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Unless I fall into some major financial windfall, I am probably about a third of the way through my working life. I’ve raged against the machine, felt supreme indignation at the slights of my professional life, chaffed at tasks I knew were beneath me, and have come out on the other side.
Through good fortune, opportunity, and hard work, I’ve been pretty successful at work. My parents blessed me with a strong work ethic, which has served me well. I’ve had good role models and mentors that have helped me to learn and grow. And I’ve paid my dues, starting from the low woman on the totem pole and rising to senior management within my firm.
Now I’m in a position where I am the one doing the hiring and coaching the junior employees. That in and of itself has been an entirely new education. Through both my own experiences rising through the ranks and now serving as a mentor to younger employees, I’ve reflected a lot on what it means to be successful at work.
While I knew what my parents did for a living and had a sense of their day-to-day, I don’t remember having many conversations about the nature of work. I plan to change that with my children and try to give them a leg up on what to expect at the outset of their careers so they too can be successful at work. And also so they’re not jerks that no one in the office can stand. 🙂
Here are the lessons I want them to know.
Work Is Inherently Dignified
It doesn’t matter if you’re a doctor, teacher, or janitor. You could be a chef, a CEO, or an artist. Providing for yourself and your family by working is honorable, regardless of what you do (provided it’s moral and legal of course!).
Don’t ever look down at someone because of their profession. Some of us are fortunate and have every opportunity presented to us. Others aren’t so fortunate, be it because of bad luck, immigration status, socioeconomic status, or who knows what else.
Everyone deserves respect for the work they do. Some may be wildly successful at work, earning heaps of praise, while others come to work day in and day out, do fine work, but don’t receive much recognition. It doesn’t matter. Everyone who works is contributing in some way to society, and that is an honorable thing.
And don’t be fooled into thinking that only those who receive a paycheck work and contribute to society. Stay-at-home parents WORK. Even if they don’t receive compensation for their work, they provide for their families by caring for children. As a mom with two daycare bills, I know there is a ton of monetary value in that!
Nobody Owes You Anything
Graduating, whether from high school, trade school, or college, is a big accomplishment, and you have every right to be proud of your achievements. But it doesn’t guarantee anything.
Particularly when the economy is in a downturn, it may take months or even years to get the job you think you deserve. You are smart and capable with an amazing line of accomplishments, but so are many of the people going after the same jobs you are.
You need to constantly prove and re-prove yourself. Push yourself, challenge yourself, and demonstrate your worth and value to your company. Even if you graduated top of your class from an Ivy league institution, you can’t rest on your laurels.
And sadly, even if you’ve been a loyal worker for years, it’s still no guarantee that you’re going to have a job tomorrow. Never take for granted what you have, and do what you can to prepare for being unexpectedly laid off or not getting a bonus you’ve come to expect.
The Golden Rule Still Applies
We’re told from childhood to treat others how we would like to be treated. Nothing changes once you go to work.
Treat everyone in the company with decency and respect, not just the people who have a say over your raises and promotions.
When you were interviewing were your friendly and courteous to the receptionist? Do you acknowledge the people that keep your building running such as the janitorial staff, security guards, and IT professionals? Do you thank junior staffers for contributing to a project and praise their good work?
You may not notice, but people do pay attention how you interact with others. What’s more, a majority of their opinion of you will likely come from how you treat others, rather than the work you produce.
For those of us who have worked, we all know someone who did good work and was valuable to the company, but frankly, was an a**hole. You do not want to be that person. People aren’t going to rush to help that person when he needs help. When he leads a project, they’re going to do the bare minimum needed rather than going above and beyond to make a project really successful.
Do yourself a favor and just be a decent human being. It really is that simple.
Don’t Make Assumptions
If you work in a large company, the CEO and upper management probably makes quite a bit of money. But that doesn’t mean they’re all wealthy. Some likely live beyond their means and are drowning in debt. Some could have elderly parents they’re caring for with their own funds. Others may have a gambling problem, or are recovering from catastrophic medical expenses, or who knows what else.
On the flip side, other staff may be paid much less by comparison but they could be incredible couponers, have side hustles, or mastered frugal living. Some could have nest eggs beyond what you would ever imagine.
The point is, you don’t know what’s going on in people’s personal lives so don’t make judgments about your coworkers based solely on titles or seniority.
You Have a lot to Learn
You may have a fancy degree from a great school, or are a prodigy with mechanics, but that will only get you so far. There is so much more to work than the education or training you received earlier in life.
Work is politics and navigating hierarchies and company idiosyncrasies. It’s learning your boss’ preferences and expectations. It’s understanding the traditions of your company and how things are done, even if it doesn’t make sense to a newcomer.
Your education and training may have given you the skills needed to do the job, but there is so much more to work than just that.
