Every fall and spring I get a call from an unknown number starting with the area code “517.” It takes me a moment but as soon as I answer and hear that nervous young voice asking for “Mr. Markou” I immediately recognize it as a student from my alma mater, Michigan State University (MSU), calling to ask questions as part of the MSU Wisdom Project.
Over two years ago, Amy Wisner, the Business Communication Professor at the Broad College of Business, started a formal program for students to reach out to alumni and ask questions to better prepare themselves for their future. It has always been the same ten questions and likewise my answers have remained the same. Here’s the advice I impart to the students:
Find Your Passion
The need to seek passion in work is inherently important but often overlooked. Pursuing a career for which you have strong positive feeling and believe in will lead to a successful, happy life. Yet, oftentimes people make career choices that contradict these feelings. So why do so many people end up unhappy, stuck in jobs that they can barely tolerate?
Early on, while I was deciding on a career and seeking advice, I was told to seek a job that is high paying and can offer job security. Unsurprisingly, this advice came from my parents who grew up in a generation that viewed work differently. To them, “work” was simply a way to earn money. They themselves were encouraged to choose something they liked but usually ended up doing something that they were just OK with and didn’t hate too much. And in their work generation there was a distinct separation between work and life. The obvious issue is: we spend a lot of time at work and we naturally yearn for purpose in what we do. Choosing something just to earn money without consideration for your satisfaction will make you trudge through every work day without drive, motivation or joy. And that’s not a pleasant way to spend a 40-50 year career.
Today, people are not only seeking more passion in their work but also see their work as an extension of their identity. What you do defines who you are. And companies recognize this. Many companies have blurred the line between the workplace and the home by modernizing the office with cool decor and bright colors and are offering employee perks like free food and flexible working environments. Additionally, companies have increased the social activities in the workplace with weekly happy hours, team-building events and inter-office challenges. All of these efforts are intended to create a carefully curated culture the company believes will help them attract and retain talent.
As a result, it’s even more important to find your passion in the workplace. So what is your passion and how can you transform that into a career?
The easiest way to begin is asking yourself what you’re good at. Make a list of all your strengths or take one of the many online personality assessments. Start asking your friends, colleagues, classmates and co-workers about their thoughts on your strengths and skills. Oftentimes your network can see things you’re good at and it always helps to boost your confidence when other people speak your virtues. But keep in mind that ultimately you are the one who needs to decide on your passion, and once you’ve made that decision, fight your entire life to follow it.
Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
Whenever I’m asked about doing something that I have never done before I always refer back to a David Bowie quote:
“If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area…go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.”
Comfort, by definition, is a physical ease and freedom from pain or constraint. Many of us are risk averse so it’s obvious why we like to stick with what we know. However, companies are always looking for new ideas – anything from new growth opportunities, how to improve the company culture, to ways of communicating better. If you stay within your comfort zone, the likelihood is that you may not be the one leading these efforts. However, this isn’t only about coming up with new ideas, it’s about being a great leader. The most effective leaders are the ones who take calculated risks in unfamiliar areas and see their decisions through to the end; even if some fail.
The good news is: there’s no single answer to getting out of your comfort zone and it’s a skill that can be developed early and often. There are thousands of things you can do that will put you in that place Bowie was talking about. Maybe it’s spending one semester studying abroad in a culture you don’t know much about. Maybe it’s joining a multi-cultural group at school that discusses current issues relevant to a group that you’re not familiar with. Or maybe it’s volunteering in your community somewhere that you may not feel like you fit in. The point is to find something that you feel a little uncomfortable with, put aside your fears and anxiety, and open yourself up to something new.
Learn to Communicate Effectively
This is such an critical area. In fact, there’s a multi-billion dollar industry devoted to improving communication in some of the leading organizations. Every workplace relies on communication to achieve strategic objectives, produce results and create a positive culture. In the workplace, when a goal is not met, a project fails, or a deliverable is late, poor communication is often targeted as the culprit.
It is obvious that clear, effective communication will lead you to satisfaction and success in the workplace, regardless of your area of study or career ambitions. But where do you start? There are so many forms of communication: formal and informal, oral and written, body language, etc. Additionally, different people prefer different styles of communication; some prefer to talk in person and others prefer email.
