Sunday, November 9, 2014

Doing well at work (a few thoughts on being a top performer, for young people)

What follows is a short essay for a course called The DNA of Top Performers, offered by the Continuing Studies department at the University of Toronto.

I understand you're getting ready to start your first summer job. That's great! You're looking for advice on how to do well, and get great references for future jobs or an invitation to return? Sure, I can give you a few ideas. There are no magic tricks to performing well - that's the good news, you can learn it. The bad news is... there are no magic tricks!

"Doing Well"
Performance is based on three broad factors: Talent, Habits, and having the Opportunity to use them. Are you writing this down? Good. Talent can be broken down into Potential - that's what you were born with - and Skills, which you have learned along the way, in school, from life, and so on. Yes, you were probably born with potential for communication skills since you were always good at talking with people, and you are working on your presentation skills as part of that student club. Talent is what you Can Do.

Then there are your habits, your Thoughts and your Behaviour. Indeed, your attitudes thoughts are actually habits, and there's lots of research on that in psychology. You can train your thoughts - on YouTube, look up "Sean Achor Happy Secret", and listen to his talk. He is an industrial-organizational psychologist, and as an example, he has worked with companies that were having problems with bad attitudes and negative thoughts, and just by starting every day with a thank-you email to somebody, the people there learned to look for good things instead of negative things and they reported measurable improvements in positive attitudes and thinking. Weird and cool, eh? When you change the way you look at things, you actually see different things. (That's someone else named Wayne Dyer, you can look him up too.) And of course your behaviour is important: things like taking notes like you're doing now are really important habits. These add up to what you Will Do.

Finally, and this is the part you have only some control over, there's the opportunity to Work! You have a specific Job that you're doing, and it may or may not be a good fit for you. You think your summer job is a good fit for you, that's good! I hope it is! But just in case it isn't, let me put it 'out there' that it might not go as well as you imagine, and if that happens it could have been the job or the company you're working for, or it could be that your Talent or Habits aren't a "fit" with the Environment there. You'll have to think about it to figure it out if that happens - of course, I'm crossing my fingers that it all works out! But remember that there's what you Can Do, what you Will Do, and the Environment that you're in that all work together to create this thing called "doing well" (or not, sometimes).

Standing Out
So how do you stand out to get that invitation to return or get that great reference for next year? Well, of course you have to show up and do what you're supposed to do with a smile on your face. I suggest you pay attention all summer to the things that make you different from the other summer students. Notice what you do better than the others - not that you're going to brag about it to your boss, just write it down so we can put it in your resume later. And it might not be just do-ing (that's your behaviour) but it might be about how you're thinking about things. That's the only way to really learn what your strengths and weaknesses are, is by paying attention to what you're good at (and not so good at).

Listen well to your boss and the year-round staff you're working with because they're going to tell you, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly, how to be a better employee. Do what you can that makes their work easier, or makes your fellow students' lives easier, and as long as you're still getting your own work done, someone is bound to notice and appreciate it. They'll feel warm and fuzzy about it, and when that happens, that's when they think about bringing you back next summer. Or at least, when you ask for a reference to get a different job somewhere else, they'll remember those warm and fuzzy feelings and that'll get you a great reference.

Do you watch Mad Men? Great TV show about the beginnings of the advertising industry, in the 1950s. Google for some images about that show - they talk a lot about something called "branding". Yes, like branding a cow, but you can brand something without hurting it. Branding is also psychological, in your head, and if you can do your work with a positive attitude and even make work better for the people around you, you will be giving yourself the brand of "helpful student" or "efficient student". It won't be burned on your butt, but it'll be burned into the minds of the people you work with. You can control how people think about you, you see, via your behaviour and the attitudes you show, and that can really pay off in terms of getting access to future opportunities.

Asking "Why"
Now, in the long run, you're going to want to start thinking about what you're all about with regard to work. Oh, I know, you aren't even sure about your major in school yet, and that's OK. Like I said before, just start paying attention. Pay attention to the things you feel strongly about, or the things that you just believe are important. We get them from lots of different places: our parents, our friends, our experience. Eventually, all these summer jobs and clubs experiences are going to add up to some pretty clear themes, and we call those your Core Values. Think core like the middle of a tree - it's always been there, and all the layers outside are just making that same core thicker and stronger as time passes and the tree grows. You'll have a number of them, and those values will actually push your career and life decisions around, so it's worthwhile getting to know what they are, or you won't understand why you're doing what you're doing a lot of the time.

