How to Be Great at Work
Morten Hansen’s book Great at Work is a must-read for all who strive to be just that, great at work. The research-based, compelling narrative delves into nine “secrets of performance.” In this blog I want to use two of them as a springboard to share my own observations and add a third. So, what does it take to be great at work?
Understand the value of your work.
The understanding of value-add in the workplace should begin with the legitimate assumption that your job exists for a reason, and you should take your responsibilities and expected outcomes seriously. The concept of customer focus or even “obsession” is helpful but can be misunderstood as a call for everyone to redesign their job. I recall the case of a shop floor worker who interrupted their work when a group of customers came through the factory; he felt he could be more customer focussed by getting them a beverage from the cafeteria. But there is a point in understanding value more deeply. We periodically must ask the question “who exactly, inside or outside your company, benefits from our work and its outcomes and how?” Prof. Hansen calls this concept taking an outside-in view. The immediate, “low hanging fruit” of doing this is often the discovery of “legacy activities,” such as reports that were once useful but now are no longer read by anyone. To remain practical, I don't recommend just discontinuing such activities, tempting as this may be, but to check with the boss on this - in real time or during the next performance review. There are two other, less obvious instances when it comes to understanding value. The first one relates to a situation where you have an “official” job description, but your true value is generated somewhere else. In my past executive career, I had a portfolio of responsibilities including Human Resources, Legal, Intellectual Property, and Corporate Secretary. I was working for a strong-willed company founder who had taken his company public and who often had tension filled relationships with his stakeholders be they board members, executives, customers, and others. Part of my unofficial job was to help facilitate these relationships and moderate differences and conflict in the interest of the company and all involved. When I left the company one of the board members told me that my help in “keeping the team together” had been my most valuable contribution. The second one relates to framing value properly and understanding how an assigned responsibility actually adds value. Here is another example. At that same time, I was responsible for building a recruiting program for senior management, engineering, and sales talent ensuring the right competencies and “cultural fit.” Previously, new recruits had often been “overwhelmed by the culture” which had led to high involuntary turn-over. One would have thought therefore that the value here was quite obvious. But once the program was being rolled out it was so heavily geared towards keeping the wrong people out of the company that some of the right people didn’t make it in - they didn't make the cut. The “obsession” of making sure people were 100% the right fit caused us to miss talent that could have made a big impact. This insight was actually generated when I brought on a high-profile external talent expert and asked them to make the program even tighter! They ended up telling me instead that I should do the opposite: stop destroying value with our current approach and take more risk.
Focus Relentlessly to Get Things “Over the Line”
The simple but profound insight here is that getting one thing done and getting it done well adds more value (see above) than getting three things half done. The concept of focus is closely linked to that of value. Focusing, however, can be hard to do, especially in an environment where “everything is important.” So before talking about how we can focus better we should understand how important this really is. Going back to my recruiting program experience will help illustrate this point. Once a candidate did make it through the tightly meshed hiring screen an intense scrutiny of their performance set in. The question quickly became, what have they done for us? Helping on several projects or initiatives was most often not a compelling answer - the question zeroed in on, what exactly did they get done - what was their signature accomplishment so to speak. So, when someone asked - who is the new person I just met, the most compelling answer would be, “she is the person who landed the xyz account,” or “the person who got delivery times back on track,” or "the person who dealt decisively with non-performance in the xyz department when no one else did before.” This became their “claim to fame” and their ticket to stay and advance their career. So, if you are new to an organization, besides proper on-boarding, thinking about a possible “claim to fame” accomplishment would be useful. Actively working on such a task would also provide a compelling answer when running into a senior person (senior executive, board member, private equity owner) in a meeting, in the hallway or even in the elevator, and they ask, “so what are you working on these days?” The equivalent of “this and that'' will not cut it! An important precursor to a claim to fame accomplishment would be a well thought out presentation that outlines the opportunity or problem and articulates a coherent and compelling action plan. Focusing (relentlessly) on getting that presentation right including practice runs, incorporation of feedback, and further polishing will pay off. So, my question to you is “what are you working on these days?”
Face the Demands of Reality
Author Dr. Henry Could defines integrity as “the willingness to meet the demands of reality.” That “reality” includes first and foremost your market. The brutal reality is this: When a (thus far) successful) team meets a changing and/or unfavorable market, the market always wins. After the market reality, our team is the next reality we must face - are we convinced we have the right team or are there necessary transitions because markets or people themselves have changed? These are questions for a company’s leadership. Further down in an organization there are inescapable realities as well. They include budget constraints, difficult colleagues and bosses, and a whole bunch of realities that we know, but that other people in our organization - HQ, other departments, our boss, etc. - do not know. If we operate for too long between their wishful thinking and our reality we will get into trouble. Sometimes we may be able to change reality but most often not. That leaves choices, some of them difficult. The first would be to adjust our plans to meet the demands of reality and explain to our boss that “this is the best we can do with what we have.” The second would be to make our bosses experience reality or hear about reality from a credible source to have it sink in. There may be other options, but one thing is not: operate as if reality was not it. Our value add and our focus must help us meet the demands of reality. If that’s not possible, you may want to consider finding a different place of work where the inside of the company is more in sync with the outside environment.
Value, focus, and reality are three powerful concepts to help us be great at work. Of course, there are others but these three help us think about our work regardless of where we are in the organization, from the CEO down to the front-line associate. Our room to maneuver will of course be very different but there will always be something we can do. Thinking about how we can be great at work and taking at least some action certainly beats doing things that nobody needs, doing too many of them in a haphazard fashion, and all while being out of touch with the real world. Now that's a recipe for disaster.
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