As I reflect on my nearly 40-year career, here are a few tips I wish I had known much earlier:
- Create value and assure yourself that someone knows it. Of course it is important for you to acquire skills and competencies to add value for your organization. This should be done if for no other reasons than to feel good about yourself and to earn a living. But to advance in an organization, just adding value isn’t enough.
You must also ensure that others in your organization are aware of it. In managerial and technical fields, I strongly encourage people to keep current on trends and skills so that you can continue to add value. For example, today there is an emerging acceptance of applying analytics of all flavors, such as segmentation analysis and correlation analysis, to surface insights and facts for better decision-making.
- In the absence of facts, anybody’s opinion can be a good one. Usually, the biggest opinion wins. And this is typically the opinion of your boss or the boss of your boss up the chain.
In the book “Analytics at Work: Smarter Decisions, Better Results,” authors Thomas Davenport, Jeanne Harris and Robert Morison write that 40 percent of decisions by executives are made on intuition and gut feelings. Business cases can be so much stronger when you have fact-based information to support what you advocate. Search engines have certainly become great tools, but there is much more power in using business intelligence and analytics tools. Gaining competency with tools like these allows one to better support his or her message.
- The closer you are to a customer, the quicker people will respond to you. Many of us work in support roles, and we are not in an organization’s sales force. But we should always be conscious of selling. By selling, I mean that you should be constantly promoting your organization’s services, products and even its reputation. Within the organization, this means trying to be connected to the paths to revenues or funding that are so critical to sustaining long-term success.
When I send an internal email inquiry, I typically get an immediate reply from a sales person, but a delayed response (if any at all) from support staff. In his book “Clockspeed,” author Charles Fine notes that all industries have increasingly shorter lifecycles for the products and services they offer. As a result, any organization’s competitive advantage is temporary, and its ongoing success will depend on the analytical skills of its employees and partners along its value chain to learn, adapt and innovate. He adds that the closer one is to a customer, the more activities speed up. Being agile is better than having fire drills.
- Be trustworthy and try to be apolitical. This may sound like it came from the Boy Scouts of America’s Law to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. But being trustworthy is also good advice. At some level, people interact with other people, whether it is to sell to them or work with them. What people ideally seek is someone who is reliable. In his book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable,” Patrick Lencioni describes a five-level pyramid that depicts a dysfunctional organization, the bottom level of which is the absence of trust. This leads to the next four compounding levels: fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and ultimately, inattention to results.
Being successful starts with trusting one another and being reliable. Of course, all organizations are political – it is human nature. But there is a difference between playing self-serving games and advocating what one believes to be good decisions for one’s organization. Being apolitical is not easy, but it may help you stay on the winning side.
- Do not underestimate the motivational power of positive reinforcement. In his book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” Daniel H. Pink describes three critical elements needed for one to be motivated: 1) autonomy (to be self-directed to encourage your creativity and innovation); 2) mastery (always getting better at something); and 3) purpose (pursuing a cause larger than yourself). Critics who disagree with this book argue that the starting point to motivate people is to constantly provide positive reinforcement to get more of the behavior that you want. To me, all of these make sense.
In my career, I have been a mentor. I enjoy coaching others to reach for higher goals. One way is to compliment others. Just saying “Nice job” to someone when they deserve it can go a long way for them. As I look back, I wish I asked more often for others to do so for me. Some managers tend to be tight-fisted when it comes to offering compliments. When you see good intentions by people to improve their organization, give them a pat on the back.
There are surely many more lessons I wish I knew when I was younger, and some that may be more valuable than the five I described here. In business and commerce, ultimately a key lesson is caring about the needs of others – customers, co-workers, partners, subordinates and supervisors. In the end, we are all on the same team.