Improvement, not a roll of the dice, can help you get to the top
By Ryan Burge
Looking back to my college graduation, I was both nervous and seemingly prepared for industry. I was educated. I was competent. I had what many job descriptions required – from the three R’s of reading, writing and arithmetic coined by Sir William Curtis in the early 1800s to a more recent rendition of relating, representing and reasoning. I thought that I was well-rounded and prepared to tackle even the most challenging of tasks. However, I found myself struggling to determine the best methods for getting ahead – what some may consider the “tricks of the trade.” I assumed that staying busy, the R’s and listening to my supervisors alone would account for my success. They are important for making an impact and achieving some level of success, but aren’t necessarily enough to rely on.
In this complex corporate world, what can you do to achieve the level of success you really desire? Is it a matter of continuing education by enrolling in a certificate program or learning some new method of communicating with co-workers and customers? Perhaps it can be a fusion of the two along with many other factors. But through years of experience that include both great success and disappointing setbacks (similar to a game of Chutes and Ladders), I compiled four simple rules to help you gain an edge not only in the workplace, but, most importantly, in your career.
You may be thinking, “Great, more rules. What’s the difference between these rules and others that I might search for on the Web?” I always read those articles, hoping to find some glimmer of resemblance to my experiences in industry and what I could do to charge forward even faster, to find just a few thoughts on how to approach learning in a more creative way, or how to build business more effectively for my firm. Unfortunately, they all seem the same, with few examples and a lack of connection to my story. Therefore, I have made an attempt to call out the most important elements to enhancing your career without the fluffy, generic bag of guidelines that are more minute and obvious rather than critical to success.
1. What have you absorbed lately?
Absorption is one of the most useful gifts we all have been given. Your brain has the ability to absorb a tremendous amount of information – more specifically, equivalent to about 10 billion encyclopedia pages of information. That is a lot of information. So why waste it? You’ve been given this vast repository you can use to develop your skills and capabilities further, but chances are there have been days when you have gone home from work without really learning anything. As much as you may like, you cannot argue that what you learned Friday was that a new Starbucks is coming to the corner closest to your office. Needless to say, it might be difficult to learn something academic each and every day – but that’s not necessarily the point. The point is that you should get up, get out and learn. Sure, you spent four to eight years – perhaps more – working toward a degree. Did you do it all to relax because you’re done with school? Absolutely not. That’s the wrong perception of learning. You obviously learned enough during college to fill the pages of many textbooks, but you still have a way to go to reach 10 billion pages.
You’re thinking: “But what should I be learning and what is going to help me in my career?” Well, fortunately for me, that is up to you. But I can give guidance to help get you on your way. Some people think that being a subject matter expert – having a narrow focus/expertise in one or a few areas – can be valuable. It can be, but in today’s environment, broad exposure to an array of job tasks, software, innovative theory and research, and even a diverse crowd of co-workers and customers can be even more valuable. Experience something new and perhaps you gain skills in a different area. Maybe a class in computer programming, a foreign language or even one to improve your writing skills would build both professional credibility and self-esteem. Even if you don’t gain extreme depth in such a course, you’ve not only expanded your understanding of another area that could potentially open doors with another job, but you’ve also gained a new respect for that work and for those that work in those areas.
For example, much of my career thus far has been spent as a lead modeler of complex decisions. I could create an intricate model, but the information technology (IT) development of such a model – for instance, a software application to help leaders make more informed decisions – was well outside my area of expertise. As a result, I often became frustrated with problems in IT development and implementation (e.g., schedule slips, difficulties in programming), regardless of my inability to empathize with those doing the work. Following some research and coursework, I began to understand enough about the field so that I increased not only my performance but that of my team members, resulting in better coordination between teams, more effective decision making on my part and a higher quality product for the customer – delivered on time and within budget.
The ability to understand more about the work performed by others that has a direct or indirect impact on your work stream (or the focus of your project) is one aspect of successful industrial engineering. And it all starts with the absorption of some new or different information that you originally may not have deemed critical to your job. Give it a try. Cut back on a few Starbucks coffees each week and use the money to fund the absorption of some new information to fill those remaining 9 billion pages.
2. Just Permabond it
The adhesive works great. Its ingenious engineering lets it easily and quickly repair the broken lamp or shattered pictures following a wild night of Nintendo Wii Mario Kart racing. Just as the adhesive solves problems, so can developing a vibrant, usable network of professionals – a permanent bond, if you will. You’ll notice I wrote the word bond at the end of the sentence, not network, as there seems to be a misperception of what it truly means to build an effective network. Many assume that inviting a few co-workers to be a connection on some professional or social networking website will result in fruitful bonds and collaboration. Unfortunately, they fail to see the real value in such a site and in other methods of effective professional bonding.
This is not to say that people you are linked to on a website never will reach out to you. They might, but in many cases it will be to solicit information on getting a job with the company you work for. It makes sense that people use their networks for gain. But most take it to the extreme and overlook the true benefit of building a relationship with the person on the other end of the keyboard. Be proactive, identify those who share similar interests, open your mouth and talk. Don’t stop at the simple, “Jim has accepted your LinkedIn request” or pay for a membership to an organization in which you do not participate. Take it a step further, reach out, get involved, and have an intellectually stimulating discussion with a new person or group of persons, and perhaps you’ll walk away with more than just an extra name in your online repository.
