Everyone in the workforce would benefit from working smarter not harder. What are the things we could do to have a significant impact on our productivity in the work day?
Prepare for Tomorrow, Today
Before leaving at the end of the day, review your calendar for tomorrow and identify your top priority. Leave nothing on your desk but your file for that top priority project. Rather than getting distracted in the morning, you are ready to jump right in to the project that matters most. It takes far less time to do this the night before when it is all fresh in your mind that to start your day by sorting and organizing your desk files trying to determine where you start. This small investment of time can significantly impact productivity the next day.
Eat Your Vegetables First
As a child I did not like eating my vegetables. I’d leave them until last and would push them around my plate. Some nights it took forever to be excused from the table because I had to finish those vegetables. Once I realized that if I ate them first and did it quickly, the rest of the meal was much more enjoyable. Apply the same principal to your work. We all have tasks we consider vegetables. Whatever task if is you are dreading most, do that first thing in the morning and cross it off your list. Don’t let it loom over everything else you have to do that day. Just do it and get it done.
Don’t Fall Prey to the Urgent
Do not let someone else’s emergency become your priority. Just because someone needs something now or sooner, does not mean it is your priority. If your boss or a senior executive needs something quickly there may well be a good reason and you should probably do it quickly and accurately. What you need to resist is the implied urgency from emails or other requests that re not a priority. Spend the bulk of your time each day on what is most important (instead of what is perceived as urgent) and your productivity will soar.
Thinking Time vs Doing Time
When what you need is truly time to think before you jump into the next project, block your time. Have your calendar show that you are unavailable. If you can’t close your door and eliminate interruptions, book a conference room on the other side of the building. If you can, plan a work from home day so you can focus. It is hard to think when interruptions abound. To ensure quality thinking time you need to give yourself time and space away from the normal interruptions.
Using your day to focus on the most important work helps you work smarter not harder.
You do your homework on the company in advance. You ask probing questions in the interview. You network with current and former employees of the company. You believe you have a good read on the company culture and you accept the position. Now you have been there a few months and you realize you read it completely wrong. What can you do? Is it ok to leave after just a short period of time?
First priority is to learn from the experience. What signs did you miss? What questions should you have asked? Figure out what bothers you most about the culture and think about to avoid it in the future. If you don’t know how you landed in such a poor fit for you, there is a chance you could repeat the error. Be very honest with yourself and seek to truly learn from this experience.
While job hopping is not the taboo if once was, you want to have a clear sense of what the best next step is for you. Don’t be so eager to get out of the situation that you jump at the first job that comes along. Have a priority list of what is important to you in your next position. Do your homework.
Be prepared to tell your story. With a short stint on your resume, you are bound to be asked about it in an interview. Be prepared to address the change. Own the mistake and show that you are doing something about it. Try not to bash the other company or your manager in the process. Just not the best fit for you.
Try to tough it out while you look for another position. Unless you are in a hostile work environment or are being asked to do something unethical, it is much easier to look for work while you are still employed. Make a commitment to doing some networking every week. Build your target list of companies and aggressively work the process.
Early in my career I accepted the wrong job at one point. It was very quickly clear that there was not enough work to keep me busy. That is something that makes me crazy. While I reached out to colleagues and offered to help, there was just not enough work. I was also concerned about how some of the work was being done. My biggest concerns were that if I stayed, I’d develop bad work habits, negatively impact my work ethic and could potentially damage my credibility. I started networking immediately, built a target list of companies and soon landed a new position. I learned a lot about what is important to me in an employer from that experience and it served me well in the long run.
If you are truly in the wrong job at the wrong company, ramp up your networking and focus on finding a job that is right for you.
I’ve been hearing more and more job seekers explain that it is time to make a change because their current position feels too much like work. They want to be more excited and have fun on the job. Unfortunately, it is called work for a reason.
While it is great to be passionate about the mission, to enjoy the people you work with and to be motivated and challenged by many aspects of your job, it is still a job. I have been Director of the Graduate Career Center here at Northeastern’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business for more than eleven years. I can honestly say that I love my job. I enjoy working with the students and our employers. I have a great team of professionals who make a difference for our students every day. I don’t dread coming to the office but it is still work. I work hard and sometimes there a very long days. There are parts of the job that can be tedious or frustrating. I do not always have the resources I would like to do everything I want to do but overall it is a great job.
