Most Australians I know are uncomfortable talking about their accomplishments. They’re afraid people will think they’re up themselves. Plus their mother told them nobody likes a skite, and they had plenty of help from other people, so they don’t want to take all the credit.
I like this quality in Australians. My American compatriots are not so self-effacing.
However, there are situations when you need to tell people about the great things you’ve done—for example when you’re in a job interview or in front of an assessment panel.
In these cases, don’t just talk about the projects you worked on and the responsibilities you had in your latest roles. Use stories to help your achievements come alive.
Here’s how. We’ll use one of my previous roles as an example.
- Start with when and where it happened. Put yourself in the story.
In 2009 I was working for the Australian Access Federation.
- Give just enough context for people to understand what you’re talking about. Don’t get carried away with the preamble.
This was a start-up not-for-profit supported by the Australian Government through the Department of Education. The aim was to make it easier for people at Australian universities and research organisations to collaborate and share resources by linking members’ identity management systems. My role focused on policy and strategy.
- What problem were you trying to solve? Who was this a problem for and why was it important? This is where the story starts to get interesting.
The big challenge was that our Executive Committee was determined the AAF needed to be self-sustaining. Most projects like ours that were started with government funding did not have self-sustaining business models. When the funding ran out they were in trouble and either had to ask for another grant or go under. You can’t run an operational service that way, so the AAF needed to be different.
Another challenge was that it was all or nothing. An access federation isn’t useful if it only includes half of the people you need to collaborate with. In order for the AAF to work, all universities in Australia plus CSIRO needed to join. Every. Single. One. And joining meant they had to do some work, contribute some dollars, and be willing to trust one of their most sensitive systems to the technology, policies, and other members of the federation—all without knowing yet if everyone else was going to sign up. It was not an easy sell.
- What did you do about it? Did you try something first that didn’t work?
The first thing we needed to do was get the pricing model right. We had to change this several times, working it through with our potential customers, before we found one that worked.
Then we needed to get the policies right in the agreement universities would sign. The policies needed to be strict enough to provide enough trust in the federation, but not so strict that it would be too onerous to comply. And they had to get through 38 sets of university lawyers.
Finally we had to go on the road and sell it. This was in the days before anyone understood the idea of using your Google or Facebook ID to log into something else, so even just explaining the concept of federated identity was difficult. We had to aim the talks at two different audiences who were usually in the room at the same time: the decision-makers who would sign the agreement and spend the money, and the technical folks who worked with the identity management systems. A team of three of us—me, the General Manager, and the Technical Architect—visited every university in Australia, and we spent endless hours on the telephone and addressing meetings of stakeholder groups.
- What was the result?
There were certainly times when we didn’t think it was going to fly, but after two years and before we came to the end of our funding, we had all universities and CSIRO signed up, and we were able to report to the government and to our Executive Committee that subscriptions would cover the AAF’s operational funding. This was the first project that could make that claim, out of many that were started under the same funding program as we were. Five years later the AAF is still running, it's still self-sustaining, and it’s making it much easier for the Australian university and research community to collaborate and share resources.
- What did you learn? This is where you bring it home, so don’t leave this bit out.
What I learned from this is that out of the people, process, and technology triad, the technology is the easy part. Process is a little harder, and the part that needs the most attention and effort is working with the people.
I learned that trust relationships take a lot of time and effort to build. They don’t happen overnight and they’re easily broken, so it’s important to deliver on your promises.
I learned the importance of simplifying information and crafting it to resonate with different audiences.
But I also learned that with determination and a team that’s dedicated and willing to commit to a worthwhile goal, it’s possible to achieve something no one else has done before. Something that seemed almost impossible at the beginning.
Now, isn’t that better than listing out my job title and responsibilities?