Things About Work I Wish I Knew Earlier #10 – Dress the Part

I have written a lot in the first nine postings in this series about things I’ve learned not to do.  Now it’s time to turn to things to do.  I’m going to start with something that seems obvious but is violated all the time.

10. Dress the Part

It is so tempting at work these days to push the limits on dress and personal appearance to get comfortable.  I don’t limit this observation to the younger crowd.  Perhaps I’m old school on this, but I believe how someone dresses at work says a lot about them and can impact their future.

People get noticed for dressing below or beyond the office’s dress code.  That’s right.  You get noticed if you go beyond what’s necessary.  If your office is “business casual,” don’t wear a tie every day.  At first, it might be interesting.  Then it become “cute.”  After a while, you become “that guy who wears a tie everyday.”  No need.  (There are parallels here with women in business suits.)

Dressing below the dress code is a more obvious concern.  Over my 20+ years in the workplace I’ve seen some amazing things.  I’ve seen women wear shirts so low and skirts so high that I had to look away.  I’ve seen women wear heels so long that they could not even walk.  I’ve seen guys wear shirts and pants with obvious stains and holes and 10-year-old concert t-shirts with flip-flops on casual days.  I’ve seen people show up in t-shirts with marijuana leaves emblazoned on the front.  And, I have seen far too much men’s and women’s underwear exposed when they stretch or reach for something.  If you are wearing a black thong, I really don’t need to know.

It is important to remind ourselves that dress is relative to your workplace’s dress code norm or rules.  You need to make sure that you fit in with the people around you.  For example, folks here in St. Louis probably (certainly?) dress differently than folks in Manhattan.  I think we’re at least 12 months behind on fashion trends here.  If someone showed up at our offices right off the catwalks of New York City, they would probably catch some eyes.

Here are some more specific recommendations:

Short Sleeve Dress Shirt with Tie? NEVER!!

  1. At companies where meeting with senior executives is rare, put on a suit.  Show that respect, even if the senior execs aren’t in suits.
  2. When you travel for business, do not dress way down.  In other words, either dress as you do in the office or dress casually, but appropriately.  Don’t revert ever to shorts, t-shirt, and flip-flops on business travel.  You never know whom you might meet along the way, including colleagues and customers.
  3. Follow the lead of the senior executives as regards casual days, if your office is not always casual.  In our company, the senior executives do not wear jeans on jeans days.  Right or wrong, they don’t.  I recommend following their lead.
  4. If your office is casual, take care as to how casual you get.  Beware of what your t-shirts say.  No pajama pants.  You might not get fired for dressing way down, but you won’t be appreciated either.
  5. Spend a little bit extra than you need to on clothes.  People can tell.
  6. Vary what you wear.  Don’t wear white shirts and khakis every day or a black dress every day.

The bottom line here is that you want to be viewed as professional, whether you work in a retail store, a small design firm, a factory, or a large corporation.  Your clothes should be clean, proper, tucked-in, and within the norms.

One last pet peeve.  Men – please, please, please don’t wear ties with short-sleeve dress shirts!  In fact, don’t wear short-sleeve dress shirts at all.

Week 4 – 193.4lbs. On Track, But Challenges Ahead

Writing from Beijing on an eight-day business trip.  On the Friday morning before I left, I was at 193.6 pounds.  That’s four pounds in four weeks.  I am right on pace at one pound per week.

Unfortunately, this week brings two challenges that many people deal with in the course of their diet.  Both are outside forces that are only partially under our control.

The Business Trip

I don’t care how diligent you are and how much willpower you have.  Business trips suck for diets.  Often, the food that you eat is selected for you or, at best, limited by the restaurants and hotels you frequent.  It takes an awful lot of willpower not to join the rest of your team in hearty meals and alcohol.  It takes a lot of willpower to make those good decisions when you have the chance.

