Starting a new job can either be a totally harrowing experience or one of the most exciting times of our lives. Which of these situations we encounter depends to a large extent on how our new employer goes about the task of helping us to settle down, feel more at home and develop the confidence we need in order to quickly establish ourselves as valuable members of the organization.
Once we’ve become a little comfortable with our new duties and work routines, our thoughts are likely to turn to seeking an answer to the question “what does it take to get ahead around here?” Sometimes, we get lucky - a caring colleague, manager or mentor takes us aside and shares his or her personal convictions about how to get ahead in the organization. This can be very helpful and reminds me of the ancient Chinese adage that “if you want to know the road ahead, ask the man on his way back.” Unfortunately, all too often we are left to try and figure out things by ourselves.
At Human Edge, after many years of observing which of our colleagues seem to enjoy a high degree of success and which ones seem to flame out quite early on in their careers, we’ve arrived at what we call “the Rules of Success.” The “rules” are shared with new hires soon after they start work and reinforced regularly throughout their stay with the firm. Although they probably haven’t worked for everyone, I’m convinced that over the years, they have played an important role in helping many a new employee to adjust to what can be a fairly demanding environment.
There are 10 rules. While the exact wording may change from time to time, they can be summed up as follows:
Rule #1: Be a Constant Learner
Consulting is very much a knowledge-driven business, so this first rule really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. However, it’s amazing how many people join consulting firms with attitudes that essentially shout “we already know all there is to know” and basically close themselves off to any new knowledge or insights. So, rule #1 is all about being willing to engage in 360-degree learning from colleagues, through self-development or the formal and informal training available, and generally taking an interest in the world around us.
Rule #2: Be Humble
Closely aligned with rule #1, this rule is designed to reinforce the idea that incredible insights can come from the strangest sources...if one remains open-minded enough to see them.
Rule #3: Be Pro-Active, Take Responsibility for Your Own Growth and Development
This is my favorite rule. In it, we ask our new hires to take personal responsibility for their progress both through the organization and life in general. This rule also demands that people accept that if they want things to improve, they are going to have play their part in making things better. Finally, I think it urges people to strive to be the very best that they can be. It really is a very powerful proposition in the right hands.
Rule #4. Develop a “Hardy Attitude” and Be Willing to Take as Much as You Give
We ‘borrowed’ this rule from a highly successful client of ours where “hardiness” is considered to be a virtue. Business can be tough and you need to have the stamina to survive all its rigors. At the same time, openness and frankness are valued attributes around our firm, and we value people who can learn not to take feedback personally, no matter how critical it may be. By the same token, we are impressed with people who have the confidence to offer what they consider to be useful and constructive feedback to colleagues without bothering about the political correctness involved.
Rule #5. Be Friendly but Professional.
Following or applying this rule can be a tough balancing act for many people. Our working environment can be quite demanding and the pressure to meet performance expectations can sometimes lead people to focus exclusively on their own goals and needs; it also may result in their arriving at the conclusion that certain niceties can be dispensed with as long as the desired results are achieved. This is the social equivalent of an “end justifies the means” philosophy and can be really counter-productive in situations where very little can be achieved solely by working alone and a colleague’s insight or assistance is the key to finding a solution to a knotty problem. Clearly, being friendly is a key success factor around the firm, but what about the “being professional” part? Well, the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines being professional as “exhibiting a courteous, conscientious, and generally businesslike manner in the workplace.” I think this pretty much sums up how we like to behave both towards ourselves and our clients, and I believe these characteristics have been demonstrated by all the top professionals I have come across in my own career.
Rule #6. Be Hardworking, Enthusiastic and Passionate
Everyone loves the person who brings energy and sheer “va-va-voom” to the job. My experience is that many young people taking up their first few jobs do indeed bring considerable amounts of enthusiasm with them. However, it seems to be all too easy to allow oneself to get worn down by the routine and stress of the work-place, resulting in the tired-looking and jaded people you find dotted around every organization. This is a pity, because the men and women who are able to retain a sense of youthful enthusiasm and interest in their work almost seem to magnetize success to themselves. Managers love subordinates who are ever ready to go the proverbial ‘extra mile’ or to make a personal sacrifice occasionally, and I’m yet to see a case where such people fail to reap significant rewards for their efforts.
Books, articles, and stories abound on the subject of what it takes to practice rule # 6 successfully, but I’ve always found The Go-Getter by Peter B. Kyne and Take a Letter to Garcia in Og Mandino’s University of Success to be particularly inspiring.
Rule # 7. Recognize the Commercial Imperative
As a small firm, our new hires are very quickly introduced to the need to generate income if we are to survive. I suspect that the ability to generate income is a key success factor in most professional firms. Consequently, every effort is made to expose people to the process of business development and income generation early in their careers. But, even in larger corporations, the up and coming officer or manager with commercial acumen and an eye for the bottom line is usually much-prized; if this is combined with outstanding technical competence, rapid ascent up the corporate ladder is all but assured. Now, I’m not suggesting by any means that every person who joins the organization must be subjected to the stress and strains of financial targets often associated with certain organizations in the financial sector. Not at all. However, there are very few jobs where the opportunity to contribute to the bottom-line doesn’t exist in one form or another, and the road to the top simply seems to be that much easier for those who can identify with one of top management’s major concerns.
Rule #8. Be Exceptionally Good...at Something
Consultancies are generally knowledge-based organizations, so suggesting that people acquire an area of specialization early in their careers may seem like restating the obvious. Still, if the goal is to be able to add extra-ordinary value to the client or organization (which incidentally is our definition of ‘talent’), then there are really only two ways to go: possess extra-ordinary understanding of a particular subject or know how to apply the understanding of others in an extra-ordinary way – and either way, make sure you deliver consistently exceptional results.
This is probably a restatement of the age-old consultant’s debate over content versus process, but I believe it’s really a false dichotomy, and many top consultants are both subject-matter specialists and process experts. This combination taken to its highest level of practice produces the ‘adviser’ whose distinct value derives equally from what he or she knows about a particular field and how well he or she is able to apply apply that knowledge profitably or productively on behalf of others . Whilst it may take many years to attain this highest level, it’s well worth striving for.
Rule # 9. Develop Good Interpersonal Skills
This could be described as an extension of rule #5 as I’m yet to meet a senior executive who doesn’t possess superior interpersonal skills. Indeed, as one moves through the various career levels (e.g. from trainee to senior executive), the ability to work with and through others becomes increasingly important. Like it or not, people with superior interpersonal skills often appear to enjoy accelerated advancement over their less socially skilled counterparts. Once again, paying attention to the cultivation of these skills early on in our careers seems to yield rich dividends.
Rule #10: It’s Okay to Be Ambitious
Many people are reluctant to display their ambition in the workplace. This may be due to any number of reasons, including personal or reported experiences (of others) where the display of naked ambition has generated a backlash from superiors or peers. Fortunately, the best organizations are not afraid to hire people who have set definite goals for themselves and who are hoping to achieve those goals with the active help of their employer and colleagues. However, I should warn you that such organizations are equally demanding of their people, so if you’re thinking of joining one or are already a member, be prepared for an exchange of value.
These “rules” have worked well for us over the years. Perhaps you, or the organization you work for, have some rules of your own. If you’d like to share them with others, please leave a comment.