creative free thinking to succeed. Senior Vice President for Social@Ogilvy Kathy Baird will discuss some lessons she learned at the Burning Man festival as they apply to digital communications.

Next up, Gannett’s Director of Social Media and Engagement Jodi Gersh and Assistant Managing Editor, Video for the Washington Business Journal Jen Nycz-Conner will discuss how digital media continues to impact the way news is developed and shared.

The first millennials are now 35 years old and taking over executive leadership positions. How does the new digital-savvy leadership impact workplace culture. DC-based authors Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant will discuss the concepts discussed in their new book, When Millennials Take Over.

After our lunch break, crisis communications expert and Commcore Consulting Founder Andy Gilman will join xPotomac cofounders Shonali Burke and Geoff Livingston for a digital crisis communications bootcamp.  Help resolve a digital crisis live! For those that don’t know Andy, he has counseled clients for 60 Minutes appearances, Congressional hearings, and most notably provided counsel to Johnson & Johnson during the Tylenol 1 crisis and the Government of Canada for the SARS Outbreak.

Register today for xPotomac 15 today! A version of this post also ran on the xPotomac site.