Last month marked a decade of my work. It has been ten years since I left university, to join the corporate world and guess what? I survived!!
Ask me if I could do it all over again, would I do it the same way? I’d have to say yes (mostly)! Mostly because I’d like to learn some lessons quicker, work harder, but, essentially, I’d do it the same way.
Here are the ten most important lessons learnt in my decade of work, that I penned down, as I had my morning coffee. These are things I learnt from some amazing people I’ve had the privilege of working with, people who pushed me hard to polish my rough edges and then there are some lessons learnt when I miserably failed, and fell down (and you thought a decade was all a joy ride?)
Home Work Home Work Home Work
I learnt early (and painfully), once you start working, nothing beats ‘good preparation.’ For me, this was tough to learn as I was a student who aced classes despite studying only on the last few days. I remember once reading my entire textbook the night before the exam and scoring 85%in college. I now realise, it was a bad habit.
First year into the job, I realised no matter how smoothly I spoke, I lacked good content without preparation. In a nutshell, I could not Bu**Sh*t my way through every meeting. That’s when I started rehearsing. I practised for every presso. I made post-it notes for each meeting, no matter how small. And I still do that. If I don’t have time to prepare, I cancel the meetings. Numbers, strategy, thought process, I have to have to have to jot my points down, prepare like a student before I enter that meeting room. No matter how smart you are, I now firmly believe, if you underestimate the importance of being thorough; you just aren’t smart enough.
Listen to that One Person Who Won’t Laugh at You
Now this isn’t a story I share very often. I was 24, I was moving into a new role; imagine me as one of those dreamy-eyed young kids on the block. Someone asked me, “What do you really want to do?” I said, “I want to head a business by 35.” Very seriously. I got chuckles, I got smiles. But there was one guy who looked me in the eye and said, “Of course you can, but you will have to work very, very hard. Can you?” He was the Managing Director of the company. His reaction was the only one that I kept with myself. There will be hundreds of people who will offer you sarcasm and smart comments on the plate. Let the others go and hold on to the one advice pushes you to your goal. All I remember is that he didn’t laugh at my dream. He warned me it would be hard work and I still am working very very hard!
Seek a Lot of Feedback. Filter a Lot of Feedback
The thing about working with a good organisation is that you have opportunities to seek plenty of feedback. One of best advice I got on feedback was ‘Feedback is a gift’. As with most gifts, you have a right to not accept. You take the gifts that you need/want the most. Of course, filtering feedback is hard but I try.
Undoubtedly, I’m the person I am, thanks to the feedback I received. Sure, some of it was sharp, but it helped. On some days I came home like the defeated Argentinian football team. But when I look back, had I not heard those all that difficult-to-digest feedback, I would have continued along my blind spots, crashed and burnt long time back.
Some feedback didn’t need to be completely accepted. That’s when I picked only 40- 50 % of it and returned rest of the gift. It prevented my morale from dropping. Your energy levels are your sole responsibility. You do everything it takes to keep them high!
This is, perhaps, one of the best pieces of advice I ever received. I was always someone who prided herself on being eclectic, creative and often unpredictable. Now when I look back I wish someone said this to me earlier: “People look for a sense of predictability in leaders.” Honestly, I didn’t get it so I shrugged my shoulders and moved on. But it stayed at the back of my mind. At some point when I looked around at everyone I admired, I saw a discernible pattern. There were things about them I was sure about. And there were things about me, I was never sure about. Boom! That’s when I understood. I could be creative, innovative, everything I wanted to be and yet make people comfortable about a few things AKA predictability. People need you to be dependable and that requires certain predictability from you.
As I understood this, I was reaching office everyday by 8.30 am, Come rain or storm, I was there. My colleagues knew where to find me and when. You knew I would log into a meeting call 5 minutes before the call. You could count on me to always send minutes of the meeting. You knew my meetings to have the agenda sent a before the meeting. You knew me to wear black and white and an occasional grey or navy outfit. (of course colours are predictability! )
These are some small but noticeable things that make you predictable. And predictability is good.
Don’t Try to Please Everyone
I spend most of my growing years trying to be a good student, good daughter and so on. I also had a strong need about being nice (read pleasing everyone, well, almost everyone). When you come from a small town to a big city like Bombay, it’s not easy to disagree with a lot of people. You look for middle paths, walk a fine line, and you try your best not to stumble.
One of my favourite line managers who later became my guide and mentor called me aside one day and said to me, “You are going to create and build a business/brand now. As you grow, you will realise you will not be able to please everyone. Do the right thing; get you reasons, logic right. Have a spine and stand up for the things you believe in. Sure, you will piss many off at times. You need to know it happens as you grow. Learn to deal with it. It’s not personal, its business.” This took me years to learn. Trust me, it was hard, not because I was pissing off people, but for the reason that I was learning not to put my report card in someone else’s hands. These words not only helped me at numerous occasions in the meeting room but just as often in life outside work.
Do the right thing, and have a spine to stand up for things you believe in.
Have a live list: “What Kind of Manager/ Boss/ Leader Do You Want to be?”
Let’s face it; you will have good and bad bosses. Both will teach you one thing: the kind of boss you want to be and the kind of boss you don’t want to be.
I have been lucky to work with more good bosses. Every boss has contributed to the list of what kind of boss I want to be. In fact, often your teams will teach you what kind of boss/ leader you should be. Pay close attention and listen to them.
