Here are principles and practices that can be followed from a career’s beginning to end. They may help at times when you pause to reflect on how things are going, reset from a stressful work problem or time, seek to figure out a challenge, or advise someone else who is wrestling with work issues.
People pay you to do what they need you to do, not what you want to do
Do not expect employers to cater to your preferences, do what is best for you or your career, or make exceptions for you. And in most cases, in your employer’s eyes you are replaceable. If you cannot make peace with this reality, strongly consider going the entrepreneurial route.
Always aim to be the consummate professional
Be the one who shows up calm, competent, groomed sufficiently, with a plan, not too aggressive, and willing to lead when appropriate, with candor and confidence. Picture this in your mind and model it.
Do not say negative things about your organization
Vent to a trusted “vault” friend or two, but do not malign the company to anyone outside of it, or to higher-ups. It will gain you nothing. Keep it to yourself.
Do not share personal matters too widely
Perhaps be close with a few trusted friends or colleagues, but do not let it be the rule. You do not know what the others sitting around a meeting table are going through and how our sharing might impact them. You might be gushing about your kid’s artwork to someone recovering from a miscarriage. You might whine about the scum in your pool to someone who cannot afford to buy a home. Keep it light in group settings.
Be responsive, but not too eager
It is a balancing act. Do not be the go-to for everything or you will not ever have time for strategic development of your work or self. Be someone people can go to for good judgment, strong ideas, follow-through, and leadership. When you are young you do need to step up and do the grunt work-your share, not everyone else’s. When you are older, you will be better served by crafting plans for how to distribute and implement projects with a range of resources and people.
Make your boss look supported
This is critical. When you are putting anything in writing or speaking at a meeting, make sure it does not contradict your boss’s opinion or direction. If you are not aligned, wait to address your views privately, in advance of the forum if possible. If he or she disagrees, respect the boundary and toe the line. Of course there are exceptions, such as an ethical problem, but even these should typically be handled behind closed doors in a discrete and direct way, not aired in a large forum or email chain.
Look appropriate and polished
This does not mean that you have to spend endless time and money on a wardrobe and spa treatments. Make workplace-appropriate choices about your attire and grooming. Choose clothes that are chaste, not flashy, and functional. Choose hairstyles and jewelry that do not raise eyebrows. Have a basic routine that pulls your look together. A watch, smoothed hair, and well-fit trousers go a long way. Or a structured blazer, a thick metal necklace, and a simple twist up-do. Have a few go-to modes that work for you and are easy to pull together so you do not have to reinvent the wheel the day before a big meeting or presentation. If it is habit, stepping it up for important days should take only minor effort.
Play the hand you are dealt
This is included in the general life strategies section and it is worth discussing in more detail in the work context. Do not hold out for the perfect position that you are not able to get at this time. Go do anything, do it well, build a reputation and skill set. Many resist this mind-set. It is historically a common path to success. Use the contacts, location, skill base, and pathways available to you. This does not mean you have to do exactly what your parents did. But leverage what you have rather than starting from scratch. You live in Philadelphia and your family has contacts in several high-end consulting companies? Try it for a year or two, instead of moving to New York to start as a waiter where you don’t know anyone. Your parents are entrepreneurs importing textiles to Asia? Consider learning how they do it. You might have interests that do not feel like they dovetail with the open doors in front of you, but you may discover deeply rewarding aspects once you engage.
Conversely, you may find that you do not enjoy being broke or indebted, unemployed, lonely, and at the bottom of the food chain by virtue of ignoring the channels you have and insisting that you will do it all yourself. Very few successful people pull it off that way. Most success stories include help to get exposure or connections to a person, a resource, subject-matter knowledge, or access to a place or sector. Build on it. Be open to it. If nothing else, develop it as your fallback position. You will be better off financially and mentally with a Plan B in mind while pursuing Plan A, whether or not Plan A works. Many people today find themselves in their 30s and 40s still buried in student debt, early-career jobs, and frustrations. There are far worse options than following in the footsteps of those who want to help you. For some reason it has become a badge of honor to reject help, or to downplay it-until we hear about all the people who do take advantage of it, and quietly get great incomes, responsibilities, and more sooner in life. If you have a particular passion that is not in your deck of cards at this time, pursue it on the side like a slow and steady turtle. You do not have to let it go-but do not let your financial standing and professional life pass you by in the meantime.
