Sat on an aeroplane returning from several repeat trip to Central Europe, my thoughts have drifted over life in a corporate. Since leaving the Army in November 2016, my career and life have moved on quickly. From what I consider a life choice and one that I remain extremely proud of, to another where it relies heavily on making your own opportunities.
What I would have liked to know before I started my most recent role
Experience in a new environment has been incredibly valuable. It has given me a dynamic environment to test my own ideas. There is still much to learn but the following advice would have really helped me at an earlier stage. It may be relevant to others considering roles within a large corporate environment. Even better if they are useful across a broader group. If you take away 1 or 2 ideas and avoid my mistakes then, great.
Whichever, interested group you may find yourself in, I add some words of caution. Specifically, these are based purely on my perspective. They have not been tested beyond the remit of my personal experience and they are not exhaustive, standalone or complete. If you also have alternative suggestions, ideas, comments or feedback I’d be happy to hear and learn from it. Moreover, if you comment back here, it may be beneficial to others and may raise debate.
Be more like the Avengers
Understand your purpose. As Simon Sinek ably describes in his book ‘Start with Why’, this is the first step that is needed. A challenge in general but particularly with a complex corporate company, true comprehension of the purpose of your work I believe is essential. Particularly if you intend to succeed. Success may diverse, i.e. is it for your team, the function, the company or dare I say it, for your own worth. If no specific purpose has been set for the team you work in, write your own. I found this far easier, more useful and easier to sell when done with others. If you can condense it into a few sentences or less that is ideal. I use an analogy of a compass. Often repeated to me earlier in my career, there is value in finding a ‘true north’. More importantly, it provides a target and direction for others to aim towards too. One area not considered often enough was to review this purpose. Else, you can find yourself either with a misaligned purpose or heading too far away from it.
Be explicit with what you say. Tell those you work with what you are doing often, and tell them your reasoning just as much. This allows you to receive valuable feedback. A tool I found useful for this was 360-degree feedback. Not everyone will feel they want to respond and many will be too busy with everything else. However, if you have an open, trusted relationship with work colleagues then use them. The worst people to ask are those that will tell you only good news. Some ideas may not work or need revision. Therefore, you need to decide whether to pursue it or not. Moreover, a reputation for saying ‘yes’, may result in worst case too much work or, worse still, too little output. In each scenario, the impact on credibility is significant.
Encourage good habits. Develop strong habits, break the bad ones. Habits use a form of trigger, action, reward. Find out what action you require, then work out the reward, then finally trigger needed to achieve the action. This can be applied personally or better still, across a group. Teams in a corporate environment can be created, form, merge, change, break up; almost overnight. Hence, the importance of personal relationships to overcome organisational resistance or ‘treacle’. The unknown ingredient that often slows change I heard being likened to ‘treacle’. Habits here can make swift change easier (not simple) to overcome. Good habits have a canny knack of defeating any resistance to change. I found success was in only creating habits for yourself first, then using the best ones with others. If you can instal the best habits in those around you, this is a much wider benefit to everyone. An example, I noted of someone that set a great habit for others was in use of a Google+ forum. The consistent use opened up communications to a much broader team. Each message they posted embedded confidence. This rubbed off on those around them. Moreover, it created a network that was transparent, collaborative and effective.
Avoid template actions. Each team is completely unique and template techniques are often hard to apply. They move with pace and it can be hard to predict. Hence, listen to others and heed their advice. Though do not take anything at face value. Often, I found myself reacting to something rashly. When in hindsight, if I had taken a step back a more effective solution would have appeared. Also, encourage difference and diversity within the team at every opportunity. Without it, the ideas and value that the team can create will be much less impactful. Alternate perspectives reduced visibly stress on relationships, as a unique experience was far more valuable
Challenge Preconceptions. On arrival, the options are limited because of many need to have their trust built through working together. You may need to deal with others expectations and pre-conceptions about what value you will bring. More so, if you are from another industry or an external hire. I found that those that had formed opinions prior to my arrival had them tested from the start. This was a dynamic process and sometimes it was painful on both sides. What did not work were an over-reliance on what had worked previously or worse, in openly telling people how they compared to your old job. Adaptation of previous skills to the new environment was far more successful. Essential is people’s buy-in, particularly your team in a management role. Without it, you may struggle to make lasting change. Once they are on the bus, then you can bring them with you without the pain. However, persistence is key here. To retain the best people, you may have to work harder in the first 6 to 9 months in a new role. If you immediately demonstrate a willingness to work and are responsive this suggests a good level of competence. This starts you the right way so that you eventually achieve great. I concentrated on a willingness to learn in my new environment. Some may find this interest quite intense when you ask them questions but reassure them that it is merely a curiosity. Any work and knowledge learned early will translate into higher overall performance later.
