Reflecting on my career, it would be fair to say I’ve had some “hits and misses”. But let’s face it, it’s all relative and I’m not complaining. I’m one of the most fortunate people I know.
This story is about my mental checklist of “workplace truths” that no one ever told me when I first entered gainful employment. If they had, I’m sure I wouldn’t have believed them, or dismissed them, thinking “I know best”.
While some things are truly beyond our control, we are constantly reminded that we can control how we react to any given situation.
Life, in general, is hard enough without making it unnecessarily harder for ourselves and others. There are a lot of things we can do, particularly in work situations, to make life easier, more interesting, and more rewarding.
Sometimes the tricks and tips, our life’s own “hacks”, come from years of trial and error…mostly errors.
1. Strategy Is A Conversation.
Granted, this is one of my more conventional hacks, but it took a long time for me to really get the nuances of this simple statement.
I’ve read A LOT about strategy. About strategy definitions, processes, measurements, planning, KPIs, etc.
I have been a client of most of the world's leading strategy firms, and have cherished long-lasting friendships from those many corporate engagements.
I was even on the speaking circuit for a couple of years: chosen topic? Strategy 101 — Getting the basics right. The most basic message I would try and convey, and this was to audiences who were mostly of the view that strategy was a process or even a science, was this simple statement: “Strategy is a conversation.”
If you are new to the game, and your CEO stands up to introduce you with the words: “And now I’d like to hand over to Andrew to introduce our new, exciting strategy”, you know you’ve already lost. Your strategic plans, new customer or product strategies, or your cost efficiency programs, are going nowhere.
The “tell” is the lack of ownership from the top.
If you are ever introduced this way you know you are speaking to an audience, which, more likely than not has more experience than you, is closer to the customer, and already knows what’s important to them. You won’t be telling them anything new, and the CEO is certainly not owning the narrative.
Effective strategies are the culmination of coordinating the right conversations with the right people, and then weaving what’s important into a single narrative that benefits your customers, your shareholder, but especially those charged with executing the strategic initiatives of the company.
The smart people in your business already know what needs to be done, and if they can’t quite articulate it, they know which customers to engage to build a more compelling proposition.
If your CEO says: “Thanks for giving your time to Andrew and his team and helping them engage with your customers…” you at least know you are halfway there.
2. The Corridor Trumps The Board Room.
How many times have you come out of a meeting with everyone in agreement, only for nothing to advance beyond the tacit approval that was just agreed on?
Not. One. Thing. Delivered.
Anyone who has ever worked for a large company will have heard of, if not been part of the process of having a strategy approved in the Boardroom, only to have it falter, or even simply just disappear as it if it never existed at all. Often with no recourse, often with not a whisper of acknowledgment.
The lack of execution, follow-through, inertia, politics within large businesses is staggering.
Strategies that live beyond Board Room discussions, and the minutes that immortalize them, do so due to the subtle conversations that happen before and after formal decisions are made. Often these informal discussions as to whether to, or how to, support a formal decision are taking place at exactly the same time as the smart people on the top floor think they are setting the company on a brave new path.
Strategies live and die by informal communication, not what is presented to a Board.
The corridor conversations, the coffee chats outside the building, the beer after work. These are places where the merits of a decision are agreed upon, or otherwise, and support is either committed or denied. Way, way, way before any strategy even makes it on to the Board agenda.
These conversations determine if a strategy will be the focus of the whole company, or if it will wither on the vine through apathy or direct subterfuge.
Any good strategy partner at any firm (good or bad) knows this to be true. It’s why “relationship management” is the key success factor in any consulting partner. It’s why consulting firms ALWAYS pay the bill. Just as with external consultants trying to win their next mandate, so it is with every strategy in every business. So it is true in every aspect of our daily lives.
The Board Room, the Church Alter, the pub. Name the time and the date of any important formal confirmation you have made with someone else.
Nothing will ever be delivered, will grow, will foster goodwill, will be nurtured after the decision is made, without the informal commitments, backing, conversations that foster goodwill and clear up misunderstandings long before a strategy is formally approved.
3. Walls Have Ears.
You will only ever learn this one the hard way.
It’s usually accompanied by a healthy dose of embarrassment, shock, disbelief, and if eventually you “get it”, humility.