My first time managing a big team was overwhelming to say the least. My youngest colleague was a year older to me and oldest was close to my dad’s age. I was their manager and they were a brilliant bunch of sales guys. The best piece of advice came from my 54-year old colleague. We were on a market visit and I asked him what makes a good manager. Given that we both loved soccer and cheered for Argentina, he told me, “A good manager is like a coach, he doesn’t have to be a great player, he just needs to stand on the side-lines and fill in the gaps of the team. Players know how to play, he should let them. If he tries to play, nobody wins. That’s why Maradona is a crappy coach.” That did it for me. For two years while I was managing the team, I never tried to ‘make’ the sale. I helped, coached, and guided the team. It wasn’t my place to score goals. I still look back and think it was my favourite role.
The second best advice was from my line manager in Australia. I was addicted to my emails, I still am. For the first few weekends there I was sending mails on Saturday, Sunday at all odd hours. She made me sit down and said, “You will not send an email on Saturday or Sunday unless it’s urgent or important. If you like clearing your mailbox, save it in drafts. I don’t want you to grow up to be leader about who people say, “She sends mails on Saturday night at 11 pm. She has no life”. If you start this, your team will feel obliged to respond and that is unfair.” I knew I didn’t want to be someone who people thought has no life outside work. I still check my mail on Sunday night but the responses only leave my mailbox early on Monday.
Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
Last week, I collected my award for serving ten years in the organisation. I must be the only one from my academic batch who is still in the same company since campus placements. I often get asked, “How? Or rather why?” For me it was simple, I worked seven different roles in my ten years. Oh boy, were there times when I totally out of my comfort zone! Each time I thought I had figured it out even aced it you could say, I either asked for something different or I was thrown into a completely new role. Now when I look back, I am so glad happened and continues to happen! My biggest fear is the possibility of becoming redundant the day I stop learning. Every time you push yourself, you get out of your comfort zone and take a risk, you work harder. It’s never going to be easy but I can promise you, there will never be a dull moment.
If you are lucky to work in a big organisation or have the appetite to jump across streams, do it. Do it early on in your career. Nothing builds your professional character like being out in the cold knowing less and learning it all over again.
Ask For Help and Ask Often
The best think about being out of your comfort zone is that it makes you humble. It should make you humble. Someone once said to me, “Even CEO’s don’t know everything so be gentle on yourself”. My three strongest words are “I don’t know”. Even better are the three words, “I need help”.
I ask for help so many times. It not only helps with work but connects people too. It’s amazing how many doors open the moment you knock, accepting that you don’t know (something) and can do with a little help.
This applies with your friends too, because trust me you can’t be strong all the time. That data analyst who sits quietly in the corner of your office, he knows the numbers better than you. Ask for help, politely. Asking for help makes you better, not smaller.
This is a fine line. Hell, it’s a debate. Be yourself v/s fit in. While I won’t get into that debate today, I will say this: do whatever you want but be genuine. Don’t fake it. If you are an introvert, don’t try too hard to crack jokes. If you are an outgoing, bubbly, chirpy person, don’t lock yourself down. People are smart; they figure the real from a fake eventually. Don’t try to be somebody you aren’t to fit into a role, job, and place.
Being genuine means being honest. Over the years, you will realise that your biggest earning is the professional integrity you have built. If you don’t have that, your bank balance can get you just so much respect. There is no recipe or formula for this. If you are lucky enough like me to work with some fine leaders, you will realise this is all about good old-fashioned kindness and integrity.
Figure Out Early ‘What Makes You Wake Up and Come to Work?’
In 2009, my role needed me to travel about twenty-one days in a month. I asked my then Line Manager, (he is my role model), “How do you keep your energy up when numbers are down and it just gets tiring?” His answer was simple, “You need to figure out what makes you wake up every day. It’s not about this particular job or numbers. What makes you get up every morning and run?”
I didn’t get my answer that year. But over the years, the question stayed with me. One morning when the chips were down in my life I woke up and told myself, “I was made for bigger things than this.” That was it. Since then I know what makes me wake up and run. I believe we all must have that one driving thought and reason. It becomes our calling. As you work, and grow, irrespective of big or small companies you will have hundreds of things that pull you down. You need that one single thing that makes you bounce right back. For some people it’s about making a change in the world, for others it’s about the family. For me I just have to tell myself that nothing can break my back because I am made for bigger things than this.
These were my ten simple lessons I learnt in my decade of work. Some from peers, bosses, mentors from work and outside of it, and friends have been more than kind and generous. I thought I had to share it with people like me who seek learning in little things.
We have a lot of sceptics who question and wonder how it would be for a woman to work in a corporate environment in a country like India. Ironically, working in the corporate jungle is safer than walking down the street today. In my line of work I extensively travelled to some of the smallest towns. Frequently, I was the only woman in a conference in an audience of five hundred men. These men were not highly educated but were skilled labour. One got nothing but respect. My favourite moment in last few years was not of receiving an award or a number achievement. It was when one of the traders, barely eighth grade educated, getting his daughter to one dealer conference. He introduced me to his daughter and said, “Madam, she is doing BSc. I really want her to also have a job like yours. I want her to be like you” These are the moments when you know you are doing your bit, you are changing things and most importantly, you have a bigger responsibility than just delivering numbers. This was my single biggest lesson learnt.