There is an unrealistic expectation that work should be fun and that your colleagues should be your best friends. Having been through a couple difficult mergers in my career which resulted in many people losing their jobs, the ones who had the most difficult time dealing with the changes were those who had no other interests or priorities in their lives. It is important to enjoy time with families and friends. It helps if you have hobbies, volunteer experiences or physical activities in your life. That balance outside the job helps you keep perspective.
While it is ideal to believe in the mission of your company and to know that your work makes a difference, it is still work. If it is not fulfilling all your needs, think about whether the job is truly the issue or whether it is a symptom of having the rest of your life a bit out of balance.
Students often ask about the skills most critical for success. While there are certainly unique factors for specific jobs and companies, I hear very consistent themes from employers on this topic. The following five skills are critical for success in today’s job market.
- Ability to Communicate – To succeed in most jobs the employee must be able to communicate effectively both orally and in writing. You can be very smart, you can have great ideas but if you can’t communicate, you risk being passed over for the next exciting project. Professional, business communication skills are still the expectation. Employers expect employees to write a clear, concise email or executive summary. Grammar, punctuation and spelling do matter. Increasingly employers are seeking candidates who can analyze large amounts of data and then share a concise, actionable summary with senior management.
- Work Effectively on a Team – The ability to effectively work as part of a team is critical to success in most organizations. That means sometimes being a leader, sometimes being a good follower, monitoring the progress, meeting deadlines and working with other across the organization to achieve a common goal. Employers want employees who can effectively work as part of a team, not as a lone contributor.
- Ability and Willingness to Learn – The world is changing, business is changing and the pace of change continues to accelerate. To succeed in most organizations you need to have a passion for learning and the ability to continue to grow and stretch your skills to adapt to the changing needs of the organization. Little demand for dinosaurs these days. Demonstrate your curiosity by learning more about the organization and how your work impacts other groups.
- Ability to Influence, Persuade and Negotiate – There are few jobs you can do in a vacuum. In most roles you need other people to do things so you can do your job. There are steps in the process before your area of responsibility and often steps after you do your part. Usually you do not have authority over those people. You need to have the skill to develop mutually beneficial relationships in the organization so you can influence and persuade people to do what you need them to do in turn ensuring you are delivering what they need. You need to be able to negotiate win-win solutions to serve the best interests of the company and the individuals involved. There is no room for the “blame game.”
- Ability to Analyze the Data – With increased computer skills, many employees can build spreadsheets and manipulate the data in various ways. What elevates an employee above the crowd is the ability to analyze the data. Don’t just total the columns, calculate an average and sort the data. What story does the data tell? What questions does it raise? Are there different ways to interpret the data? Instead of handing your boss a spreadsheet, give them a business summary and highlight the key areas for attention. Suggest possible next steps. Using the data to manage business decisions is a critical differentiator. These days there are times when there is too much data and knowing what is important and relevant data is a key skill. Employers have described what they are looking for as candidates who can go from “mining to meaning” and who are “analysts not reporters.”
These skills alone may not put you on a direct track to the corner office but, employees with these skills will definitely be more successful in their careers.
To succeed in your current job and to prepare yourself for future opportunities, it is critical to make networking and learning part of your normal routine. This will keep you relevant in your current position as you prepare for future opportunities. With a little practice and discipline, it is entirely possible. Don’t get so busy doing your job that you forget to invest in yourself and your future.
Even while you are successfully employed, networking it critical to your professional development and learning. Maintain the network you have and continue to build your professional network. Successful networking does not require large blocks of time, a few strategic minutes here and there makes a difference.
