As a mid-career professional, I look back on my tenure in various organizations with a mixture of triumph and regret. Triumph because I’ve managed to achieve reasonable success, and regret because I lost a lot of time learning how to function within a workplace.
I never had a mentor, though there were times when I needed—and certainly deserved—to be set straight. I had been a good student, and assumed that being a good employee would naturally follow. It does not. Being a good employee, a good contributor, has something to do with what you know, but a lot more to do with how you put that knowledge to use.
What follows are a few tidbits of wisdom I wish someone had given me when, in my mid-twenties, I embarked on my career. The most fundamental lesson is this: you are solely responsible for cultivating your success within the organization. Your supervisor will not do this for you, and you shouldn’t assume others will, either. In a sense, you’re on your own within the ecosystem of the workplace, and it’s your responsibility to work in a way that fits the expectations of that culture. If you succeed, you will thrive. If you fail, even despite your good efforts, you will be miserable at best, and rejected at worst.
Gaining a foothold in a new workplace is largely about engendering trust. Younger people must be especially diligent to cultivate others’ trust, because older professionals, and by extension those who have been at the workplace longer, have established expectations of performance that usually come wrapped up in ideas about the right and wrong way to do things. To earn their trust and respect requires you to acknowledge that their methods hold some wisdom. In other words, it requires that you first respect the organization and some of the terms it sets. Only when you convey this respect will you yourself be granted the latitude to experiment, and to add your ideas to the mix.
Your employer hired you because he believes you can do the job. He has entrusted you with a role, and granted you a responsibility. He has taken the first step at trust. The next step, or series of steps, in the dance of trust are yours.
Don’t assume you already know everything you need to be successful.
Your schooling and professional training prepared you for some of what you’ll be doing day-to-day. But your exercises in journalism school didn’t prepare you to knock out twelve travel essays in four weeks, and your course on engineering management didn’t give you any practical tips on managing a software contractor who won’t return your calls. Find others to learn from. Look inside the organization for wisdom on how to tackle these problems. Test assumptions and reality-check solutions with these wise others. If your original approach doesn’t work right away, switch strategies quickly; don’t keep hammering the same solution because it seems like it should work.
Be positive and proactive.
Over time, you will develop your own good ideas, and you’ll also build a suite of professional skills that will provide you a framework within which to judge the ideas of others. Actively engage and collaborate with others’ ideas. If the person is honestly trying to contribute (as opposed to making points for themselves or grabbing your turf), then you should encourage their idea, build on it, and lend your own energy to it. If you make it clear you’re not planning to take credit, the person will learn to trust you, and will likely come to you for help in the future.
When another person suggests an idea that runs counter to your knowledge, understanding, or intuition, don’t respond with simple skepticism or, worse, eye-rolling. This will earn you a reputation as negative, critical, and tiresome to be around. People will stop floating new ideas to you because of the negative response. Instead, hear the idea out, and explore it with the other person. Engage with it, probe it. Use what you know, your own experiences, to ask the right questions that reveal whether the new idea holds water. Sometimes its possible, without any heavy-handedness from you, to guide the person to a realization that their idea needs improvement. Truly engaging with the other’s idea, even a weak idea, will earn you the reputation as thoughtful, receptive, and collaborative. You will still get a hearing for your ideas, but in the context of a conversation, rather than as a push-back. And you will be treating the ideas of others exactly as you wish yours to be treated.
This maxim basically boils down to “be easy to work with.”
Dress above your pay grade.
It’s a cliché, but only because it works. This phenomenon is profoundly un-democratic, and thus hard to swallow, but people do grant greater authority to a person who is dressed for a role of greater authority. Make a sartorial gesture toward professionalism: no cargo pants, wrinkled tee shirts, or holey sneakers, even in a casual workplace, and even if you’re young and hip. It is possible to look young and hip and polished at the same time.
Dressing well demonstrates that you care about professionalism itself, and this garners the admiration of others who are more conservative or old-fashioned, some of whom will be your superiors. Dressing well doesn’t mean dressing to stand out. You want people to notice your ideas, not your clothing. (This is another reason why you shouldn’t dress down.)
Dressing well needn’t be expensive. Buy clothing out of season for best pricing, and frequent resale, consignment, and thrift stores. Have clothes tailored to fit your body; good fit is a hallmark of a well-dressed person.
At one company, the CEO remarked to the head of quality assurance that he needed a strong leader of the sales team. The QA head said simply, “I can do that.” He didn’t actually know how to do it. He had never worked in sales. But he figured he could do it, and could figure it out. The CEO made him VP of Sales, and in that role he applied the focus, rigor, and people skills he’d learned in QA.
Here’s another kind of stepping up. You might notice something that needs doing and, not knowing whether you’ll be successful, make a start at tackling it. Once it’s started, you can take it to your supervisor and show her your start. Usually one of two things will happen: either she tells you to continue, or tells you you’re off track. At that point you’ve not invested too much in the solution, but you have shown initiative.