Generic Cereal for Breakfast - They Get Soggy Quickly, But Are Better than the Buffet

My approach on business trips is one of moderation combined with exercise.  I eat well when I can, and moderate when I cannot.  For example, I take advantage of having a corporate apartment here in Beijing to avoid the breakfast buffet at the adjacent hotel in favor of generic Cheerios and milk in the apartment.  I buy fruit at the local supermarket and carry it with me to the office.  If I remember (and I didn’t this trip), I bring Zone Bars with me from the US for snacks.  In lieu of Zone Bars, I chew gum to get the sweetness and calm the hunger pains.  I also make sure that I exercise every single day without fail.  I burn about 550 calories exercising, and that goes a long way towards making up for some of the bad eating.

Reality is, however, that I’m not always in a place where dieting is an option.  For example, yesterday the team went for lunch at a buffet at a nearby western hotel.  I didn’t deprive myself by pecking at salad.  I stuck to sushi and some seafood salad, with one or two pot stickers, but I enjoyed the variety.  I passed by the desert table and more caloric Indian food.  Later, at dinner, I found myself eating bar food with cocktails.  We ordered some ahi tuna spring rolls to balance the french fries, and I also didn’t eat a thing later.

Stress

I don’t need to cite scientific studies to suggest that stress and dieting are not a good mix.  While I’m not one who uses food to soothe aggravations or frustrations, I am at risk for making bad decisions because of stress.  I may decide to eat more french fries or ice cream “because I’ve had a bad day.”  I simply lose the focus.

Knowing stress can be a problem is half the battle.  I try to be constantly vigilant, but that’s tough when I’m stressed.  It’s even tougher when my stress is combined with team stress.  Joining your team on a night to “blow off steam” isn’t a positive thing for a diet.  You don’t want to excuse yourself, but you don’t want to spend the night worrying.  You have to find the balance.

Balance is one key to solving both the business trip and stress challenges.  You can’t make yourself miserable and punish yourself for every slip up.  Do you best, but then make sure you exercise and make sure that, where you can control your eating, you do.  Avoid the cookies in the business meetings.  Drink lots of water.  Ensure you order things like those spring rolls instead of the nachos.  Hang in there until you get back home or the stress subsides.

Things About Work I Wish I Knew Earlier – Part 8

We’re on to Part 8 of this series.  Last week I wrote in Part 7 about being patient.  One of the reasons I urge patience is because of this week’s topic.

8. You aren’t as good as you think you are

This was a tough learning for me and is one that many younger employees and employees new to their current company don’t realize early enough.   This learning is important to consider for three reasons.  First, it helps you calibrate the timing of your advancement.  Second, it focuses you on constant improvement.  Third, it keeps you humble.

Whether you believe it or not, experience counts.  Wine gets better with age.  Cheese gets better with age.  Employees get better with age.  Notice I didn’t write “smarter.”  I wrote “better.”  Many employees are smarter than their bosses and even their boss’s boss.  But being smarter, doesn’t mean better.  I ask, how many really smart people do you know that don’t cut it in your company?  Probably quite a few.

Smartness, however, doesn’t account for experiential knowledge.  The longer you work, at one or multiple companies, the more you experience and re-experience the same types of problems, situations, people, and processes.  The book-smart way to do something may not be the best.  A less experienced employee will gain a lot of points by asking the “older guys” how things are done and, with that understanding, proceeding down his or her own path.

There is reason that the only time you see very young CEO’s is when they founded the company and, even then, the founders often bring in the “gray hairs” to take over at a certain point.  Yahoo did that.  Google did that.  Take a look at a list of Fortune 500 CEOs when you get a chance.  Most are over 50 with many years of experience in the business world.  I’m sure they approach problems differently than you do, and, from time to time, you think they do things wrong.  Without their experience, however, you don’t know what you don’t know — and you realize that you aren’t as good as you think you are.

Even when you get up to a position of responsibility and authority, you can’t forget this learning.  You need to maintain humility and a focus on constant improvement.  More often that not, you aren’t as good as you think you are, and understanding that opens the door for improvement.  Your President or CEO isn’t as good as he or she thinks she is and, hopefully, understands that.