Why ask yourself why you're doing what you're doing? You might save yourself an expensive career mistake. And it'll make basic things like job interviews easier because when they ask you about what's important to you, or what motivates you, or why you want to work for that company or do that job, you'll be able to say why. When you get older like me, knowing what your values are will also help you to make decisions are a fit for who you are; doing that might not bother you so much now, but like I said, those core values get wrapped up thicker over time, and they won't 'bend' as easily as you get older.

What do I mean about bending? I mean doing something that's not a fit with one of your core values. I'll tell you a personal story: My second-ever summer job was watching the kids at a rent-controlled housing complex. Easy job, right? My parents were surprised I applied for it, and I was surprised I got it - that should have told me something. I never liked being around kids smaller than me. I lasted two weeks, I think - I hated it, I dreaded going to work because (I realized when I thought about it later) I believed even then (and I still do) that I must work, study, whatever in collaboration with other people. You can't collaborate with seven-year-olds, not really. They made a mess with the crayons. They clogged the toilet with sand from the sandbox outside. The only way I knew how to work with people, via negotiation, did not work with the children I was trying to watch out for, and it was making me crazy. I just couldn't order them around, it isn't in me to do that. So I quit. It was the hardest thing ever,  but I resigned on my second Friday. I felt bad, but I felt worse when I thought about going there every day for the rest of the summer.

If you take that to the kinds of professional careers that most of us will work our ways through, you can imagine how disastrous taking a job that's a major conflict with your values would be, when there are thousands of salary dollars, and your house to pay for, and your kids to take care of.

Setting Goals
This whole thing is going to feel easier if you set some goals for yourself at your summer job. Your boss will probably give you particular goals to achieve, maybe by the end of the summer, or maybe for each week. You might find your work even easier if you break it down into daily chunks. I've told you my elephant joke, right? No? OK, how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time! It's a groaner, I know, but you see what I'm saying: even huge projects can get done, one little piece at a time. I use weekly goals at my workplace, but since you're new to working, daily might be more manageable.

The key to setting great goals, including the daily mini-goals, is to make sure that they're SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-sensitive. Specific means just that: your mini-goals should be very, very clear, so you know exactly what it looks like. Measurable goes hand in hand with that: you have to be able to measure whether or not you achieved your goal, so you can cross it off your list. It has to be achievable given where and when you plan to do it, otherwise the goal you picked is too back. Go back to the specific part and break your goal down into more manageable pieces. It has to be relevant, or your boss is doing to tell you to stop doing it, and it has to have a deadline, otherwise most of us would take as much time as we possibly can to get anything done. Get good at giving yourself deadlines and meeting them, it's a great habit to have (remember we talked about habits?).

It's important to pay attention to these things yourself, but probably the most valuable thing you can get out of this summer job is feedback from your boss and your coworkers. And don't wait until the end of the summer - maybe make it a Friday habit to ask for some comments on how you're doing. All the best experts in the world became experts by getting feedback from others working in the same field on how they could do what they were doing better. Science is all about challenging each other, right? Teamwork is all about finding a way to work together, right? You have to communicate to get better at something.

If the feedback you get is vague ("You're doing fine!"), it's OK to ask for something more specific. Here's a way to ask for something more specific: "Thanks, _____ (use their name). Is there something you really like about what I've done so far? And what's one thing I could do differently next week?" Your boss or your coworker should be able to come up with those. Sometimes people are afraid to give feedback because they're not sure you really want it, and asking for it like that can help them to see you really want to hear it. Another way to ask is, "If my performance this week was a 7 or 8 out of 10, what's one thing I can do to get a 10 next week?"

So, it sounds easy to do well at work, right? Yeah, we both know that it's complicated at best. But you always have the right to take a step back and pay attention to what's going on, because when you step back and pay attention to what you've been doing, what you've been thinking, and what people are saying to you, you can fix things that haven't been going well, and make things that are going well go even better. You can't control your environment at work, but you do control yourself, what you do, what you think. Remember we're here to help you out if you're feeling stuck. I hope your first job is a great experience.

What was my first job? Funny you should ask: it was doing data entry for the Ph.D. research of a friend of my parents. And now I'm finishing up my doctorate. Coincidence? Who knows, right? Good luck.

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