There’s a key caveat here: don’t surprise your boss. Supervisors hate surprises because surprises represent risk, but it’s okay to surprise in a minor way with a completely positive thing. Just don’t let the side project go too long, because your supervisor’s plans may change the moment you tell them about it. Remember that their scope is much broader than yours, and that your actions may have distant consequences you’re not aware of.
When you do step up, especially into a role that’s a bit of a stretch, you might not succeed, at least not at first. But the simple act of stepping up is itself a powerful gesture, one that earns you respect and, in a healthy organization, can motivate others to support your success.
If you work in a large corporate system, you will likely need to forge partnerships across the organization with others in both lateral and vertical relationship to you in the org chart. Try treating these colleagues as if you were a highly paid consultant who has been brought in to serve them. Pretend your paycheck depends on that customer getting absolutely stellar service from you and your consultancy, and that your future work stream depends on your developing a great reputation that will earn you glowing testimonials. Treat everyone like royalty. This will build trust and credibility for yourself and your department.
Don’t get into a power struggle with your supervisor. You won’t win.
Even if your supervisor is weak, ineffective, and known company-wide as a poor leader, you must not agitate against him. The way to gain authority in a workplace is to earn it through your good work, and to make sure your supervisor and others are aware of it. Do not to push back, undermine, go around, or engage in subterfuge with your supervisor. Others will notice this and will learn not to trust you. More important, the hierarchy of the corporate structure will itself work against you. Your supervisor has inherently more power and than you do, and once agitated, has a range of options for managing conflict that you do not. This has the possibility of putting you at an even greater disadvantage, and limiting some of the responsibilities you’ve worked hard to earn.
Be principled, but not rigid.
Imagine the ideal, and pursue it, but don’t expect to achieve it. The ideal is often elusive. Business is people, people are messy, therefore business is messy. Strive for a good solution, one that solves the problem well. Put your optimization efforts into outcomes rather than process (unless your outcome is a process). Run post-mortem meetings to ensure the problems don’t recur next time. Take one hour a week to reflect on your work and imagine what you could have done better, but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t achieve perfection every time. Likewise, don’t stridently adhere to the “right” principle to the detriment of the project. If the score at the end is You: 1, Project: 0, you lose. Strive instead for a score of, simply, Project: 1. Remove yourself and your ego from the equation. Let the results speak for themselves.
When in doubt, overanalyze.
Once you’ve been in a job a year or two, you will have had the opportunity to demonstrate success and show your expertise. Your good reputation will be based partly on word of mouth, but you should also cultivate a suite of reports that show the impact you are having on the organization. These should be based on hard numbers—outputs, not inputs. For example, rather than reporting how many hours you worked on a project, report the achievement gained from those hours. Rather than reporting how many calls you made, report how many leads these generated; the calls are important, but the leads are more so.
New problems will always emerge in which the market is undefined, the approach is murky, and criteria for success are unknown. Overanalyzing sounds wasteful, and it's somewhat provocative of me to promote it, but it’s better than under-analyzing, especially when you’re new. When confronted with a new problem to solve, don’t rely only on your intuition and previously established methods. Do the research, run the numbers, then formulate an objective strategy and organize your results—data and recommendations—into a presentation framework that others can quickly grasp. Backing up your insights with data means your insights will have a greater likelihood of taking hold.
Moreover, use this same approach for your weekly, monthly, and quarterly reports: constantly evaluate your program based on objective criteria. You might think you’re doing well to get N sales per week. But you won’t know if the competition is getting N+1, or if you could get N+3, unless you are constantly vigilant about the market, and are constantly analyzing your program. Your supervisor might not ask you for this, because he might be perfectly happy with N sales. But you should always do the hard, proactive, analytical work to see what’s possible, not just what is.
Become a good public speaker.
Those who can make a good presentation are viewed as natural leaders. When you are clearly at ease before others, and when you clearly know your material, people grant you both good will and authority. If your work requires you to present to clients in a sales context, this skill is especially important. But it is actually important in any job, because it will help you in a range of business situations, from running a small meeting to presenting to the board of directors to speaking to a large audience at a trade conference.
Good presentations require you to focus on the audience—what they know, and what they need to know—not on yourself. A good presentation is one in which your data is on the overhead, but your ideas are spoken aloud. If you don’t know how to speak in public, or are afraid to do so, or if you don’t know how to present data so people can quickly absorb it, take a class. Sign up for any opportunity to practice this skill, and then practice it.
Stick with a job long enough to make an impact.
The first six months in any job are a honeymoon period. Everyone will cut you slack because you’re new. The next six to eighteen months are harder. You’re expected to know your job by then, but you probably won’t have a handle on all the subtleties yet, including the interpersonal relationships that affect you. Also, you will have begun developing ideas about how you can change the existing system, but these may not always take hold right away, because you’re still learning, and people are still learning about you. This will result in frustration and anxiety, because you won’t be as effective as you want to be, and worse, people around you may seem ungrateful for your attempts to contribute. But stick with it, and figure out ways to show that your ideas will work. Use data, persuasion, negotiation, alliance-building, good presentation skills, and collaborative consensus-building to ensure your ideas get into circulation, and modify as necessary so they can be taken up by the system. People will value this, and thereby you, and being valuable and valued is key to any job’s success and satisfaction.