Even though I’ve been retired for several years now, every so often I have occasion to think about work, and what it takes to be successful in the world of work. Having said that, I suppose I should add that all of my professional experience has been in an academic setting, specifically higher education administration. Even so, I wonder if some of the things I have discovered during the course of almost forty years could also be thought of as having a measure of applicability in the wider world of work.
The topic came up most recently when I happened to have lunch a few days ago with an old colleague, and a good friend, who recently retired from an administrative position at a well-respected research university. We were speculating about what it takes to rise to leadership positions, and if there might be skills that could easily be learned. It led me to think about work more generally, and what it takes to be, and to feel, successful at work, no matter what the job may be.
I’ll start off by saying that a long time ago as a young man, when I first began working, I never expected to be particularly successful in life. I’m not sure why that’s the case, but it is. And so, it came as something of a surprise to me when, years later, I began to rise in the ranks and ultimately became an Assistant Vice President at a large public university, where I worked for almost twenty years. How, I wondered, did that happen?
Pondering these questions over the years, and occasionally discussing them with good friends, I have in the end come to a few conclusions. For the most part, I believe that there are at least three essential qualities that are needed in order to be successful at work, as well as possibly to go on and provide a leadership role involving others. I will elaborate by saying a few words about each of these qualities below.
I. FOCUS ON THE GOAL AND ACCOMPLISH IT
It cannot be emphasized too strongly that you have to have goals in mind while at work, and you’ve got to focus on those goals in a laser-like way. Depending on the job at hand, often the goals are already given to you either by your supervisor, or simply by the structure of the job itself. The very nature of virtually any job requires all of us to meet certain expectations: there are programs which have to put into operation, products to make, projects to complete, reports to write, tasks to fulfill, people to see or who need assistance, and so on. It may sound overly simplistic, but I have seen time again over the years that some people do not concentrate on what is expected of them. Instead, they loll about, surf the web, waste time and bother others by chatting endlessly with them, make repeated private or personal phone calls etc. Believe it or not, as a supervisor I occasionally even had to tell people that they were expected to arrive at work on time, and to stay the entire day. I recall, for example, commenting to one individual, “Job one is not safety. Job one is showing up!” For the most part, if you don’t come to work, you cannot do your job. And then, once you are there, you have to focus your energy, such that whatever cares and burdens you may have brought with you from life are temporarily put aside. I am speaking of the routine of work here. Obviously, there arise in all of our lives occasional times of extraordinary emotional stress, serious sickness in the family, the death of a loved one, or some other unexpected tragedy. I am not talking about that. I’m talking about the grind – let’s call it what it sometime is – of getting the job done on a daily basis. Do your job, do it well, do it very well, and in so doing make yourself proud of what you have accomplished. It really does not matter if the thing to be accomplished is big or small. Again, it may sound elemental, but a multitude of small things often add up to one big thing. If you have occasion to supervise anyone else on your job, you must treat those people with respect. They are not slaves or automatons. Tell them when they have done well, and thank them for their good efforts. It does not have to be over the top. A simple “thank you, that was well done,” is sufficient. All of us like it when others, our supervisors in particular, take notice when we work hard and do a good job. On the other hand, it is also important to let people know, as kindly but as directly as possible, if and when they are not doing well on the job. Don’t save things up for a yearly evaluation. Try to help them see on a more regular basis exactly what they can do in order to perform better on the job. Let them know what your expectations are. This is all part of setting goals and accomplishing them. As Lewis Carroll said in “Alice in Wonderland”: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”
II. WORK CREATIVELY
This is not as easy as it may sound, but it is also not an impossibility. You may think that your job is composed for the most part of any number of routine tasks, and that surely is the case with most jobs. So, how do you go about expressing creativity within the routine? I knew a woman once in my office whose job was to enter information on incoming students into a computer program and to determine the number of units we would accept from the academic institutions that students had previously attended abroad. It sounds routine, and in many ways it was. But each of these institutions in other countries represents a totally different system and ways of measuring academic progress and scholastic success. She was able to devise a slightly different way for us to make reasonable judgments about such questions, at least in certain cases. It may not have been totally