Do not become a single point of failure
Many employees make the mistake of trying to become indispensable, holding too close their network, data, and systems. The thought is that the company will not be able to get rid of them if they are needed. This is flawed thinking. An employer can always get rid of an employee. However, if you are so essential in your current role, and so attached to it that you do not cultivate backups, they cannot promote you or give you stretch opportunities. If you are the only person at the organization with a special role and skill set, it would be hard for them to tap you for an interim leadership role or actual promotion, because no one is ready to step in to fill your shoes. Smart leaders begin grooming replacements as soon as they start a position so that they are always ready for the next opportunity. This does not mean handing over your unique contributions, or undervaluing them. But training others in certain parts, making introductions, and sharing how you work builds confidence in you. It exposes how you add value, and demonstrates that you understand your place in the bigger system.
Many management teams that assess single points of failure, and plan for pipeline development to avoid organizational risk should those individuals move on for any reason. In one case, a woman who was very technically proficient but difficult to work with declined to share her workload and network. She may have felt threatened and did not want to feel dispensable. But the attitude she displayed in refusing to train others or open up her process resulted in the leadership deciding that retaining her was not a priority. They felt it would be less risky to start from scratch than to have someone who was not a team player. If you do not have obvious paths to develop a backup pipeline, work with your manager on how to create them. At a minimum, you can have a transition document ready, outlining your work scope and functions, so that if a temporary leadership role or rotation opportunity arises, you are prepared to hand off your current duties.
Data mine yourself
Others love to data mine us. Have you noticed how many questions consultants and academics ask practitioners at roundtables and panels? Many are gathering fodder for their next book, course, blog post, or service offering. While it is great to share your experiences, be a positive voice for your organization, and build your public image, at some point you should consider ways to capture your own learnings. This does not have to be a money-making endeavor. It might just be articles that add to your reputation. Just as a technology company does not give away its intellectual property for free (yet others seek to grab the latest exciting ideas however they can), you should have some degree of protectiveness over your own intellectual property.
The amiable dispatch
Make a daily practice of positive outreach at the end of each day. Seek to connect with those not part of that day’s work. For example, send a congratulatory email to someone in another division about a recent project. Send a thank-you email to your administrative support for help with travel expenses last month, and copy her boss. Send a note suggesting lunch with a colleague you have not seen for a while. Stop by the desk of a more junior employee to ask how she is doing. Call someone you know is swamped to ask if you can help, or leave her a treat. Anything to reflect positive energy back into your professional world. The results are good for both you and the recipient. The reason it should be a practice is that if we do not make it one, we tend to get consumed with the day-to-day instead. You can also try a weekly time on your calendar to do a batch at one time. Any structured approach to tend to your network in a non-regular work way is good.
Seek visibility opportunities and follow up on them
There is a saying that “half of life is showing up.” There is a lot of truth in this statement. At the retirement party of a global business leader, his top piece of advice was “answer the phone.” He retired from a major company after achieving high-level, high-profile leadership roles with a stellar reputation. He told the story of how he got his first job that led to it all. He was in his dorm room at college and answered the phone. It was the company he ended up working for his entire life. They were calling to offer his roommate a job. They started chatting and asked him to come in too.
There is a domino effect to visibility. Sometimes it is smart to ask, in appropriate ways, for opportunities.
One of our experts shared a story about a woman being frustrated that others seemed to be getting all the recognition, even for her work. At a major meeting with a few hundred people and organizational leaders in attendance, two male peers were asked to present (and did) on her accomplishments. I spoke with her boss and asked him to be on the lookout for a chance for her to get more exposure seeking to sound assertive but not entitled. He agreed to let her present to the CEO at the next opportunity. At that meeting, the CEO’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO) approached her and connected her to others working on related projects. She would never have interfaced had she not asked for more visibility. Ensuring that you are visible is an important part of workplace success. Recognition is not always doled out on merit, so stay alert and seek opportunities. It is okay to ask.