Coaches as Mindset Curators with Joe Chenevey (2/2)

Welcome to episode 171 of the Nerd Journey Podcast [@NerdJourney]! We’re John White (@vJourneyman) and Nick Korte (@NetworkNerd_), two Pre-Sales Technical Engineers who are hoping to bring you the IT career advice that we wish we’d been given earlier in our careers. In today’s episode we share part 2 of an interview with Joe Chenevey, discussing how to tell when it’s time for something new, the role of mentors and coaches in career progression, some thoughts on project and program management, and how Joe’s attitude toward pursuing people leadership has changed over time.

Original Recording Date: 04-19-2022

Joe Chenevey is a Principal Solutions Architect on the Dell Synergy Acceleration Team at VMware. You can follow him on Twitter here. Catch part 1 of our interview with Joe in Episode 170.

Topics – Time for Something New, The Mentor’s Role, Reacting to Feedback, Layers of Management, Managing Programs and Projects, The Way of the Principal, Parting Thoughts and What’s Next

3:00 – Time for Something New

  • How can we determine when it might be time to go and do something new?
    • Sit back and gain perspective on your level of happiness. Happiness drives much of the decision making we do.
    • Whether you are mentally curious and emotionally fulfilled contributes to how we view our professional roles and functions. As much as we want to separate personal and professional life, people do not always appreciate how much our professional careers contribute to emotional fulfillment.
    • If you do not feel fulfilled, it can spill over and affect your family or your attitude toward your work.
    • When you’re curious about something different or frustrated about what you are doing, those are there times to consider an opportunity to do something different.
    • Consider the skills you have and those you want to learn. Is there a place within your company that would leverage what you bring to the table and have a need for someone like yourself to go into the role.
      • In Joe’s experience, personal relationships (building and maintaining them) have played a large part in being presented with the next opportunity. Many times a conversation with someone he once worked with presented him with a new opportunity.
      • We should keep those personal connections warm. Maintaining relationships takes effort and must be directional.
      • If we’re relating to people we work with, there are many circumstances where we build relationships with people who really stuck out for one reason or another. It’s those people you really want to curate throughout your career (i.e. check in and see how they are doing). Those relationships will often times act as bridges to something new and unique.
      • This is about caring for people. The bonds have a tendency to be fruitful by providing new insight in conversation.
    • Joe has mentors he’s leveraged for discussing ideas, anxieties, and frustrations. If we can do this throughout our career (however long it ends up being), even people we haven’t worked with in a very long time will remember you for the positivity you brought. They will still be there and could be the very ones who lead you into a new opportunity.
    • We live in a world that is very small in technology. Continue to curate the relationships that you can leverage when you’re ready to do something more than you are doing today.

9:13 – The Mentor’s Role

  • Some of Joe’s mentors were previous front line managers he worked under which he continued to use as mentors (bouncing ideas, asking about areas of the company).
  • Mentors can provide a perspective that you don’t have. They can see the good we’re doing which we do not see ourselves and provide transparent feedback into areas where we need to grow which we may not be thinking of.
    • Mentoring does not always have to be formal as to what the relationships look like. Some of Joe’s mentors have been peers, and some have been leaders.
    • It depends on your focus as an individual. Sometimes good mentors can be those who are doing things we are interested in doing. There are also folks who have been successful in career progression that we might use as a sounding board for our own career progression.
    • Mentors can help us think through career decisions as well as be narrowly focused on helping us build a specific skill that will unlock new opportunities for us.
  • Mentors can also guide us in how to have career conversations with our manager.
    • It’s often easier to have that conversation with mentors instead of your front line manager. They can help you approach it the right way.
    • Whatever a mentor shares as far as how they did something, take it with a grain of salt because that experience was unique to them.
      • Joe often tells mentees, "in your situation, you may consider X, Y, Z." And when sharing his experience, he makes sure to communicate it was the path he chose based on his circumstances. The suggestions he provides mentees is meant to let the person think through what will be most comfortable to them.
    • The mentor can act as a sounding board that decreases anxiety. There’s no pressure on them and none on you.

