Revised September 2, 2020
Originally published September 24, 2012
You’re smart, hard-working, and loyal as a dog. So why hasn’t your career taken off the way you had hoped?
Note that if you are already at the top of your game, this guidance will seem old hat (though you may want to share this with younger colleagues). If you’re struggling just a bit, it may help. And if you are just starting out or early in your professional career, it is vital.
Care about your company and industry and show it in your work and speech. There is no such thing as a “boring product” or service—only bored employees.
I gave a presentation a while back to staff at a company that made rubber gaskets. One of the attendees asked how he was supposed to get excited about rubber gaskets. I asked where the company’s gaskets were used.
“Oh, different applications in high-performance motors, like generators, pumps, NASCAR engines…” NASCAR engines??!! How can you not be passionate about that? The rubber gaskets may be only a small part of the equation, but races couldn’t be won without them.
The best ideas are good ones, of course, but even interesting ideas that don’t ultimately make it into production are important and show that you have, well, passion for the business. New products account for 25% of revenue on average and an even higher percentage of profit.
New ideas, whether for new products or services, enhancements to existing offerings, or just better ways of doing something, are the lifeblood of future success. Particularly when it comes to new products, only a small percentage of new ideas actually make it into production—but all new ideas have value.
Never ask your boss / co-worker / colleague what they think of a specific color, font, tagline, headline, product concept or anything else—instead, present alternatives (at least two, preferably three, no more than five). People prefer to choose between different options rather than just a give a thumbs-up or down to an idea in isolation.
Obviously, being linguistically bilingual (e.g. able to speak/write/read Spanish and English, or Chinese and English, etc.) is valuable in many business contexts. But it’s also helpful career-wise to be departmentally bilingual. For example, I got one of my first promotions based on being able to “translate” engineering jargon into language that a marketing team could understand.
And no matter what function you work in, it’s crucial to be able to translate your department’s internal jargon into business language. For example, in social media marketing, measures such as Facebook likes, LinkedIn followers and retweets on Twitter are meaningful—but your CEO and CFO couldn’t care less about these metrics.
However, being able to say that social media produces sales leads at x% lower cost than other sources and furthermore that these leads have a y% higher close rate will get C-level attention.
Most people in marketing today will interpret this suggestion as applying to social networking, and there’s no question that it’s important for marketing, SEO and PR professionals to be active (in a professional manner) on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn at a minimum. And having an active presence on sites like YouTube, Pinterest, and Instagram doesn’t hurt.
But don’t neglect the most literal meaning of this recommendation either. Working through lunch can be interpreted as a sign of your dedication—or give the impression that you don’t care to interact with co-workers.
If you’re on a tight deadline, go ahead and spend your lunch time hunched over a keyboard, but if not (and presuming it’s an option), spend that time getting to know those you work with better, and letting them get to know you. Join an office happy hour once in a while. “Office politics” isn’t a nasty term, it’s a fact of life.
Never Stop Learning
For most of human history, odds were that you would end up doing whatever it was your parents did (in most cases, farming), and in pretty much the same way.
In The Logic of Life, author Tim Harford quantifies the acceleration of technological change as it relates to population growth. “The…Homo erectus population in 300,000 B.C. would have been coming up with on (brilliant, life-changing) idea every thousand years. By 1800, the dawn of the Industrial Revolution…the innovation rate would have risen to one stunning idea every year. By 1930 it would have been one world-changing idea every six months…we should now be producing this kind of idea every two months.”
The development of the Internet wiped out a wide swath jobs but created many new ones (webmasters didn’t exist twenty years ago; social media consultants have been around for less than a decade), and changed the way almost all other jobs are performed (including farming).
For the most part, the college textbooks on my bookshelf are now more of historical interest than practical use. E-textbooks are less expensive and a lot easier to carry around than print versions.
Staying ahead of the curve is tough, but essential. As columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in The New York Times, “if you want a decent job that will lead to a decent life today you have to work harder, regularly reinvent yourself, obtain at least some form of postsecondary education, make sure that you’re engaged in lifelong learning and play by the rules.”
Take on New Projects
New projects are often a test. Even if you’re already very busy—say yes. Employers are looking for you willingness to embrace new challenges and evaluating how you handle them.
Never Present a Problem without Suggesting a Solution
Finally, one of the best pieces of advice I ever got from a CEO. Management has no interest in whiners, but they do value problem-solvers. If you see a suboptimal situation, think before just complaining. Come up with at least one (preferably two or three) potential solutions before approaching your boss.
Even if, in the end, none of your recommendations are put into place, your supervisor will value you as a person with ideas—rather than just grievances.
Bottom line, the world is changing faster than ever before. The rewards for innovation are high, but the penalties for falling behind are tough. Keeping these eight recommendations in mind can help you win the rat race, without being a rat.