Don’t assume that just because you have a degree in something that you know what you’re doing. In every company you work you will have a lot to learn. Listen, pay attention, and be humble, and you’ll find your way.
Don’t Get Caught Up In the Drama
Office politics can be brutal. You think you’ve left high school, but really, in many cases, it just follows you to work.
Don’t get caught up in that.
I’ve mentioned before how I work through lunch so I can leave an hour earlier to get home and see my kids. This means I don’t go out for lunch with coworkers, and I don’t spend a lot of time chit-chatting either. I come in, do my job, and leave.
In a lot of ways, I’m much happier this way. With two kids under five, I have enough drama and chaos at home. I don’t need that in my working environment. Sure, I miss the social aspects of work sometimes, but I’ve noticed that most times a group of colleagues get together, eventually the conversation turns to griping about something. Or talking about another coworker who isn’t present.
We all do it from time to time, but trust me, the more you can avoid it, the happier and more peaceful you’ll be.
Also, if you’re going to get worked up about something, ask yourself if it’s really worth it. I can’t count anymore the number of times I’ve seen people work themselves into a tizzy about the stupidest stuff: whose name is listed first on a document, how someone rearranged a cabinet in the kitchen, who should check the department email when the receptionist is out sick.
Yes, these things might be annoying but is it really worth spending a lot of time and energy on it? Are you going to remember this next year, or even next week? If not, take a deep breath, and move along.
You do not want to be the person who has worked at a company for a year and doesn’t know where to find the paperclips.
Don’t be the person who drinks the last cup of coffee and leaves an empty pot, or sees that the printer is out of paper and doesn’t refill it.
Don’t be the person who routinely answers, “well it’s not my job!”
These are some of the most annoying people to work with. And they’re not thought highly of by other, more capable employees. That’s no way to be successful at work.
Just like how you had to learn to do your own laundry and cook meals for yourself, learn how to take care of basic things at work. Otherwise you’re just useless.
I attribute most of my success at work to my ability to manage up. Managing up means anticipating what your boss is going to need, and providing it. It means not only identifying problems but also offering solutions. When you do a research project, do it thoroughly, but also provide an executive summary highlighting the main points.
Find ways to make your boss’ job easier. She will notice and appreciate it. She will come to rely on you and trust you. And with that will come more responsibility and promotions. Prove yourself capable and useful by managing up and you will be successful at work.
Apologize When you Make Mistakes
You’re going to make mistakes. We all do. But how you manage mistakes says a lot about you and how people will perceive you.
Apologize. It’s as simple as that.
I’ve had multiple supervisors complain to me about junior staff not apologizing when they make a mistake. And it rubs me the wrong way too when I have to correct people’s work and they brush it off. Annoying your boss isn’t going to help you to be successful at work.
You don’t need to go over the top, but you do need to acknowledge it. And don’t water it down by offering a lot of excuses. That just makes you look petty or whiny. Put on your big girl or big boy pants and own your mistake.
Your boss may not be happy, but he’ll likely think more highly of you and have more respect for you if you’re up front about it.
Use Your Resources
I may offend a lot of people with this but I think someone who asked a lot of stupid questions coined the phrase “no such thing as a stupid question.” Of course there are stupid questions!
If you haven’t put in the effort to understand a process or paid attention to your training, then chances are any questions you ask about it are stupid questions. It’s only because you’ve chosen to not pay attention that you don’t know.
If you go to your supervisor or a colleague to ask a question, even though it’s within your ability to easily find out the answer, than that might be a stupid question too.
I picked up a phrase from someone I interviewed with several years ago. She was talking about junior staff not being able to problem solve and said she was constantly reminding them to “use their resources.”
The phrase really stuck with me and I find myself using it often. Not sure how to use an excel formula? Google it. Don’t know how to format a document? Check your network to find similar files and copy the formatting.
I’m not suggesting you don’t ask questions. You certainly should if expectations are unclear or you haven’t been trained on something. What I am suggesting is that before you run to your supervisor with every little question, see if you have a manual, guide, or other way of answering your question first. Showing some resiliency and an ability to problem solve goes a long way in my book, and is a surefire way to be successful at work.
Being Successful at Work: Easier Than you Think
Barring discrimination, a lack of opportunity, or other external factors, it’s really not that difficult to be successful at work. Have a good work ethic. Use common sense. Be professional and respectful to everyone. Really, all you have to do is be a decent human being and put some effort in and you should be fine.
Of course, there are always external factors at play: factories closing, unexpected layoffs, an unsuccessful product line. Your career will have highs and lows. But navigating those highs and lows and being successful at work will be easier if you follow these lessons.
What did I miss? What lessons do you want your kids to know about working? How have you been successful at work?