Numerous times I have encountered potential customers and influential mentors by building strong bonds and being proactive. Whether through the networking websites or by attending a two-hour engineering presentation following work one evening, I gained more than just a conversation, as did they. For example, following one such presentation I had an interesting discussion with a director of a major healthcare provider. I thought the talks went great, and we established more than just a connection, but a real bond. A few weeks later, she called needing assistance with a work problem and my work experience was a perfect match for it. It was a great opportunity, but it was an opportunity that would not have existed without my being fearless in talking to new people. Today, the relationship has become a permanent bond, one that will continue to enhance both of our careers.
3. Leverage, be selfish, take initiative
OK, being selfish is not as bad as it sounds, but examine leverage first. Financial leverage, for example, can be considered the use of borrowed funds to acquire an investment. Obviously, this definition can be much more robust and the theory behind financial leverage quite complex; however, the simple idea of using what is offered to acquire something greater – to generate a greater return over what you currently have – is a key to success. This idea can take many forms, whether it includes using your company’s tuition reimbursement (if offered) to gain some new skill to build your professional portfolio (i.e., absorption) or leveraging your capabilities to stand out in the job market or in your career. There are many ways to leverage, but sometimes it takes a little push to realize what can be done with what you’ve already achieved. And we’re talking about more than just updating a resume.
While at work some time ago, a co-worker came by my office to discuss a particular task. However, she seemed somewhat troubled. Having concern, I asked this young, very bright engineer how the job was going. She mentioned that she remained busy but did not seem to make an impact with the team and her clients, nor was she really noticed for the capabilities she had to offer following years of intense, rigorous engineering coursework at one of the nation’s top engineering institutions. Of course, I asked whether she had leveraged her skills in the work she had been doing for the project. She quickly retorted, “Well, of course.” My next thought questioned if she had taken the initiative to be a little selfish and approach various project problems from a different standpoint – a more personal, selfish approach. I know being selfish is not always a good thing, especially when it is doing something at the expense of someone else, but that is not what I mean.
The idea of being selfish, as I refer to it, is a matter of stepping back and thinking about the problems from a completely different, creative perspective. How would you frame the problem at hand? How would you solve it? You. You. You. Unfortunately, she had been taught in college that she always should follow the guidelines as outlined in the textbook to solve the problem or to listen to every step provided by the supervisor or task lead. I am an advocate for listening to one’s supervisors, but doing only that or only thinking about how the professor would have solved that problem in Engineering 101 can result in being creatively inept.
So we did a little exercise. She sat down and began to identify all the problems associated with the project. At first, she only focused on the obvious problem at hand. That’s OK, but I wanted her to dig a little deeper, and she did. She then began to critique the actual process steps undertaken by the team – a framework that most likely was pulled from a historical project presentation that was reasonably useful or successful for some other project. Quickly, she realized that several tasks could be eliminated or improved to reduce process cycle times and overall cost to the customer while amplifying service and product quality. From that point, all she needed was to take the initiative to brief it to the team, develop a systematic method of institutionalizing the improvements, and execute. The funny thing is that she improved the project, but looked elsewhere – simply somewhere different than every other member on the team.
4. Be a soldier
One of the many things that makes soldiers admirable is their bravery – bravery to carry out a task to the best of their ability with consideration of their fellow man. One of the most critical things, if not the most critical thing, mentioned in this article is exceeding expectations. To think of it in terms of analysis, as most people reading this have a technical nature or training, think of your success as a professional as the resulting effect in a sensitivity analysis with the four rules as changeable parameters. The most sensitive of these rules to the overall outcome of your career is execution, and even minor improvements in execution can be noticeable or career-changing.
There always will be those who you think did little to get where they are today, but always keep in mind that this is a perception, not necessarily fact. In most cases, exceeding expectations will equal succeeding in your career. Try not to compare yourself constantly with your peers. If your company wanted everyone to think or work alike, it would purchase robots. Keep in mind that the point is to discuss ways to get ahead, not to meet expectations or maintain a moderate level of success. We’re talking about breakthrough performance and big results. Absorbing new information, building lasting relationships, leveraging what you have learned and been given, and executing with passion will help get you where you want to be much faster than many of those around you.
One of my peers did just this. He exceeded expectations and privately developed a software tool to help his customers make better resource allocation decisions, but at a level higher than what he had been working on for months. When finished, he briefed it to the customers, and they loved it. Not only did they find his enthusiasm and dedication to the organization’s mission refreshing, but his efforts were rewarded with a promotion and substantial raise. To top it off, his work led to the potential transformation of how the organization does business at a leadership level.
So what did he possess that made him so successful? Prior to developing his model, he researched, or absorbed, as much as he could to solve an interesting problem that plagued him for months. Then he took some initiative to develop a capability for his customers, a capability that he thought would solve their problems. Now, you noticed I wrote that “he thought would solve their problems.” The phrase “the customer is always right” is said repetitively in undergraduate and graduate courses and even in the workplace. But that does not mean that you cannot improve upon what that customer deems useful and desirable. My peer recognized a need, spoken or not, and capitalized upon it. Do not just accept the norm, the status quo. Try new things, fill those 9 billion other pages, build two-way communicative and meaningful relationships with others, and be a soldier. Your career will thank you for it.
Ryan Burge is the author of multiple books and technical articles, is a certified lean Six Sigma black belt, and is a management and technology consultant for Booz Allen Hamilton. He holds a B.S. in industrial engineering from the University of Oklahoma, an M.S. in engineering management from George Washington University, and is continuing his graduate education at Johns Hopkins. He has consulted in industrial engineering and lean Six Sigma for major organizations.