- Network within the company – learn what other departments do and how that influences your work, learn what skills enable people to advance in their careers, be interested and interesting, meet someone for coffee or schedule a lunch. Set goals to keep yourself focused on networking
- Leverage Linked In – keep your profile up to date, seek recommendations, post updates, review your skills list, use Linked In to find former managers to stay in touch for future references, find former colleagues and reconnect, identify alumni connections in key companies of interest, keep expanding your network
- Networking beyond your current employer – participate in relevant professional association meetings and conferences, learn best practices from others, build your network in companies of interest, identify people you can learn from
- Mentor – identify a professional mentor, gain insight from someone who will tell you the truth and help you learn and grow in your career. Consider mentoring someone junior in your field.
- Give Back – host informational interviews with people more junior in their careers who wish to learn from your experience, you may learn something too while you are helping them
- Set goals and hold yourself accountable so networking doesn’t fall to the bottom of your growing to do list
You need to be continuously learning to grow professionally. Be creative in identifying different ways to accomplish that.
- Internal Training – identify relevant internal training sessions, build your technical skills, managerial skills, learn something new, work with your manager to identify relevant training and make it a priority
- Professional Organizations – identify at least one relevant professional organization, attend meetings, meet other members, volunteer to work on a committee, get involved, your learn something from those you work with in these groups
- Professional Conferences – if budget allows, take advantage of these opportunities, learn from the sessions but also from other attendees, if budget doesn’t allow, review the presentations online after the conference, follow up with relevant presenters
- Take on New Projects – volunteer to work on a project or with a team that forces you outside your comfort zone, force yourself to learn something new, let your manager know the type of skills you seek to hone and look to identify a project assignment which is relevant, consider a cross functional project to expose you to other parts of the organization
- Read – stay current on relevant industry and business periodicals, read while waiting for meetings or while commuting if you take public transportation, always have something relevant to read in case you have unexpected down time, make it a habit to review the key publications on a regular basis, be well-informed
Investing a few minutes each week in your own networking and development will increase your satisfaction with your current position and will keep you relevant and growing for future opportunities.
Starting a new job is the perfect time to make a good impression. You want the employer to be confident that they made the right decision in hiring you for the position. The first hundred days in a new job can be one of the most critical times of your career. Here are some recommendations based on feedback from our employers.
- Be Punctual – This is a way to show you are serious about the job. You can worry about flexibility later after you have proven yourself. Always arrive a few minutes before starting time so you are ready and eager to begin your day. Managers notice when employees are not punctual. If something comes up and you need to ask for some time off, give as much advance notice as possible. Try to minimize the negative impact on your work deadlines and offer to make up the time if appropriate. Always be mindful of critical work deadlines.
- Show Respect – Honor the culture of the organization you have joined and respect those in authority as well as your peers. Put your cell phone on vibrate and avoid taking personal calls except in an emergency. Do not use company property for personal reasons – this includes the internet. Follow the company’s dress code. Take the lead from your manager. Don’t gossip or participate in the office rumor mill. Also show respect of their current processes and procedures. Don’t start out telling them their systems are antiquated and their processes don’t make sense. Learn the systems and processes first. Listen to why they do things the way they do. There may well be significant opportunities for improvement but you need to invest the time in understanding the status quo and earn some credibility before you start proposing changes.
- Open Communications – Identify your supervisor’s communications style and preferences and work to accommodate that style. Also identify the style and preferences for your colleagues. Discuss any concerns you have with your manager. Provide your supervisor with progress reports. Avoid surprises – such as a project not completed on deadline. Let them know in advance if there are issues. Keep your manager advised of any concerns that could impact results and deadlines. Set the pattern for open, frequent communications early. Ask for feedback regularly so you can fine tune your performance to ensure you are meeting or exceeding expectations.
- Ask Questions – Do not make assumptions. You are learning the company and the role. Ask questions to be sure you understand. Clarify requests to be sure you understand what you are being asked to do. Inquire how your work supports the department’s goals and the company’s objectives. It is not a sign of weakness to ask questions. Don’t waste time and energy doing the wrong things because you didn’t ask.
- Take Notes – Take notes so you don’t ask the same question again. Review your notes and apply what you have learned when faced with similar tasks or issues. Keep a record of your accomplishments – details of projects competed and impact on the organization, skills you developed or enhanced, knowledge you gained. They know you are new and you will need to ask questions as part of the learning process but they will quickly grow frustrated if you keep asking the same questions.