The concern I have in writing this is that many younger folks in the workplace don’t believe this advice.  They think, “Spidey – you weren’t as good as you thought you were, but I am as good as I think I am.”  They think that, once they get a chance, they could easily do jobs above them in the org chart and do it well.

For these people I have news.  At some point in your life, you’ll realize that half the music you listened to in college really sucked, that 9o% of the stuff your mom & dad told you is right, and that in the early days of your career, you really weren’t as good as you thought you were.  I promise all three will occur.

Things About Work I Wish I Knew Earlier – Recap of Parts 1-6

I began this series of posts six Fridays ago, and each post that I have written has been part of a common theme:  Don’t put yourself on the radar at work.  Let others put you on the radar.

The essence of this idea is that your focus at work should be to get noticed for reasons that pertain to your career, not for any other reasons.  It is better to create no impression than to create a negative one.  This means that some things we have been taught to do or some behaviors that we may have picked up should be eliminated or never started.  I will have a few more thoughts along these lines later in the series, but this seems like a good place to pause.  To recap, parts #1 through #6 are:

#1 Don’t Complain or Make Waves
No doubt at your company or firm, it is common practice to complain about things that could be improved.  From my experience, that is relatively normal.  However, I wish I knew earlier to stay out of these conversations entirely.  You don’t want to be known as a complainer. Swallow your thoughts.  Tell your significant others or friends.  Just don’t talk about it in the office.  I’m not suggesting you be Pollyanna and talk about how wonderful things are.   I’m recommending that you keep all complaints to yourself.

#2 Don’t Talk Negatively About Anyone Behind Their Back
This is also extremely common.  Everyone talks about everyone else.  I recommend you avoid these conversations.  Don’t get sucked in to a session bashing your boss or anyone else.  You do not want to be known as someone who always talks about others when they aren’t around.  In fact, studies show that when you criticize someone, the quality about which you are being critical is reflected back on you.  If you say someone is a jerk, others think you are a jerk.  If you stay out of these conversations, this can’t happen.

#3 Don’t Ask Questions in Large Meetings
I think this piece of advice is easy to follow.  As I wrote in the post, the risks of asking questions far outweigh the benefits.  Let others take those risks.  Keep your arms folded at your seat.

#4 Don’t Offer Suggestions Unless You Are Asked
If you look at offering your help or suggestions proactively, there are only two reasons why:  the other person is doing something wrong or isn’t doing something all.  When you offer help or ideas, you are criticizing what they are doing, by definition.   People don’t like that.  I suggest you stay away and only help if asked.

#5 Volunteer, But Choose Wisely
Most volunteer opportunities are worthless and should be avoided.  When the boss asks for volunteers, it’s because she doesn’t care who does the specific activity.  Thus, the benefit of doing it is limited or zero.  In fact, there are risks if you do “it” wrong.

#6 Keep Your Mind on Your Own Job and Only Your Own Job
When you concern yourself with functions or actions outside your direct job and ask questions, you will be viewed suspiciously and considered to be butting in where you don’t belong.  It doesn’t matter what others are working on.  It only matters what you are working on.

In each of these six items, I’m recommending that you don’t do things to call attention to yourself, for I believe the risks outweigh the rewards.  It is better to have someone else call attention to you than to call attention to yourself.   It is much better when someone else puts you on the company radar than to put yourself on the company radar.

A few readers have understood my points but commented, “If I don’t put myself on the company radar, I won’t get on the company radar.”  What I think most of them are really saying is “If I don’t put myself on the company radar, I won’t get on the company radar as fast I want to be.”

We justify violating the above six recommendations because we add a time factor to the risk-reward equation.  For example, our thoughts might go something like this regarding point #3 above:

  1. I understand the risk of asking this question.
  2. However, no one knows me enough to even see what the quality of my work.
  3. While I know I’ll get on the radar eventually, if I ask a question, people will know who I am now.
  4. Because they know who I am, they’ll notice the quality of my work and other positive attributes.
  5. I’ll then move up faster.