Others convey the same message in different ways. “Don’t say anything about anyone that you are not prepared to say to their face”. Or the more public corporate moniker of “would you like to have your quote splashed across the Sunday papers for all to see?”.
This is now amplified beyond belief from the time I was young trying to impress my way around the office. And the naïve belief you can blame others? Tried that — never works! Eventually, you are going to have to own what you say, so why not think before putting those rude, nasty thoughts into words.
No matter what you say about anyone, they will eventually find out. There are no secrets in the workplace. None.
The internet of everything has ensured that not only do walls have ears but so does a table at your local coffee shop, a pig pen on your cousin's farm, underwater. You name…. if it is said, it is heard. Social media today almost insists that whatever you say about someone or something for that matter, will find its way back to you.
You might think you are confiding in a friend over a quiet beer at the end of the long, tough week. You might think you are whispering something witty under your breath while leaving the room, but as Shakespeare wrote in the Merchant of Venice, “the truth will out”.
It doesn’t matter if you are walking alone down an empty corridor…. I think you get the drift.
4. It’s Better To Be Interested Than Interesting.
This has a lot to do with listening, but I prefer the way a former mentor explained this to me in my mid 20's.
Each year we would catch up at a fancy restaurant he had heard of on his annual stopover in Hong Kong. It was our time to catch up on each other's news and generally gossip about people we both had worked with together for years in our past life.
One year he informed me quite dramatically that a mutual friend of ours was erring very close to the edge of being interesting.
Clearly, I was being advised to never be the most interesting person in the room. And in the workplace, this could be the best advice I was ever given.
This is particularly relevant for people who travel, or have been relocated by their company to other locations, boring or exotic.
Being “interesting” results in most people wanting to hear what you have to say, what you have been up to. And usually has nothing to do with the mental agenda in your head for the conversation at hand.
In my case, for years I was one of the front people for my company in new markets in Asia. When I returned to head office or even talked to people over the phone, so much time would be spent on people thinking my “exotic” role was far more interesting than talking about work issues at hand.
I’ve too often been the most interesting person in the room. Not the best person, not the smartest, nor most insightful. But unfortunately, the most interesting, and it’s taken me years to correct this shortcoming.
I’ve often been told my major “area of development” is that I often don’t listen to others. If it’s any consolation, I often don’t listen to myself until it’s way too late as well. Once we open our mouths and speak, for good or ill, it’s out there and you can’t take it back.
And what’s worse, in both our corporate and private worlds, the oxygen used in the act of speaking means that we too often miss the gems that could be gifted to us by being interested in the other person right in front of us.
Michael John Bailey is no longer with us. He passed away prematurely with a brain tumor. He was a serious man and his sense of his own importance may not have always matched what others thought of him. But his advice to me was a selfless gift and makes me smile and remember him fondly whenever I check myself for being too “interesting” in any given situation.
5. If You Look Like A Duck…
My tip here is to always be the duck.
This is direct from Wikipedia, so it must be true:
The duck test test is a form of abductive reasoning. This is its usual expression: If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck. The test implies that a person can identify an unknown subject by observing that subject’s habitual characteristics.
When we are young we know jack shit but believe we have the answers to the universe. The less experience we have, the more we believe we are ready for that next step, the next pay rise, the next opportunity or promotion.
Our younger selves starting our first jobs, or our new corporate careers, exhaust both ourselves, our peers, and those we are trying to impress letting everyone know “it’s my time”.
Thankfully, this little gem I learned from watching others. Finally, we have a tip that didn’t come with a lot of humiliating anecdotes in the workplace.
This may date back to my early childhood (Go, Freud! Go, Hofstadter!). Being the youngest of six children to two working parents, seeing all of the creative ways my siblings managed to cause grief to themselves, each other, and to our parents, incentivized me to limit my own trauma by behaving as much as I could, by staying under the radar when it mattered most.
Looking back, maybe it was just as much about looking like, and behaving like, and sounding like what people wanted or expected to see.
My social interactions and habits then followed me into the corporate workplace, where socially you are ranked by your superiors, your peers, and even your junior colleagues.
Back then, pay and bonus structures incorporated variables such as meeting development objectives, peer ranking, 180-degree feedback, rumors, back-stabbing, and anything else that could influence one’s comparative annual salary increase and bonus (assuming you made the cut to get one in the first place).
