9 ACTIONS TO UP YOUR GAME
A guide for the young employee
By Jared Louw (Sponsored by MSC Business College)
I recently realised that I’d reached the 10 year mark in my employment career. Whether I’ve been a success or not, is all relative and up for debate. However, what isn’t debateable is just how much I’ve observed and learned over ten years. Most of this learning has happened the hard way, as it usually does, but I’ve also been fortunate enough to observe superiors who have set great examples in different ways. I’ve also been fortunate to have made mistakes. I say fortunate, because without these mistakes, real learning would never happen. Learning and development is never a straight line, but rather a jagged zig zagged line of error and modification.
Over the past few years I’ve had the chance to work with or observe a number of young employees, many of whom have left me feeling some degree of disappointment in how they’ve conducted themselves. In these times I’ve often wished that I could spend more time with each and every one of them, in order to offer some advice and encouragement. Seeing young people succeed is something that is really important to me. Young professionals doing well in their chosen fields is not just beneficial to them, but to their families and greater communities as well.
With this in mind, in an effort to give back, I’ve put together what I view as the 9 ACTIONS TO UP YOUR GAME – a guide for the young employee
1. HAVE A ‘DAY IN THE LIFE’ VISION
Without an extremely clear vision, you’ll be left drifting day to day with very little purpose. The social commentator Simon Sinek explains that the strongest companies are the ones who have a very good understanding of their WHY factor. i.e. Why they exist. Humans are very similar in this regard. The most successful people are the ones who are continually focused on a single minded vision on where they want to be and what they want to be doing at a certain point in the future.
For some people this vision is a 10 year plan. Some of us are less patient and strive for a 5 year plan instead, which is fine. However, instead of writing down what you want to be in five or ten years time, write down how you envision your ideal day.
Therefore this is called a ‘Day in the Life’ vision.
The reason for doing this is that it creates a more detailed picture of your life at that point and can focus on more than one thing. It will give you a thorough understanding of how you’d like your life to be in terms of career, family and lifestyle. These concepts do not exist in a vacuum.
Take 30 minutes to write short answers to these questions:
1. How would I like a typical day to look like for me in ten years from now?
2. What are my strengths?
3. What are my weaknesses?
4. What are the things I can do to achieve my vision?
5. What are the actions and behaviours that will prevent me from achieving my vision?
Your 10 year “Day in the Life” vision will allow you to start crafting short term plans in order to get closer to this vision.
Once you’re feeling comfortable with how you’d like your typical day to be in 10 years, start becoming mindful of how you spend your time (We deal more with mindfulness in Action number 8). In the back of your mind, take a moment from time to time to consider what activities you are doing. Are these activities getting you closer to your vision? If the answer is no, it’s not something that is adding value to you, and you should perhaps consider doing less of that particular activity.
This will force you to direct your energies on what truly matters in your life, and stop you from exerting energy in the wrong directions.
2. YOU’RE IN CONTROL
This aspect of control also applies to relationships with colleagues. You’re going to encounter many negative moments and negative energies in the workplace. Whether it’s an angry client, an inter-departmental disagreement or fierce criticism of a project or presentation you’ve done. How you deal with these is entirely within your control.
Whenever you are stressed, picture two circles, one smaller and within the larger circle. Think of the circle in the centre as being all of the things that you can control. The wider circle is all of the things that you can merely influence, but have very little, or no control over. The centre circle is known as the circle of control, and the outer circle is the circle of influence.
What are things that you can control, which would fit in the middle circle? Examples of this would be your actions, your thoughts, your behaviours. Some of the many things we cannot control are the behaviours and actions of others, market movements, the weather or the contents of an examination paper.
Often we find ourselves stressing about things which are actually beyond our realm of control. What a futile waste of time! Would it not be better to always focus our energies on that which we can control? For example, if a colleague doesn’t like you, why spend time and effort stressing about that or in anger about it? Instead you have the choice to channel your thinking in a positive way let it not affect you. Let’s say your boss says to you that you might have to do a short presentation in the following week. Instead of stressing and wondering about whether you will need to present or not, why not focus your attention on creating the best presentation you could possibly do?
So next time you’re stressed and everything seems too much, stop. Think about the two circles, and focus on what you can control, and forget about what you cannot control.
