How to Succeed in Business Without Selling What’s Left of Your Soul

Graduation season is upon us once again, and as myriad starry-eyed new grads eagerly leap into the bog that is today’s job market, this tired old man shall shower upon them a few choice words of advice on achieving lasting workplace success.

I assume, of course, that as you enter the workforce, you took sufficient advantage of your years of schooling to obtain a certain depth and breadth of experience in a number of economic pursuits that are a wee bit more substantial than “burger flipper,” right?  You did internships, you volunteered (yes, you can include that on a resume!), you worked jobs that provided experience in your industry while demonstrating that you are capable of discharging responsibilities effectively.  Right?  Please tell me you aren’t going to an interview for a $50,000-per-year job with “cashier” or “short-order cook” or “A&F model” as your main selling point.

And in terms of job search:  Do you have a well-done resume, prepared by someone who understands how to sell you to a prospective employer?  Do you have customized cover letters?  A suit for interviewing, and a stylist to cut off those dreads and pull out all those facial piercings?  Have you sat down with someone in your chosen industry to think through your answers to common interviewing questions?

Anyway, enough of the prep.  Here are some tips for surviving in the workplace after you complete your first day of orientation.

  1. Never miss a deadline. Ever.  Even if you have to stay in the office until 11 p.m.  If you commit to delivering something, then deliver it when you say you will. On those occasions when an external factor affects your ability to achieve a deadline (e.g., a re-prioritization of tasks from your supervisor), make sure that you quickly communicate the delay, with reasons, to your affected customers, with a revised due date; don’t make them track you down after the fact.  Missed deadlines — especially when there’s no good reason for it — erode credibility more quickly than any other workplace bad behavior.
  2. Be self-sufficient. The only person responsible for your success is you, so don’t harass the departmental secretary with mundane tasks or seek validation from a superior at every turn.  Take ownership of your contribution to the company, and carry your own weight on projects and in group efforts.
  3. Don’t make excuses.  Failures are always your fault, even when they aren’t. If you messed up, admit it quickly and apologize. Don’t struggle to find reasons why the failure wasn’t really your fault.  Even if you could fairly parcel chunks of responsibility to others, don’t.  You will get more respect in the long run if you take your lumps and move on with your head held high, than if you scurry about like the last rat off the sinking ship.
  4. Avoid office gossip and keep confidences. Gossip is the lubrication that keeps the social wheel turning. You can’t avoid it — but try not to get caught up in it. Walking the high road, keeping confidences and squelching rumors goes a long way to improving a person’s social standing in the office.
  5. Learn how to confront others in a respectful way. Cubicle neighbor plays his music too loud? Have a team member who consistently fails to perform?  Take the time to learn how to have serious conversations with others that touch on tough subjects. Many people don’t like conflict, but avoidance is not a success strategy. There are several different approaches to having a “crucial conversation” with someone — time invested in learning this skill will pay handsome dividends.
  6. Be humble.  No one likes a know-it-all. Even if you know the right answer to a problem, you will do better to engage and persuade than in laying out your own solution.  People like to feel consulted with, so swallow your pride and structure a conversation so that your ideas feel like everyone’s ideas. And when it comes time for credit — take your fair share of the blame, but don’t hog more than your fair share of the credit.  Recognize those who contributed to your success.
  7. Don’t commit to what you can’t deliver.  It’s tempting to promise the world on the basis of a dream, but people-pleasers end up pleasing no one.  Be honest about what you can and cannot do, and if you can’t do something, volunteer to help find a solution by another means.
  8. Exceed expectations. Always go one step farther than someone expects. For example, if you own the schedule for a conference room and someone asks if it’s free, instead of saying, “No, it’s booked,” take the time to research an alternative and then say, “I’m sorry, the room is booked, but I took the liberty of reserving this other room for you instead — is that OK?”  Delighting your customers by demonstrating superior service is always a career-enhancing strategy.
  9. Keep your work and home lives separate.  Don’t argue with your significant other on the phone all day. Don’t bring confidential documents home. Avoid littering your work space with large amounts of personal memorabilia. It’s best to keep a wall of separation between office and living room.
  10. Watch your Web browsing.  Office computers are great — but use them only for the office.  More and more companies are monitoring everything that employees do on company hardware, so it makes sense to completely avoid using company resources for personal or non-work activities. Want to read news sites during lunch?  Great — bring your own laptop.
  11. Dress the part.  Each industry and office setting has its own unique culture, but in general, dress a half-step more formally than your peer group.  In a general office setting, this might mean wearing ties when everyone else is “business casual.”  In an art studio, it means making sure your jeans aren’t ripped and stained like everyone else’s. Better to be at the upper end of proper than the lower end.
  12. Follow policies and procedures.  Even when others cut corners, always follow a documented process flow. If something goes wrong, your adherence to policy will be a saving grace. A policy doesn’t exist to irritate you, it exists to fill a need — if a policy seems problematic, then seek changes to it.  Don’t merely ignore it.
  13. Ask questions properly. When in doubt, ask.  Seek assistance.  If something doesn’t make sense, obtain clarification.  That said, avoid using questions as a way of being Mr. Smartypants.  Don’t pass judgments when asking questions.
  14. Be entrepreneurial.  Look for ways to improve processes. Pitch new project ideas. Pursue professional certifications in your off hours.   This sends the message that you care enough about your job to do more than just react to incoming work requests.
  15. Stay organized. If you master nothing else, learn how to maintain an effective filing system and a seamless task-management environment. Your files should be clearly labeled and comprehensible. You should be able to convert notes and assignments into a workflow that reduces the odds you will forget something important.  If your boss wants to know what you are doing, you should be able to turn around a complete inventory of assignments within three minutes. Don’t be that guy who agrees to do something in a meeting, writes it on the top of the agenda, puts the agenda on a stack, and never looks at it again.
  16. Don’t be the Lone Ranger.  Even if you work independently, consistently obtain the advice of people affected by your work product. Don’t give naysayers a reason to torpedo a major project simply because you failed to communicate with them. Involve as many stakeholders as is needed in your work so that (as much as is practicable) you are known for delivering consensus-driven work product, and not “mad genius” work product that people resent because they had no hand in shaping its development. Many a brilliant project was shelved because some of the affected customers felt like they weren’t engaged in the planning process.
  17. Be accessible — within reason.  During working hours, people should be able to reach you. Return email and voice mail promptly, and avoid the temptation to wander to strange places to work “in peace.”  People will notice your absence, and generally not in a good way.  However, think carefully about just how accessible you are during non-work hours. 24×7 availability can set you apart, but it can also create unrealistic expectations and lead to early burn-out.
  18. Keep a tidy desk.  Silly?  Maybe.  But how many CEOs have cluttered desks, compared to the mailroom clerks?  A clean desk is a public statement that you are on top of things and well prepared.  Perhaps this is more illusion than truth, but in the end, people can only interpret what they can see.
  19. Generate polished work product.  Fact: People are more likely to believe the printed word than the spoken word, and people are more likely to trust a document that is aesthetically pleasing compared to one that isn’t. Always take the time to make sure your work product is visually pleasing with solid content.
  20. Don’t game the system. If the office has flexibility about when you come and go, don’t abuse it by consistently coming in significantly later than everyone else, or leaving earlier. Match the standard set by the most-respected member of the department. And you really don’t want to be the person who ruins a good thing for everyone else by taking it to its absurd conclusion.

There.  Twenty solid tips.  Enjoy!

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