Ten Tips for your Career (and Life)

As I look back at my life and work, I am reminded of the many times I did things that were detrimental to both my life and career. It is amazing how life conspires to make us successful despite our best efforts!

– Not questioning why I am doing something

I remember doing hundreds of employee engagement activities. If I did not get enough good candidates, I would increase the number of search firms. As a professional services firm, if we did not get enough leads on social media we would increase the number of posts. In neither of these examples did I pause to ask the question, Why? We all know purpose gives energy, but there have been many times I did not ask myself or my boss, “What is the purpose, and how do we know this is worth doing?” We become busy in the “Activity trap”.  Long hours at work often leads to the next trap we fall into.

– Martyr effect

Let’s face it. Long hours at work for long periods of time usually mean two things- either I am not as good as I should be at my work, or the Organization does not have the right business model, processes and resources. Both are true in the case of many start-ups. The inevitable consequence of this is burnout and health issues. It is good to ask yourself the question if you consistently find yourself working long hours at the cost of other priorities, “Am I doing what I am good at, if not how can I change things?” Lack of work-life balance does not make you a martyr, blaming others do! In my first two jobs, I would always blame my boss for loading me with extra work and not appreciating me enough. It was in the fourth job that I realised I was an equal contributor to the problem.

– Cannot fail

Unlike our school and college exams, in real life, every day could be an exam and questions are often from “out of syllabus”. A big problem with hiring high achievers is that they cannot handle failures. This would either come in the way of taking up any new challenge where success is uncertain, or the person will quit if she perceives she has failed. While good bosses and Organizations do not allow people to fail, it is only much later that one realises that what is perceived as a success today could be seen as a big failure tomorrow and what seems a failure today leads to great success tomorrow, provided one learns.

– Are we learning fast?

Let’s make a list of 10 things we learnt in our college or MBA that I have applied in our current job. Stuck? No worries, let’s make a list of 10 ideas that I have implemented based on the reading I did in the last one year. Stuck?  No worries, let’s list the names of 10 books I read in the last one year. I was seriously depressed when I did this exercise for the first time!

– Who are our advisors?

Taking advice is a positive quality. I had a brilliant colleague who I had to let go because he would not take the advice of anyone. This became a show stopper when he reached a managerial position that required collaboration with other managers.

We all approach people other than our boss for advice. Only one thing is worse than not taking advice; taking advice from the wrong people! How do I know who is the right colleague who can give me advice, particularly career advice?  As a rule, people who are invested in the success of the Organization are good advisors. They may not always be the most engaged, but they are focused on making an impact and building their career. As a rule, if you want to build your career, talk to people who are seemingly good at building theirs. If you have made up your mind to leave the organization, talk to those who have successfully made that transition and are happy with their decision.

– All intellect and no action

I was lucky. In my first job we were confronted with an Industrial Relations problem in one of the sections in the factory, I worked in. I took the opportunity to teach my Works manager about principles of motivation and participatory management. The next day I was transferred as an Executive to this section. “I liked what you said, now implement it,” the Works manager said with a serious look. This was the best thing that happened to me early in my career. And this is my favourite line with my colleagues, particularly MBAs!  The person who suffers from the activity trap at least gets appreciation for working hard. The No Action Intellectual loses all credibility. You have to only look at his PowerPoint presentation to realise that it was made in 30 minutes with no intent to implement.

– Boss is the problem

Of course, the boss is the problem. It took me three jobs to realise that the boss is designed to be there as a problem for our self-development!

This person is easy to spot. He will say some of the following things:

  1. Expectations are not clear – I do not understand the big picture
  2. My boss keeps changing his mind
  3. I do not have the authority
  4. I did not get enough time (When the same reason is given after one year, you know it is an excuse)
  5. The challenge is…(Give him any option, his response will be,” Yes but the challenge is..”)

The interesting observation is that if you replace the word “Boss” with “Customer”, you will get the same observations. Customers pay us money to get a job done, much like bosses pay us money to get the job done. We do not complain about the customer as much as we do about the boss.

Granted good bosses are supposed to do a competent job in all the above areas. Blaming the boss often stops us from asking ourselves if we have a vision for our role, do we have a plan that has the buy-in of our boss, am I exploring any out of the box idea to tackle resource constraints… In other words, do I approach my boss with solutions or only with challenges?

– Relationships

Organizations take a lot of trouble hiring people with analytical and conceptual skills. Failures, however, are often have to do with relationships. There are three kinds of relationships that are critical to your success:

  1. With your team – The team will respect a boss who can answer four simple questions:
    1. What is the purpose of the work we are doing?
    2. How am I doing?
    3. Can you show me how to do it? (Except at senior levels where a leader may not have operational hands-on experience in all areas)
    4. Where do I go from here?

If you cannot do the above, you are not a people manager regardless of your designation. While at senior levels you are not expected to be a master in all operational aspects, even a CEO should have operational mastery in at least one area in the business.

  1. With your peers – Collaborate with peers and seek opportunities to support without blowing your trumpet. Peers do not trust someone who is seeking to take credit all the time.
  2. With your boss – This is easy. He is your customer. (Some will say he is your mentor, coach etc. You know better!)

Please remember relationships in office is in the context of unequal power. As a rule, if you are perceived to be more powerful by virtue of your position, you are expected to be setting the right standards in behaviour. Understanding this will prevent avoidable grief.

It is not a good idea to neglect your personal relationship with family and close friends. In fact, neglecting family is one of the traps.

– Defining your self-identity with your job or role

Your role and perhaps your job will change. If you are in the same role for 5 years or more, the rule of diminishing returns has already started applying! The prognosis is not good for larger than life leaders who were associated with their roles. “Great Leaders” do not seem to transition gracefully to other roles.  “Father of _________”  ( Replace with any industry or country  or anything) do not usually have a transition plan. It is usually a rapid downhill ride. So, it may not be a good idea to identify yourself too closely with one role or job.

– If you had only six months, would all this advice still be important?

Right now, you may feel that your career will continue indefinitely. But life won’t! Would you like to examine your priorities, not after retirement, but now?


Prasenjit Bhattacharya is the Founder Director at Great Place to Work® Institute, Sri Lanka, and Great Place to Work® India. He is currently the CEO of Great Manager Institute ®. Views expressed are personal.

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