Being the duck in the room doesn’t mean you have to play the fool, or be the center of attention, or be annoying to your peers. Being the duck means understanding the characteristics in demand, the attitude someone is looking for, a skillset that needs filling. For my parents, it was a well-behaved child.
The first time I used the same duck test at work I’m not even sure I was aware of it.
I was working in bond administration and had a lot of interactions with the sales teams. I helped fix problems before they impacted clients, often before the issue could become a problem for someone. Before long I was the unofficial go-between admin, product, and the sales team (and they were the cool kids — the 21 Jump Street of my company).
They were the ones that had party budgets, nice clothes, and “interesting” jobs. They were diverse in gender, nationality, color, and education long before any of these things were even talked about. Whenever I needed to interact with them or walk their floor, I would try my best to fit in, to stay under the radar, but do my best.
At one large company event, a few of the sales team asked if I’d like to join their team. They liked working with me, I understood their roles and I did my best to get things done fast but well. Their final pitch was “our boss thinks you are a good fit”, which surprised me as I had no idea which boss they were talking about.
On my first day, my new boss told me he’d asked for my move into the team some time ago. He had noticed that when I was explaining an error, or giving credit to someone for work done, or dealing with clients or more experienced people in the company, I looked like I belonged.
It was simple. Paraphrasing, he said “I need a duck. For a while now you have looked like a duck. You sound like a duck. You have the qualities a good duck needs. You interact well with the other ducks. I needed another duck. Who else would I offer the role to?”
Mind you, on this first day he also took me out to lunch, bought me a new pair of shoes, a new suit, some shirts and ties. He offered: “while you present yourself really well, at certain times, it’s helpful to actually dress like a duck”. I was 24 and grew up in Byron Bay….what did I know?
Look — it’s not a new concept, and there are a lot of un-PC statements here. But, it’s still on my list as it has served me well in being trusted with new opportunities and promotions I could never have imagined at the start of my career.
6. Trust But Verify
This tip “could” make some websites, but I was raised in corporate cultures where trust was a given.
I have no idea who originally coined the phrase, but in my world, it was attributed to Dick Morath, the CEO of MLC Investments in Australia. And was repeated by every senior leader within his sphere of influence.
MLC during my 20’s and 30's was known for its unique culture. It gives me hope in corporate Australia, and gratifies me personally, to see the alumni of my former employer now sitting on the Boards and CEO suites of many of Australia’s traditional and newer companies.
“Trust but verify” echoed the halls of our company, but not in a threatening way. We were encouraged to always have trust in our colleagues to do the right thing. It made for a great working environment and allowed us to get stuff done quickly that would take other companies years to execute. But in trusting our colleagues, we were also expected to verify.
If a mistake was made — that’s on you. No blaming, no ifs, no buts. Your accountability was not just to your own work, but for the work of the whole team.
We trust our peers to do their job well, we trust our leaders to make decisions objectively, and in consideration of all the relevant facts at the time. But we also have a duty to ensure when work is passed to us that we take an end-to-end view.
We are custodians of a value chain that will pass through many hands.
It’s not good enough to say that I have done my bit properly. It’s also your responsibility to ensure any mistakes are identified and rectified. If we all “trust but verify” in an open and supportive culture, we get better as a whole rather than petrify through internal competition.
There’s a twist to this one. I was taught that there will always be times we miss something. Where people have differing views for any manner of reason and you truly believe something is not right, you have the right to ask someone with more experience and seniority for an explanation. That way, at least errors or poor processes can be corrected. Or you can learn, whether you are right or wrong.
There are a lot of different opinions on the internet regarding this phrase, and I disagree with the vast majority of them. I won’t trust you until I verify what you tell me essentially means I don’t trust you, full stop!
Done with respect, our “trust but verify” rule created a genuinely open and honest culture. If done in spite, where I’ve seen these same words implemented in another company with a different intent, expect a total clusterfuck.
7. The 80/20 Rule.
I have this on my list, but I’m not sure it works for everyone. Some people simply love being over-worked, exhausted, “needed” by their employer for the fabulous amount of work they can churn through.
On this, I call bullshit!
Sure, it takes time to learn how to master new tasks and develop new skills. Any newbie knows when you have a new role, there’s a lot to learn. But over time, you master the tasks at hand and find faster, more effective ways to fulfill the expectations of your role. This is when work gets fun. This is when you can excel.
