Working in an office is — on its surface — fairly straight forward. Show up on time, make nice with your co-workers, get your work done, and go home. Right? Wrong!
Like it or not, surviving (and thriving) at the office involves much more than just getting the job done. What if I do my job extremely well, you might ask? Yep, even then it’s not enough (more on that later). Take it from someone who’s spent the last several years slowly making her way up the corporate ladder: surviving in business requires more than just carrying out the items in your job description.
In the interest of saving you the pain of learning the hard way, below I have outlined my top 10 tips for succeeding in business. Feel free to add any critical items I may have missed as your #11 in the comments.
1) Don’t take things personally
Regardless of what you were hired to do, there will be a time (or times) when you’re asked to do something that you feel is below you. I used to be an analyst, and I was regularly asked to take care of ordering and picking up lunch when a client dropped by the office. Sometimes this meant missing meetings with said client that I felt I should have been privy to. It can feel degrading when you’re asked to do something that is clearly below your pay grade, but expect that it will happen, remind yourself that it’s not personal (especially when offices are being forced to let go of support people who would otherwise do these tasks) and get over it.
And as you climb higher on the ladder, you better believe that you’re going to get your @$$ handed to you from time to time. People will challenge your position or actions, and they won’t bother with being polite. Especially when you’re dealing with C-level executives, don’t expect them to care about your feelings when they tell you how majorly wrong you are about something. It’s not personal; bluntness is just the currency with people at this level. That they’re not sugar coating it means they respect you enough not to give you special handling.
2) Lose the ego
Ego problems can really take two forms: the petty immaturity of having something to prove, and the personal agenda which leads to blind spots or putting personal interests above the interests of the group/org.
When it comes to the former, this seems to be a hallmark of younger folks who don’t yet understand that the world doesn’t revolve around them. They posture, act like know-it-alls, and get defensive if you so much as imply that they might be incorrect. Oh, and they need you to know how important and busy they are.
Ego of this sort seriously impedes your growth. I’ll concede being guilty of this at some point, and the outcome is not only that you irritate people with your attitude problem, but it can also cause you to be less open to embracing other peoples’ points of view and ways of doing things.
When it comes to the latter, this is really not a tip so much as a heads-up that ego also happens up the chain. See, this kind of ego happens at the executive level, and I can only assume is motivated by a jockeying for power among the big wigs.
3) Accept that mistakes happen – it’s how you handle them that matter
As they say, to err is human. You will screw up, others will screw up. Some of the screw ups will be a big deal. One time I made a mistake that cost the company $20K. Seriously. I’m shocked that I wasn’t fired over it.
When you screw up, just admit it – explain to your boss (or whoever the key stakeholder/s are) what went wrong and what the implications were, take steps to fix it (assuming it can be fixed) and move on. Don’t try to make excuses, don’t misplace blame; just own up and make sure people know that you understand exactly what went wrong and why. Instill confidence that this was a one-off and won’t happen again. I would go so far as to say that you should not say “I’m sorry”. Don’t be sorry; be accountable.
And then there will be times when other people screw up, and the screw-up affects your work in a major way. You will be frustrated, and you might be tempted to call them out on it, but resist the urge. For most people, when they screw up, they feel badly about it. They don’t need you making it worse, and the only thing you will accomplish by being a jerk to them is to win yourself an enemy. If you must acknowledge their error to someone else who asks why such-and-such project was fuabr’d, do not call the person out by name and instead describe the problem and how it was addressed.
4) Check your work
This seemed like a natural next tip following #3 above. Please: check your friggen work, people! The majority of errors can be prevented just by checking your work. In some departments, Quality Assurance (QA) is a formal part of the process, in which someone else checks your work. But if you don’t have that luxury, as most of us probably don’t, pretend that you’re your own QA. It sucks and it’s boring, but do it, anyway. And if your eyes are crossed because you’ve spent so much time looking at something, take a break from it and come back with fresh eyes to re-check. Really, the job is not done until you’ve checked it.
And believe me, you don’t want to take something to a client or your boss that they base a major decision on only to find out that it was wrong. Remember #3 above about coming clean? Yeah, you can only tell your boss so many times that your screw-up was something that could have been caught with a little QA before they show you the door.