13:37 – Reacting to Feedback

  • What if the boss is not receptive to what you want (i.e. a promotion / specific role on the team) even after practicing with a mentor?
    • It largely depends on how satisfied you are in what you are doing today.
    • Keep in mind the manager you are speaking to is a human being. This has taken Joe years to learn.
    • Trying to understand your manager’s perspective a little better also helps. When the answer you wanted to hear does not come to you, this might allow you to take the answer differently.
    • If you’re not satisfied with the feedback from a conversation with the boss, it is time to assess your situation. Ask yourself…
      • Do I need to build additional skills? (a great follow up question for the boss)
      • If the opportunity does not present itself now, when do we anticipate it coming up? (another good question to ask)
    • You also have the option to pause the conversation with your manager, do your own assessment, and talk to a coach or a mentor to reflect.
      • Perhaps the answer is that the opportunity is not there in your current team / role, and now may be the time to transition.
      • You could ask your boss what the gaps are. Perhaps you and a mentor did not see them as the boss does.
  • In many cases Joe likes to use mentors outside of his organization within the company.
    • They have a different perspective.
    • There are not necessarily privy to what you do on a daily basis like your direct manager, peer, or skip level manager might.
    • Taking input from multiple viewpoints is helpful, especially when we’re looking to transition to a role different from the one we are in now. Having multiple voices can help us make a decision.
  • Once you come to a conclusion on the next progression step for you, if it does not exist within your organization, go and have that conversation with your manager about helping you find what you want within the company.
    • No one should have the expectation you will do the same thing you do now for 20 years.
    • Being ready to have that conversation is easier once we have determined how far we can take ourselves in our current job code / job family.
    • It can be difficult, especially when we like the company and the people who work with us. It becomes a choice between stay within the company or go to a place that has the opportunity you want.
    • It all goes back to how satisfied you are in what you do when it’s time to make a decision.

18:05 – Layers of Management

  • Joe has considered people leadership previously both at VMware and at his previous employers.
    • It came down to satisfaction with what he was doing.
    • When he looked at people management earlier in his career, he looked at it as a natural progression step (a misinformed opinion).
    • After researching specific roles in people management and understood the characteristics the company was looking for, they did not align with Joe’s passion areas.
      • When you’re not passionate about something you don’t necessarily put your best foot forward.
      • Joe was not passionate about having to manage cost centers and other administrative tasks.
      • Your level of enthusiasm for the work at hand portends how successful you can be when you want to interview for that type of role.
      • Joe found he was more enthusiastic about the technology than anything else and found people management to not be for him at that time.
      • Staying an individual contributor allowed Joe to control his area of focus within technology and the types of things he focused on without taking on the burden to think about salaries and career progression of direct reports (and other daily duties of a manager).
      • Joe sees himself as a hard core technology, and that is where his interest is.
  • Over time your view point on staying individual contributor or pursuing leadership can shift.
    • Do you still feel passionate about the technology?
    • Are you looking to build other people up?
      • People who step into management roles are looking to build and curate people?
    • Over time Joe has focused more on mentorship and coaching. His mind is more receptive to eventually taking a management role because he is looking at being more of a coach and mentor as opposed to the person doing the actual work.
    • It goes back to your level of happiness.

23:35 – Managing Programs and Projects

  • Program and project management is a career field in an of itself, which includes managing an organization made up of resources and assets in order to accomplish building something.
    • Program managers and project managers are facilitating schedules, resources, and assets to create a deliverable (a building, an IT project, etc.). These people are not managers themselves but have to manage resources and assets.
    • One of the resources happens to be humans (engineering talent, operational talent, etc.). You get into influencing the work of other people and scheduling the resources, working with managers, etc.
    • The focus is on the level of work and the type of work without the responsibility for managing individual career paths.
    • There is a fine line because the resources whose work you need to manage do not report to you, and influencing must be done indirectly and in various ways.
    • Matrix management is often what program manager and project managers do (trying to get human resources to do something / build something on behalf of the company).
    • In many cases, we as technologists need someone to organize work into finite tasks to accomplish on a schedule.
    • Joe got into roles like this to do something different than just technical implementation.
    • Joe was bored at the time and had taken some program management training while in the Air Force, feeling it was something he could utilize.
      • That training taught him how to influence people. When he was in a program management role he had to control costs, schedules, and the quality of the work while not necessarily having authoritative control over any of those things.
      • The skills Joe learned from this type of role were very helpful, but the role itself was also a frustration point that contributed to his later transition back to a role focused on technical architecture.
  • If you work for a small company and are highly organized, changes are you have done project management type tasks without even realizing it.
    • Maybe this is an adjacency that could be an option for you if looking to do something different.
    • Project and program management are career fields in and of themselves regardless of whether it applies to IT.
    • The same methodology a project manager in construction applies in IT and many other industries as well.
    • This is the great thing about learning new skill sets and soft skills (project management, financial management, etc.) as they can lead to new opportunities inside your company or outside.