- Be Fully Engaged – If possible ask what you can do prior to your start date to learn more about the company, the team and the position. Do your homework researching the company, competitors, industry etc. Demonstrate your energy and enthusiasm. Remain positive. Show you are hungry for a challenge. Pay attention to both quality and timeliness of your work. Look for ways to exceed expectations.
- Identify Solutions not Problems – When you encounter problems, try to find possible solutions. Identify unmet business needs and ways you can help meet them. When identifying a problem, always offer at least one reasonable solution.
- Listen – Learn as much as you can by listening to others as they talk about the industry, the company and the department. Listen carefully to instructions for assignments and clarify as needed. Pay attention to deadlines, guidelines, and procedures. Always ask for feedback and think about how you can apply what you learned going forward. Seek continuous improvement.
- Earn the Challenging Assignments – Employers don’t give the most challenging project to the rookie in most cases. Demonstrate with your early assignments that they can count on you to deliver high quality and timely work and you will begin to earn more challenging assignments.
- Show initiative – Look for ways to exceed expectations. Identify unmet business needs and determine ways you can help. Offer to assist a busy colleague with a big project. Volunteer for a project that needs a home.
- Be Flexible and Adaptable – Accept all assignments cheerfully and give every assignment your best effort. Be open minded about new ideas, new procedures and different work. Anticipate change and embrace it.
- Curiosity – Ask open ended questions to demonstrate your interest. Offer ideas and suggestions for possible improvements. Seek opportunities to learn more about the company and the industry.
The manager hired you instead of all the other candidates because he/she believed you could make a difference on their team. Show them from day one that they made the right decision.
How you leave a job makes a lasting impression with those you worked for and with at the company. Since you will likely need a reference from that job at some point in the future, you want to leave on as positive a note as possible. It is also an amazingly small world these days and you could easily cross paths with those former colleagues in the future. Best policy is to NEVER burn any bridges.
How do you tell your manager and colleagues you are leaving?
- Be sure to tell your manager before telling anyone else. Give your manager the courtesy of letting him/her know first.
- Be honest without being overly negative or critical. Tell them a bit about the exciting new opportunity and what you will be doing. Give them highlights of what caused you to consider other alternatives.
- Once you have notified your manager, submit an official resignation letter for HR. State that you are leaving and share the date, not the reasons.
- If required, schedule a formal exit interview with HR.
- Thank you manager for the opportunity you have had there and what you have learned. Ask if he/she would be a reference in the future.
- Ask how you can best spend your last two weeks – suggest documenting processes and procedures, documenting outstanding projects, training others on the team.
- Always give at least two weeks notice. If you are higher in the organization and have been there many years, you should give a one month notice.
- Ask your manager if it is ok to tell your colleagues.
- When telling your colleagues, stay as positive as possible. There is little be gained by bashing the manager or the company and it could seriously hurt you in the future.
How should you spend your last weeks on the job?
- If your current responsibilities are not already well documented, prepare as much documentation as possible.
- Compile a list of any outstanding projects or issues.
- Provide a list of where to find critical files on the computer.
- Organize and label for your files so others can find what they need easily.
- Work with your manager to identify any training you need to do with colleagues to provide coverage.
- Coordinate with your manager how you should notify customers or vendors you work with to ensure that they know who to contact once you leave.
- Don’t leave any personal items in your desk or your office. Leave your work space clean and well organized.
- Participate in an HR exit interview if requested.
- Clarify how you want to be contacted if there are questions once you leave – home email? Phone?
What do you do your last day?
- Ensure that everything above has been completed.
- Turn in any keys, ID tags, passwords, etc.
- Update your voicemail and email with appropriate contact information for whoever will be covering.
- Address any outstanding questions with your manager and colleagues.
- Graciously say goodbye and thank you for the experience.
Unprofessional exits are remembered long after the person leaves the company. It is a small world, and you will likely need references someday. Resist the urge to let them know what you really think and exit in a professional manner. You will be glad you did down the road.