The author Dale Carnegie once wrote “When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion.” For this reason, having a firm control over your own emotions, thoughts and actions can immediately put you at an advantage over fellow employees. Having a firm control of your emotions and acting with reason rather than emotion will lead you to solve problems quicker, be more efficient, and avoid negative energies. Managers will also recognise your high level of emotional intelligence.
In the workplace you generally get three groups of people. The Achievers, the Coasters and the Toxins. The Achievers are the positive, hard-working employees and usually make up about 10% of the workplace. These are employees with vision, ambition and a solid direction. The Coaters are the majority of employees. For them it’s just a job. They don’t go the extra mile but also don’t get involved in negative office talk. They tend to quietly get on with the job. Any promotions or career progression that they receive is purely by way of default or luck. Then you get the Toxins. These employees are generally toxic to the people around them, and spend a great deal of time and effort speaking negatively about managers and the company. They can easily influence people who spend time around them within the workplace. These people are a negative force within an organisation, and detrimental to a business’s culture. Managers generally are quite happy when these people resign, taking their negative energy with them.
Managers at the top have an uncanny ability to ascertain which groups their employees fall into. Do you want to be seen as an Achiever or a Toxin? Once again, it is within your control which group you end up fitting into, and equally as important, it is within your control as to which group you spend your time with. Successful high Achievers in life have a habit of surrounding themselves with fellow Achievers. At all costs you need to avoid the Toxins and instead spend your time listening to and learning from the Achievers.
3. KNOW WHEN TO BE GREAT
An aeroplane pilot once described what being a pilot is like. He explained it as ‘hours of boredom and moments of panic’. On might argue that forging a successful career in the business world requires hours of mundane work combined with moments of brilliance. In the game of football, a great striker doesn’t pull off brilliant moments throughout the entire game. He typically works hard, makes a lot of runs, often goes unnoticed. But when it matters, he’s usually able to take his chance and score. For 89 minutes his work goes largely unnoticed, but for one minute he makes himself the hero. Your career in the workplace is much like this, in that you’ve got to know the right moments to strike, but know that you cannot do this if you don’t put the quiet, unnoticed hours in.
And no, this doesn’t mean slacking off 80% of the time when the boss isn’t looking. As you progress in your chosen field or role, you’ll encounter moments where you need to be great. There are long periods when you merely need to be competent, but there are some moments where you need to rise to the occasion. In some roles these moments may have several months or more separating them, while in other roles they may occur every week.
So what are these moments and how do you know when they are happening? Well, typically they are moments when you get a chance to present or report back on something in front of your superiors, or perhaps carry out a task or project where you will be evaluated. In short, these moments are platforms for you to impress. Let’s say you’re a Marketing Assistant and your manager asks you for a short presentation on market trends in your industry. This is once such moment. You need to put your heart and soul and best thinking into this in order to make it as good as possible, and do every time moments like this arise.
But while pilots can transition into autopilot, you can’t. Remember that most little things you do well won’t necessarily gain you praise. But most little things you do badly will most likely gain you criticism, albeit sometimes silent criticism. Do everything in a manner that you’d be happy to explain or put your name alongside, even if nobody is watching and never sees it. And as expressed in Action 2, you control how well you do certain tasks. Steve Jobs articulated this particularly well: “When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back.”
4. YOU CAN BE GOOD BETWEEN 8 TO 5, BUT YOU CAN’T BE GREAT
Greatness needs time, deep thought and solitude. You’ll never get that in a normal 8am to 5pm workday filled with colleague conversations, meetings and ringing phones. You can be a very competent, efficient employee between 8 to 5, but you can’t be great. The previous action point expressed the importance of knowing when to be great, and greatness needs you to put in the extra hours. Crafting a well thought out presentation, a fool-proof plan or effective idea takes time.
Let’s go back to our example of you as a Marketing Assistant and your manager asks you for a short presentation on market trends in your industry. Maybe you decide to try to do all of this during normal office hours. As a result, you maybe spend 30 quick minutes on Google and slap together a basic, thoughtless presentation. Your boss is almost guaranteed to be underwhelmed by this, possibly disappointed, and you’ll have created something utterly unmemorable. However, what if you’d spent some time after hours really delving into the industry, finding some interesting stats and maybe some engaging videos on the industry and data that your boss had never seen? He or she will really appreciate the effort and hold you in high regard. Suddenly, those few extra hours the night before have potentially helped not just your presentation, but your status in the company and your career.