29:11 – The Way of the Principal

  • The principal title is highly regarded and somewhat elite across our industry for individual contributors.
  • The principal title can mean different things depending upon the company. Largely it is consistent with one of the higher tier technologist roles across our industry.
    • In many respects achieving the principal status requires specialization in a context that you’re building your platform and becoming known for something unique and differentiated as opposed to the majority of your colleagues.
    • Taking pre-sales solution engineering as an example, there are many potential areas of focus. To go to the principal level, it becomes a matter of becoming known for a certain technical skill set or body of work.
    • Joe started to build a specialization when he joined the Dell synergy part of the organization and becoming an expert in joint Dell and VMware solutions. He also started building relationships within the Office of the CTO while serving as a CTO Ambassador.
    • This led Joe to wonder if he was ready to take the next step and go for principal.
      • In many companies there is a structured process to get to that level.
      • Once again it was up to Joe to signal what he wanted to do and then find a coach who could help me think through the necessary steps to prepare to go through the process.
      • Graduating from a generalist to becoming a specialist is pretty much required as it takes a finite focus to really build up your credibility. Joe, for example, has a tendency to be brought in to discuss joint solution sets.
      • Looking at other field principals he knows, Joe mentions each one has built up their skillset and become known in and for a specific thing / area.
      • Regardless of your company, the principal title is for a very differentiated skill set for a unique area where the company is focused.
      • It can come down to technical depth and building a broad swath of soft skills as part of a greater body of work. It’s almost like explaining to someone else how you’ve attained that level and why you deserve that distinction.
      • It took Joe a while to understand what the process was to get to the principal level. He had to be curious about it first.
      • Define a specialization, and work to make yourself known for it.
  • Is the road to principal paved with even more work than you’re doing now?
    • It comes down to time management. If there is something you want to do you will find time to do it.
    • In many cases when Joe chose to go down the principal path he had to figure out how to find the time for it. Joe tried to align preparation for principal with his daily work.
      • The more those two things align the easier it will be for you to make that progression.
      • You will need more time than 40 hours per week. Joe had to dedicate some personal time to his principal preparation.
      • For the period of time he was going through preparation for principal, it did take away from Joe’s family time.
      • People looking at career progression during a promotion phase are likely going to have to put forth extra effort which has to be balanced with your personal needs as well as those of your family.
      • Be prepared to find time outside of your day job to make that progression happen. Maybe it’s ok to flex yourself for a little while and then take some time off.
    • Joe had some early conversations with his management chain about his participation in the global field program, which provided him some air cover.
      • Joe had relayed the benefits of his participation in this program to his team and his management (the internal organization he worked within).
      • If you’re looking at a promotion (whether principal or not), your ability to explain why it is beneficial to your organization that you work toward that promotion really helps provide the justification for spending the time and reserving some of your day hours for it.
      • Joe had to sell it to his management, and they were supportive of the time he needed.
  • We have to be known and distinguished for something. Joe spent time gaining expertise in the Dell solution set so that if someone inside the Office of the CTO needed a resource to speak on joint Dell and VMware solutions they would automatically think of him.
    • This takes a lot of work and time. It takes gaining visibility within your organization as well so that someone will associate expertise in a specific area with you.
    • And once they do associate the two, seeing that you have the ability to go very deep in one area, new opportunities may present themselves to repeat that level of depth in another area.

41:13 – Parting Thoughts and What’s Next

  • The higher you go into your career (i.e. further up the career ladder as an individual contributor), there is a lot of focus at the highest levels on building up others.

  • Joe does not think he would have progressed to his current level without people who were able to coach him along the way (others who had walked the same progression path to principal).

    • Joe’s curiosity led to him asking questions and getting feedback on what he could do to fill the gaps.
    • Now he spends time coaching people 1-1 who seek to follow the same path, providing suggestions on the mindset shift that must happen in taking the next steps.
    • It becomes curating and fostering mindsets day in and day out for customers, partners, product teams, and those more junior than yourself within the company.
  • What’s next for Joe Chenevey?

    • Joe has to have periods of time for reflection throughout the year. Everyone should consider taking time just for this to determine mental health, emotional health, and what we feel about our work / life balance.
    • It’s challenging in technology to frame work life balance. Joe derives a lot of emotional fulfillment from what he does daily as a professional in the industry.
    • Joe feels when in the mode of personal reflection, it gives him a good perspective on overall job satisfaction.
      • Am I happy doing what I am doing?
      • Do I like what I do?
      • Am I ready for something different?
      • Am I ready for the next step (whatever that is)?
    • After asking himself questions like the ones above, Joe will seek a sounding board (a coach or mentor) and at some point communicating to his leadership.
    • The technologist must constantly evaluate where they fit in the industry, and these periods of reflection allow Joe to do just that.
  • You can follow Joe on Twitter here.

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