A lot of people use the 20% they start to find available every day to slow down, slacken off, gossip, or, as I said before, just do more of the same work.
I have always taken a different approach. I start a role thinking of how I can do everything that is expected in only 80% of my time as quickly as I can. That doesn’t mean doing a bad job or cutting corners. Just get good as quickly as you can so you have that spare 20% to do other things.
I might use this 20% building relationships with a mentor, helping others in a crunch (I believe in Karma), or learning more about other parts of the business to get a feel for what you might be good at in the future.
As long as you excel in your role, and deliver what’s expected of you, a good leader won’t begrudge your self-development or your networking. And if they do, you have more skills to apply in another role.
By doing what’s expected of you, I really mean to say “do what you say you will do”.
I tend to steer clear of the whole “under promise, over deliver” caper. Be more boring; dependable; trustworthy for what needs to be achieved. Then surprise by what you can learn by, or assist with, in the other 20% of your time. Surprise by taking the time to reimagine a customer experience or the status quo.
My 80/20 rule is the one thing that opened more doors than any other tip on this list.
8. Write The Room.
We’ve all heard a friend or colleague say to you in exasperation: “READ THE ROOM!”
If you have a certain lack of empathy or are as self-centered as I am, it helps to have someone close to you who isn’t. In my personal life, it’s my husband. He’s phenomenal at it. He literally can step into a room, feel the vibe and respond appropriately.
For the majority of my career, this was a real issue for me. I was so bad that I didn’t even know it was a skill I lacked. Then midway through my career, I reported to Rob, who identified himself as a behaviorist. He was smart, super smart. The type of person who would listen quietly and then pinpoint motivations, duplicity, love, distrust, and positive or negative attributes in a heartbeat. He didn't so much as listen as he would watch.
Whenever I asked how his ”hunches” always proved to be correct, he would explain by describing how the person was acting or reacting to what was happening or being said around them. I am amazed to this day at how unskilled I am at reading the room. I am equally amazed at how Rob could read people in a way I have never witnessed since.
But if reading the room was hard for me, writing the room came as naturally to me as a butterfly landing gently on Bambi.
Think of “Write the Room” as the love child of Churchill’s “History is written by the Victors”, and Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s “The pen is mightier than the sword!”.
In my experience, the person who organizes the agenda for a workshop, or edited Board Papers, and especially wrote minutes, ultimately was the person that was in the center of the flow of information long before we had Google and Facebook algorithms.
We increasingly use tools and technology that reduce the need for this skill of scoping and documenting and checking and holding people accountable with the records of agreements, but I hope it remains in use. If only like Latin, around enough to be slightly annoying and fun.
The person who writes the room is the gatekeeper, the facilitator, the go-to person for that is important. If you are as hopeless as I am at reading the room, try writing the room.
9. Be Kind
I don’t mean “Be Kind” in the Ellen DeGeneres “be kind to each other” kind of way. I mean my Dad’s version of being kind. Take the time to smile, acknowledge others, say hello, actively listen to the person you are with.
Being kind is infectious, for those offering and those receiving. Being kind has physical and psychological benefits of releasing serotonin and dopamine.
People say you won’t be remembered by what you say to them, or do for them, but they will remember how you made them feel. We all remember those who, at the time we needed it most, were kind to us.
This is true in the workplace even more so than in our private lives. At home, with friends, we can cross boundaries to ensure we understand each other better, to make sure someone is “O.K”. This isn’t the case at work. Sometimes the only lifeline someone has is the small kindnesses shown to them by others.
In today's world of forced confluence, these hacks aren’t limited to the workplace anymore. While these tips and tricks have served me well throughout my career, I should have referred more frequently to my mental work checklist on how best to navigate in times of uncertainty.
My list is a result of schoolyards, streets, bars, and boardrooms — wherever people interact. While I may have learned some of these lessons from a multitude of situations, people, and places, they are the reasons behind any success I ever had in my career.
Too often we get caught up in the moment. It’s easy to forget we already have most of life’s tools at our fingertips.
Note: I only add the Duck test link to Wikipedia as there are some classic comic historic uses of the phrase (also some serious ones). But if you need a lighthearted read, check it out.
I’d welcome any feedback below if you have any to add to the list… I only got to 9.