There are many great ways to improve your communication skills but my advice is to (1) practice, (2) proactively seek feedback and (3) know your audience. Like an athlete, practice makes perfect. When you have an important presentation approaching, nothing helps you build confidence and deliver your key messages like practicing it…over and over again. And when you practice, stand up, project your voice and visualize the audience. Sometimes I’ll reserve the conference room for myself ahead of the presentation in order to practice in the actual room in which I’m going to deliver my talk. Having a few of your colleagues in the room when you practice will also help because you can receive immediate feedback in a safe environment from people you trust.
Receiving feedback can be difficult because we generally don’t like to hear about our mistakes or focus on areas we need to improve so it’s easy to understand why many people avoid it. You could wait to get feedback during your annual or semi-annual performance review but, by that time, you’ve missed an enormous opportunity to improve or develop a skill and the feedback you do receive is stale. One technique I apply it to get deliberate feedback proactively and timely. Think about the skills you would like to develop and determine when you have an opportunity to display those very skills. Perhaps you are given an extremely short deadline to provide a pricing analysis to the head of operations in order to help determine whether you’re meeting company margin targets. You could simply prepare and send the data and get back to your normal duties. Alternatively, rather than returning back to the status quo, perhaps you reach directly out to the head of operations for feedback so you can learn, grow and improve. But how you ask is just as important as asking. Instead of asking, “How did I do on the analysis?” it is much better to say something like, “I felt like I sent a lot of data your way. What do you think about how it was presented? Could I have done anything differently to make it clearer to the reader?” Approaching it this way forces the feedback provider to give honest, intentional, and constructive criticism that you can use to improve going forward.
Knowing your audience will improve your communication drastically. There are thousands of ways to do this but essentially you need to do research on who you are talking to – whether through an email, over the phone or live. The things you should be thinking about related to your audience are: their interest in the topic, level of understanding, what their reaction might be, and most importantly, what is in it for them? The last topic is my favorite because people simply don’t want to waste time on things that do not benefit them. There have been times where I have started writing an email to someone and realized there’s nothing in this for them so I simply deleted the email and brought up the topic in passing later. When you’re good at knowing your audience you will realize that your communication style must adapt to their needs and they will appreciate it.
As you move up in an organization, communication skills become exponentially more important (and even more nuanced). By constantly improving your communication skills you show top leadership that you’re capable of excelling as a leader.
Taking Wisdom to Heart
After speaking with several students who are about to embark on their careers I imagine what my life would have been like if it was me on the other end of that call. Would I have made the same choices? Where would I be today? We’ll never know the answers to those questions but I guess that’s why it is called the “The Wisdom Project” intentionally leaving out the recipient of the wisdom. In reality, I do not need a time machine because, no matter where I find myself in my career, by constantly pursuing my passion and feeling a little bit “off my feet,” I know I will continue to make a positive impact on the world.
About Josh Markou
Josh Markou is a senior financial leader and strategic thought leader with more than fourteen years of industry experience ranging from an entrepreneurial startup to multi-national companies. Josh is adept at building and managing high performing teams by prioritizing meaningful work aligned companies’ most strategic initiatives. Josh has played key roles designing and implementing new enterprise-wide reporting, analytics and business intelligence capabilities that has resulted in actionable insights and cost savings.
Over the course of his career, Josh has built an accomplished track record of strategic planning, financial modeling, P&L management, revenue/profit optimization, process improvements, ERP implementation, key metric development and tracking, legal and regulatory compliance, and financial planning and analysis (FP&A).
Josh earned a Bachelor of Arts in Finance and a Master of Science in Accounting from Michigan State University’s Eli Broad College of Business. Josh is an active Certified Public Accounting (CPA) in the State of Illinois.
Josh is an active member of the East Prairie Stewards who are restoring a remnant prairie at the Morton Arboretum. Josh has also served as Board Treasurer for the Chicago Fringe Festival, a nonprofit performing arts festival that brought established and emerging artists together to perform in under-served communities.
Outside of work Josh is an avid reader, chef, cyclist and runner. He loves going on adventures with his wife and two boys.