As a result, the risk-reward equation flips.  Where as before, the risks today > rewards tomorrow, now the rewards today > risks today.  And, we stand up to ask a question and make, what I believe is a big career mistake.

In the next several posts, I’ll build on this and explain what I wish I knew earlier about the time frame for advancement and/or expansion of responsibilities.  Understanding this make it easier to follow parts #1 through #6.

Things About Work I Wish I Knew Earlier – Part 6

In the last two parts, I wrote about not offering suggestions unless you are asked (#4) and about volunteering very sparingly (#5).  In both instances, I wrote that the risk of doing so outweighs the potential reward.  This week, I want to talk about a mindset that is important in reducing the likelihood that you take these risks.

#6 Keep your mind on your own job and only on your own job

I submit to you that high achievers want to be involved in as many things as possible.  They want to learn things, experience things, be asked for their input, be seen as a leader, etc.  There is nothing at all wrong with this.  The more you are with the same company, the more a breadth of functional experience and a breadth of company knowledge can help your career.

When a  high achiever is not involved in or responsible for something, he or she does a lot of watching and a lot of thinking about everything around them.  This is not something that can be turned off.  The thinking is usually starts with what you, the high achiever, would do differently to improve things.  Then, it’s followed quickly by questions or concerns when people aren’t doing what you would have done.  This leads finally to distrust, frustration, and, perhaps any of the actions that put you on the “company radar” for the wrong reasons.

What I didn’t learn early enough is that intellectually controlling the urge to act doesn’t eliminate the preoccupation and the concern and the distraction.  Take heed earlier than I did and stay focused only on your job.  Let’s things go by you without a worry.

It is important at an early stage in your career to realize that many, many things will occur at your company outside your immediate responsibility that seem wrong .  These might include times when:

  • Employees under perform, but keep their jobs
  • Mediocre employees get promoted
  • Special assignments are given to people less qualified than others
  • Decisions aren’t made as quickly as they could be, even when they seem obvious
  • Decisions that seem obvious are decided differently
  • Processes or procedures are used that are less efficient than they should be

The words I’ve chosen in this list imply that you know better and would have done something differently.  If you’ve read parts #1 through #5, you know not to stick your nose in anything outside your area.

The critical next step is to mentally ignore these things.  This post is written very carefully – “Keep your mind on your own job and only on your own job.”  You need to stay focused on your job to do the best you can possibly do.  Giving mind share to these other items can lead to severe distraction and distress and will, inevitably, lead to the action you need to avoid.  Eventually, I believe, if your mind focuses too long on these items, your mouth will open.

When I first realized not dwelling on these types of things is important, I tricked myself to get comfortable by saying two things to myself:  “I don’t care” and “I trust they must know what they are doing.”  When I started doing this, it was as if a big rock had been lifted from my shoulders.  It was wonderful.

(Of course, I care.  And, no, I don’t always trust people.  But I have to act like I don’t care and I do trust.  That’s what works for me.)

If you think about it, most things that occur around you aren’t that important and don’t impact you.  Most things in the above list have happened around you in the past and, despite them, the company hasn’t gone under.  They just don’t matter that much in the long term.  They are frustrating and aggravating, but they haven’t had an impact.  The impact, perhaps, is more on you with your increased blood pressure, distraction and aggravation.

This distraction is not helpful to your career.  It’s not worth it.  It makes no sense.  Keep your mind where it belongs – on your own job.

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Previous parts:

#1 Don’t Complain or Make Waves
#2 Don’t Talk Negatively About Anyone Behind Their Back
#3 Don’t Ask Questions in Large Meetings
#4 Don’t Offer Suggestions Unless You Are Asked
#5 Volunteer, But Choose Wisely

Things About Work I Wish I Knew Earlier – Part 5

Staying under the radar is important in the early days at a new company or in your overall career for that matter.  You want to create the right impression by not creating a negative impression.

#5 Volunteer, but choose wisely

Volunteering is a trap that over-achieving, ambitious employees easily fall into.  I’m here today to warn you about this trap.