Always keep in mind that when it comes to making a great impression, the internet is your friend. Learn how to use the correct search phrases to find information on the internet. Sources like Google, Slideshare and Youtube are great places to start. Also, never just present facts and info. What’s your opinion on the info? Perhaps summarise it as much as possible and put your own conclusions in. Managers will appreciate this, as it shows a high engagement and interest in your role and the task. Also, clock watching and rushing out of the door when knock off time arrived just makes you look like someone who doesn’t really want to be there. Remember, your employers want to feel like you want to be there.
5. BE NICE
Such simple advice, and yet sadly so often not followed by young employees.
When you enter the workplace, the chances are very high that you’ll be put in a department or team which has people of either different genders, cultures, ages and backgrounds – possibly all of these things. We live in South Africa. One of the most diverse and multicultural countries in the world. Yet despite our celebrated cultural differences, there are many behaviours which are universally favoured by people, no matter what your culture or background is. Being kind and friendly is not something limited to some cultures, but appreciated by all. Working hard and being reliable is something that everyone likes in people. Honesty and integrity are also universal concepts.
Workplaces are becoming increasingly collaborative, which means that your success depends largely upon how well you work in a group or team. For this reason, it is essential that you are a team player and are well liked by the group.
What if someone doesn’t like you and is intentionally unfriendly and antagonising towards you? The best advice to this is to head the wisdom of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius when he said “The best revenge is to be unlike your enemies”. i.e. Don’t treat people badly just because that’s how they treat you. Be better than that. Treat all others with the friendliness you would expect of them, and never any other way.
What do you want people to say about you behind your back? I’m sure you’d want positive sentiments rather than negative ones. Well then why not start behaving in ways that will always make people speak positively of you. In later sections we speak of the inevitability of you making mistakes. Here’s two secrets to keep in mind: 1. People are a lot more forgiving of your mistakes if they like you. 2. A smile costs nothing but goes a long way.
6. PUT YOURSELF OUT THERE - SUCCINCTLY AND CLEARLY
Here’s a secret when it comes to climbing the career ladder, and some might say it’s an unfortunate secret. You need to be noticed. You need to make yourself heard instead of blending in with the crowd. For example, if you’re working in a group, volunteer to be the one who presents back. In group meetings, prepare well so that you can voice your sensible opinions instead of remaining in silence. To do this most effectively, you need to be a confident, decisive communicator who can get their points across clearly.
The bad news is that for many, communication is often a weakness. In some cases, communication is a frightening prospect. However, communication, like any other skill, is something that is improved through practise. Some of the best communicators in the world started out as nervous fidgety speakers with low confidence. What eventually made them more and more confident was more and more practise.
(It’s probably a worthy thing to remember – if doing something in the workplace scares you, you probably need to do more of it)
Tesla CEO and multibillionaire Elon Musk is a self-proclaimed introvert. As he’s said: “I’m not a naturally extroverted person. I used to be horrendous at public speaking, and sort of shake and be unable to speak. I’ve learned not to do that.” Richard Branson has said that communication is the number one skill that any leader should possess. In his own words: “Communication levels the playing field. If you can speak well, you can outshine the competition in so many ways.”
If you want to succeed in business, you need to communicate well – in a confident, concise manner. People who waffle for ages around a subject don’t endear themselves to others, and struggle to get their message across. Similarly, people who never talk are never noticed, and seldom seen as managerial material.
Unfortunately, the only way to grow in this regard is to put yourself out there. Look for opportunities where you can communicate, present or contribute more in discussions. Before you know it your nerves will decline, and you’ll have gained the positive attention of your superiors.
It is important to never forget that great communicators are great listeners, first and foremost. Make a habit of listening to understand, rather than listening to respond. Critical to effective communication skills are other non-verbal actions such as friendly, open body language, acknowledging the other person, and really thinking and evaluating what is being said.
Never let mistakes happen due to a simple lack of communication and clarity. Use this as golden rules: If something can go wrong, it will. If someone is unclear about how to do something, they’ll do it incorrectly.