5) Have a sense of urgency
In a given day, you will likely have more to do than you have time to do it. So don’t, for the love of everything sacred, spend half of your morning chatting it up with your pals by the coffee machine.
Also, when it comes to responsiveness to emails and telephone calls, if you you can’t dig up what the person is asking for quickly or possibly even that same day, you should still still email or call them back to let them know you got their message and are working on it. And also tell them when they can expect you to follow up. Not responding leads them to wonder if you even got their message.
Finally, if you have several things to do, it would be wise to take stock of which is most important, as well as which are going to suck up the most time. If a low priority item is a time suck, follow up with whoever asked for it to try to re-scope. If a high priority item is a time suck, get help from others so that you can deliver it as quickly as possible. Obviously, do the highest priority items first, and if you aren’t sure which items are highest priority, check with your boss rather than guessing.
I kid you not, I work with someone who does low priority tasks first, even if they are time sucks, for the apparent reason that they are more interesting to him than the high priority stuff. I’m all for enjoying what you do, but suck it up and do the urgent thing first, please.
6) Focus on people first, task second
This might seem to contradict #5, but bear with me. What I mean by “focus on people first” is that when you ask someone to pull a report for you, or when you kick off a meeting to talk about a new project, you should always start with pleasantries. Ask people how their weekend was. Ask how they their pregnant wife is doing. If you’re at a loss, talk about the weather, or hell, compliment their tie. If your office is like mine, you may not see most of the people very often in a social setting, so it’s worthwhile to take a couple minutes to foster a relationship with them in the course of doing business. In my experience, it’s exponentially more enjoyable working with people when you have some modicum of a personal relationship with them. And if you ever find yourself in management, you’ll find that people are much more eager to do the work for you if they you don’t treat them like robots (or salary monkeys, if you will).
Oh, and go to office functions. Yes, they can be painful, but go to them anyway. Hopefully you actually like some of the people you work with, but even if you don’t, there is still some benefit to be had. You can make it an exercise in Machiavellianism: make a point to talk to the director who can influence your career path; go chat it up with someone you need to win over to your side because they have the power to make your life (work lift, that is) easier.
7) Foster comic relief
Humor is a big nice to have. A little levity will go a long way, especially when you are in the trenches. If you’re the guy or girl that can bring a little levity to a somber or stressful situation, people will appreciate you lifting the mood. A word of caution, though: know when humor is not appropriate and know when to stop (e.g., don’t be the 10th person who piles on to a joke, and unless you’re sure they’ll fly, don’t make off color jokes).
8) Optics matter
Optics is office jargon which roughly means “how it looks”.
For most people, your boss isn’t paying that much attention to your day to day efforts. All they get are glimpses of your work. Be mindful of this and manage the optics of these glimpses to show yourself in your best light. Don’t overdo it or fake it; just be the best version of yourself.
Relatedly, even if you are stressed, pissed off, or otherwise overwhelmed, keep it cool on the surface. People who deal with stress or anger by freaking out do not become directors and veeps.
Optics are also important in terms of how you present your work. Admittedly, this might be a personal neurosis on my part, but if someone delivers work to me that looks messy, I can’t help but assume that the work itself is half-assed. Big bonus points for sending over your work with a cover email on it explaining what it is you’re delivering, and the topline summary.
9) Keep your frenemies close, but not too close
Some days, I spend more time talking to folks at partner companies than I spend talking to colleagues within my own company. You warm up to these people and start to see them as friends, and might be tempted to let your guard down. Don’t do it. Partner companies can become competitors (or choose to partner with competitors) overnight and you don’t want to be the a-hole who exposed potentially sensitive information with them.
10) Keep up with industry news
Being abreast of industry news is all but expected in any role above entry level. Google makes this easy; set up a daily (or weekly) alert with any key words that you choose and – bam – you’re an expert on said key word.
When I first started out in business, I hated the idea of having to “play politics” which was roughly how I chalked up the extra effort and thought put into the how I do my job (i.e. vs. just doing it without fretting the how). I figured – hey – if I just do a really bang-up job, the rest of this crap doesn’t matter. And in some cases, this might be true: if you’re a truly unique asset that your org could not easily replace, perhaps you can disregard all 10 items above. But in all likelihood, if you’re way out of alignment with all of my tips and your company is keeping you anyway, you’re the boss’ daughter or you’re underpaid.