revolutionary, but it did help us, and it helped students a great deal, and she was proud of her accomplishment. She showed intelligence and creativity, and it made a difference. When I first took over one section of the office which I eventually headed in its entirety, I suggested a new program whereby both domestic and international students who already had a year or two’s experience on campus would serve as volunteer mentors for newly arriving students from abroad. As a group, we spent a weekend in a big cabin in the local mountains, learning about culture and doing hands-on intercultural kinds of exercises, which made students more open to and aware of the cultural differences that new students would have to deal with. It was fun, it was a bonding experience for the volunteer mentors (some are still close friends with each other decades later), and it assisted incoming international students get settled more easily and more effectively. No one can tell you exactly how your own creativity can make a difference on the job you do. That’s in a sense where the fun comes in; and it is fun, and extremely energizing, to be creative. I have never in my life met a person who has no creativity, although I have met many people who have shut their creativity off. Don’t let the routine of work deaden your spirit. Every job, no matter what it entails, has certain routines that must be met. The trick is to do them as consciously and as carefully as possible, while at the same time thinking, wondering, imagining if there is something else that could make it somehow better, or easier, or more efficient. Most employers very much appreciate this kind of initiative and creative energy shown by employees. Even if, as frankly all too often happens in these days of recession and economic retrenchment, we are not necessarily rewarded monetarily for our ideas and creativity, in so doing at least people feel and know they have made a difference on the job.
III. THE HUMAN SIDE OF THINGS
This may be the hardest of them all. What I mean is, how to deal with other people, whether they be clients (however they may be defined), co-workers, and of course supervisors. In one sense, the client may be the easiest to deal with. I say this because in the majority of cases that I know of the relationship between the person doing the job and the client is fairly well defined. For the most part, clients are to be served in one form or another. Some product, some service, or some information is to be developed, or made, and then passed on. The client then receives this information, or this service, or this product, and is or is not satisfied with it. If they are happy, they most often do not even say so, but merely accept it as if this were the normal order of things, which it should be. On the other hand, it they are not happy, they usually say so, and they may or may not return for more. One way or the other, if things go awry, there is often a fairly clear path to follow in order to set things right again. It is another matter entirely when it comes to dealing with co-workers, with those whom we supervise, or with those who supervise us. And I believe that it is at this juncture, this crossroads, where all of the elements of what it means to have a job come together, that things are most difficult to deal with, but also where the mystery lies and where it can be most rewarding. Can we still do our job, by which we usually mean “providing the product or service to be delivered,” while at the same time being creative and treating those around us well? Much comes down to what we really think both of ourselves and of other people. And I am definitely not suggesting that anyone ought to be a doormat for others, either. Quite the opposite, in fact, if by the opposite of a doormat we understand an individual who sees within at some deep level his or her own unique qualities and singular worth. If we, any of us, have a profound and meaningful grasp on own value as a person, then two things follow quite naturally. One is that we have no fear of others, no matter who they may be or what their status or position in life is, and two, we understand, we “get,” at a very deep level that each other person has the same humanity as we do, the same rights, the same spark of life. In other words, there is a recognition that, as a human being, we ourselves are neither better, nor worse, than any other human being. I am not talking about skill levels, or education, or experience, or even motivation, all of which vary tremendously from person to person. What I am talking about is a simple, shared humanity. What follows from this recognition then is that we must treat others, at no matter what level of capacity or interaction, with the same courtesy and dignity as we would expect, and hope, for ourselves. In the end, this is what so-called “personnel policies” ought to be about, not some listing of legal minutia which we are forced to follow and abide by.
Not everyone has the same need or desire to rise to the top in a work setting. And not everyone rises who has the desire to do so, even if they believe in and follow all of the above ideas. We have to admit that politics are never far removed from most places of work, as are such simple factors as natural likes and dislikes, especially involving those in power. Even so, I believe that these principles, these ideals, which may perhaps be the more appropriate word, apply to all of us, and not just in the world of work. Focus on what needs to be done, work creatively, and treat others with respect. These cannot be bad things, no matter who we are, and no matter how we interact with the world at large.