7. DON’T BE A MORON
Nobody likes a moron. So don’t be one. Not doing something because ‘It’s not in my job description’ or ‘Not in my contract’ or ‘Above and beyond my working hours’ is going to get you absolutely nowhere, is a bit dumb and makes you look like a stuck up moron. If you think any manager or superior won’t think less of you if you utter words like this to them, you are horribly wrong. In contrast to this, if you show a positive attitude, a willingness to get involved and go above and beyond, there is very little more you can do to endear yourself to the powers that be.
Whatever you studied, there is a strong chance that you’ll be doing very little of your diploma or degree content when you’re in the first few years of the workplace. This is why an open mind and a willingness to learn is so important. Nobody likes the graduate who enters the workplace and acts like they know it all or fights back when getting advice.
Being as helpful as possible allows you to experience different areas of the business or industry, build relationships and develop goodwill with your superiors.
Keep asking yourself this question: Will the company miss me and really want me back if I disappeared and never returned? If the answer is No, you’re not doing enough. Keep asking until the answer is Yes, and then strive to keep it as a Yes.
8. BE MINDFUL
The concept of mindfulness is often spoken about purely in spiritual terms, when in fact, it is something that is particularly relevant to your life in the business world. What is Mindfulness? The website PsychologyToday.com does a very good job of defining the concept:
Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you're mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.
The most important aspect of Mindfulness in the business world is a continual observation of your feelings as well as what is going on around you.
Here’s an unavoidable truth about you in the working world: You’ll screw up. Sometimes you’ll make massive screw ups. Things will go wrong due to your mistakes. If you’re thinking “Nah, that won’t happen to me, I’ll be a good employee”, then you’ve just made your first screw up.
Employees that constantly believe that they’ve never made the mistake and blame it on other factors when in fact they were at fault are on a straight road to nowhere, because they’re never learning. As humans we learn primarily through experience and reflection. It is also true that it is the toughest times that we learn the most. You become far more experienced on difficult projects than on easy ones. The tough client teaches you more about service than the easy one. And without mistakes we will never truly master the craft we are practising.
But all of this learning requires you to be mindful. How did that mistake happen? How could I have done that differently? What actions and thoughts of mine led to that? Open minded self reflection is critical in developing our careers and ourselves as people.
9. BE FLEXIBLE TO CHANGE AND GROWTH
If your plan’s too rigid – i.e. If you’re too steadfast in your approach, you could find yourself clinging to an industry offering you minimal gateways to growth. For example, if your 10 year plan is “Be a marketing manager within the FMCG environment” - is it not perhaps a good idea to venture into other industries if you continue to find yourself hovering around an entry level job, with minimal gateways to progression? It is always worth looking around you at your peers. Are others in the company progressing due to good performance and opportunity, or are people staying in the same position for years, even though they are very competent?
Action 1 spoke of the importance of a vision for yourself, but always factor in change – changes in the world, changes in yourself and changes in your industry or environment.
Therefore the key word here is flexible. The world and its technology are moving are rates far quicker than before. Ten years ago, Twitter was still the sound of birds chirping. A blackberry was still a fruit, and a tablet was something you maybe took when you had a headache. Now these words have very different associations attached to them. New job roles are being created as quickly as traditional ones are fading out. If you have a mindset of this is what I want and this is what I do and that’s how it will stay, then sadly the world will leave you behind. Many people leave college or university thinking that their time of learning is over, when in fact it should only be the beginning. Successful people are generally those who have the ability to continuously acquire new and better forms of knowledge and apply it to their daily lives. Education is a lifelong aspect, that begins from the moment we are born. As the great Albert Einstein said “Intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death.”
In the workplace, this is particularly relevant. As soon as you close yourself off to learning, you’re also closing the door on rapid career progression. Learn from your mistakes, superiors and experiences in the workplace all the time. Even in your own time, the internet of today is jam-packed with incredible amounts of free learning content. We have google search, we have podcasts on any topic you’re interested in. You can follow Twitter accounts of people you can learn from. You can get a guided video tutorial on Youtube to show you how to do almost anything. You can download free e-books on practically any knowledge area. And this is with you all the time – accessible on something that sits in your pocket.
Let the world around you be your school, and let experiences be your teacher.