Before diving in, let’s get on the same page regarding the definition of volunteering.  Volunteering, in the context of this post, means offering to do something when someone (typically your boss) throws an idea out to a group of people.  This could occur in a meeting, in the hallway, at lunch, etc.  She might say, “We need someone to get a list together of everyone’s birthday and ensure we have a once-a-month team birthday lunch.  Who can do that?”  I draw a distinction between this and any time that your boss asks you specifically to work on something.  If you boss asks you “if” you want to do something, the answer is almost always “yes,” unless it’s illegal, inappropriate, unethical or she’s forgotten something more critical you need to finish.

The logic in volunteering for things seems valid, doesn’t it?  You are showing your ability to take on more work.  You are showing your willingness to help others out.  You will add another items to that year’s performance review.  You may even get some good exposure from it.

More often that not, however, this logic amounts to no benefit at all in your career.  I’ll bet, if you think about all the items for which you’ve volunteered, a very small portion have truly resulted in the benefits noted above.  Why is this?  Because this is the truth about volunteering:

  1. When bosses ask for volunteers to do something, that “something” is not considered important or critical to the business. Think about it.  When was the last time your boss said “We have our most important client coming in tomorrow.  Who wants to take him on a factory tour?”   When was the last time your boss said, “We need to give a presentation on our three-year strategy to our CEO and CFO, who’s got that?”  When bosses have critically important tasks, then they decide who leads and who participates.  This is a hard and fast rule.  If they ask for volunteers for anything, then it’s just not that important to them.
  2. Requests for volunteers are usually thankless tasks that are quickly forgotten or have no value in your career. Volunteers pull together social events, pitch in to collate and bind presentations, proofread documents, or meet and greet the new employee.  Not only do none of these ever make up for poor work performance, but they carry risk, because they are usually so easy to complete.  What if the pot-luck lunch sucks?  What if you miss a page when collating?  What if  you find errors in the boss’s document, but he takes feedback poorly?  For me, the risk/reward trade-off is lopsided towards risk.
  3. Volunteering can aggravate your co-workers. The constant volunteer risks carrying a reputation similar to the head cheerleader, who is also head of the prom committee, editor of the yearbook, and coordinator of all the student assemblies.  She may do a good job, but she becomes known for being involved in everything and not for the quality of her work.  She becomes known as excluding other from helping, even if that isn’t her intent.  Don’t volunteer all the time, even if you can.
  4. Volunteering will lead your boss to question how you have time to do it all. When I realized this, it was incredibly frustrating.  When bosses see their team members doing things that don’t contribute to work on deadline, their brain says “How can they afford the time to do that?”  It’s not always rational, but that’s how executive brains work.  You may hit your deadline, and the summer intern dinner may go off splendidly, but that momentary thought by your boss will stick in his mind.  Bosses want to see their teams working, not putting up decorations or organizing the company softball leagues.
  5. Volunteering puts you on the radar, but for reasons other than work success. Simply put, this is not the best way to get on the radar or create a  reputation.  It distracts from other successes.

So – when do you volunteer?

I recommend volunteering for charity events.  Join the group to clean up a park, rehab a house, serve food at a shelter.  If you are at a level where you get asked to attend charity dinners, you should go to a few (although all require donations, so be careful).

I recommend volunteering for things when you get a chance to meet people who you don’t know well and can do so without the risk of failure at work.  Volunteer to courier materials to a senior executive’s house on the weekend.  Volunteer to attend a reception or usher at a reception that you know is dear to a senior executive’s heart.

I recommend volunteering when something needs to be done at the last minute.  This is when you will get credit for being flexible, and this is when your boss really needs you.  This is when even running to Office Depot to get some thumbtacks can be helpful to your career.

Remember, even if you identify a good time for volunteering, don’t do it every time – even if you can.  Let’s others volunteer.  Stay off the radar a bit.

In the end, you will gain the most benefit by contributing on an important extracurricular project that you are requested to work on.  That’s when bosses will give you credit and that’s what the right way to get on the radar.

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Previous parts:

#1 Don’t Complain or Make Waves
#2 Don’t Talk Negatively About Anyone Behind Their Back
#3 Don’t Ask Questions in Large Meetings
#4 Don’t Offer Suggestions Unless You Are Asked

Things About Work I Wish I Knew Earlier – Part 4

Part 4 of “Things About Work I Wish I Knew Earlier” continues the line of thinking from my the previous three posts (links to each post are below) and focuses primarily on staying under the radar at work and not getting noticed for the wrong reasons.

Starting this line of posts with a sequence of what not to do may seem a bit negative.  However, there is a method to my madness.  I have learned that it is extremely important to build a bank of positive impressions at the outset of a career or new job.  Negative impressions are remembered more than positive ones, and negative impressions are much more difficult to eliminate.  You want to build up a reservoir of positive results so that, when you screw up (and you will screw up), people say something like “wow, that’s unusual for Fred.”  If the reservoir isn’t deep enough, then a screw up will immediately eliminate all the positive.  The workplace is very unforgiving.

#4 Don’t offer suggestions unless you are asked.

There are really only two types of suggestions — 1) do something differently than is being done now and 2) do something else that isn’t being done now.  I also stipulate that, if you are making a suggestion, you are making it to someone else who is doing something that isn’t your responsibility.  You don’t really offer suggestions to yourself.  Suggestions or guidance you give to your own team are different and are excluded from this.

The truth is that when you make a suggestion to anyone, you are telling them they are doing something wrong.  You may try to be tactful.  You may sugar-coat your comment.  You may think you have a lot of goodwill with that person.  However, at the root of your suggestion is that the person or group is doing something incorrectly or, at best, less efficiently than possible. If we take that a step further, a suggestion is telling someone that they are stupid or they don’t know what they are doing.

It doesn’t matter if you are right .  Let me repeat that.  It doesn’t matter if you are right.  Telling someone they are wrong or stupid, no matter how tactful, is risk-seeking, not risk-averse.  It’s putting yourself on their radar unnecessarily.

If someone asks you to proofread a paper, look at a spreadsheet for errors or review a process with them, then jump right in.  If you see a flaw in a spreadsheet that could result in lost profits, missed budgets or miscast financial statements, then raise your hand.  If you believe steps someone is taking might break the law, you should also chime in.  I’m sure there are other exceptions as well.

Follow this advice.  Don’t offer suggestions and stand back and watch.  You’ll notice that work gets done, although perhaps not as efficiently as you think it should. You’ll see people come through at the last minute, which is not a work cadence you follow.  You’ll see a boss understand the problem and step in to correct it, but perhaps not as fast as you would have.  You’ll also see bosses agree to push back deadlines or change deliverables, which you may find embarrassing.

It’s amazing how things work out.  Really.  And if the customer or client is happy and the boss is happy, then all is well.  By not offering suggestions on changes, you have avoided a negative perception among others.  If you have delivered on your work and contributed to the success, then you have just added to your positive reservoir.

Offering suggestions to others proactively only has downside.  You want to establish a track record of success so that people come to you and ask for your suggestions.  That should be your goal.  This is all about getting others to put you on the radar for the right reasons and avoiding the radar yourself for the wrong reasons.

When I told Mrs. Spidey about this post, she smartly pointed out how this approach has worked on TV reality shows.  Isn’t it always the outspoken ones on Survivor or Apprentice or Big Brother or even the Bachelor than end up getting booted out first?  The ones that contribute, do their job, don’t fail, and don’t make waves are the ones that “suddenly” show up with the $1 million.  If my examples don’t resonate for you, perhaps this comparison does.

Next week, we’ll talk about volunteering for stuff.  Since you’ve read all the way to this point, you probably know where I’m headed.

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Previous parts:

#1 Don’t Complain or Make Waves
#2 Don’t Talk Negatively About Anyone Behind Their Back
#3 Don’t Ask Questions in Large Meetings