Know others expectations. Keep the initial enthusiasm to action your ideas at bay. The ideas may not be the most effective in the environment even if you perceive them as valuable. I kept on with an idea I had put in within the first 30 days. This was ultimately time wasted. The idea was never sold effectively and was contrary to the prevailing culture. Maintain an open mind and understand the culture that you are joining. If you have recently arrived in from another high-performance team or company, then you may have expectations that could trip you. However, I recommend that you set out your stall no earlier than 30 but no later than 3 months after arrival. These ideas will have the most chance to succeed in your tenure.
Set prioritised and realistic objectives. Do not take on too many objectives. Some people that I had spoken to had more than 30 objectives. This is far too unrealistic to be able to perform to your best. Therefore, alongside your boss agree no more than 10 and get them to prioritise each one against the other. Know that this may change but it allows you to organise yourself accordingly. This is sometimes easier to say than achieve but allow others to challenge back.
Words of caution: There are many ways to hurt a reputation. Sometimes obvious but sometimes less so. Take time to consider words and actions. In other words, do not say something then fail to act upon it.
Follow-up. Others will live off your words and actions and it will be quick for them to identify whether you are someone that can be effective in a new role. If you are a completer-finisher then this is relatively easy but I found my motivation would swing onto items I was interested in. If this reminds of someone you know, then this item is particularly important.
Simplify volume. There were many occasions that I found it difficult to overcome the volume of work. A suggestion here is to simplify work areas into threes. This may enable you to focus more easily. Alternatively, I found the Pareto Principle (80:20) or ratio extremely useful when applied to my personal to-do-list. Do understand here that this article, misses this item, so consider how you apply it for yourself.
Be Selective. Be prepared for consistent effort on the right things not everything. Being in a corporate environment means that you are far more accessible to people from within the company. Your name will be attached to numerous conversations and this often ends up with an endless list of possibilities. Here you have to be selective and focus your attention, energy and drive on those areas most relevant. This relevance depends on (a) interest, (b) goal and/or (c) motivation. There over the balance may help. Back to being selective, careful selection results in work that you may be much more interested in. This often results in far better outcomes. Often this advice is easier to give than to follow but it allows you to lean on your strengths, gain credibility and develop in-demand skills.
Protect your attention. Management of your own attention is paramount. The amount of information that is created from across a large organisation can distract. Be it social media, email, a tap on the shoulder or a phone call. Each item has its place. Understand how you want to react to each of these and if able find specific times for each. Whether that is scheduling time to do that email, and no longer. Or, scheduling phone calls. Also, importantly for addictive personalities like my own. One easy fix is blocking notifications. Notifications can be a plague, so I recommend a switch off of these across your technology platforms, i.e. mobile, laptop etc. Ask someone to help if you need it, as this can be hard occasionally.
Not all ideas are equal. When asked to complete a project, an assessment of outcomes is necessary. If the project meets the requirements of a key performance indicator, then it can be measured. This allows an element of prediction that allows you to weigh up the do versus don’t decide. Else there is a risky project work being taken on that has little value for anyone. Worst still the project may have a negative payoff that is hidden at first glance.
You need to rest. A large firm works across multiple time-zones. This can sometimes feel like you have joined a 24-hour, 7 day-a-week operation. If you get paid holiday, use it. Else, carve out the opportunity and find someone to step in if needed. The best reset I found was a 2-week holiday with those I cared about. Without it, I am sure to have failed to meet my own heady expectations. 1 week never quite allowed my mind to rest. So how you may ask? Set conditions about what is and is not acceptable early. Moreover, an equal policy for everyone ensures others respect it. If you have set the example with your team, then it makes it easier to replicate for yourself. Else, this is one idea to start well ahead of that next trip. For example, I set specific immediate items that I want to be informed about or consulted. Anything else, I trust my team explicitly.
Find a mentor. Someone that knows you or that has a strength that you may not have is essential. Areas I knew I was weaker were sector, company and cultural knowledge. Hence, I knew that I needed someone who had been in the company far longer than I and who had experience in each area. A phone call even as little as once-a-month helped me to overcome some of the toughest challenges and set the conditions to encourage others.
Protect your time. Regard your own time as sacrosanct. You are the only gatekeeper to it. Keep meetings to the minimum acceptable time period. Else you may risk being invited to things that do not get you closer to goals for your team or you.
Identify your own rewards. In a corporate, the expectation is that reward may be financial. But, this could not be further from the truth. Work out what you want to be remembered for, what value you can bring and ideally the legacy you’d like to leave behind. A financial reward has never been a driver for me though it is welcome when you have a family to support. The much more valuable aspects have been the lessons, experience and transferable skills.
Checklists and Process Flows. For many things that you will encounter on joining a new company or team, there will be unwritten expectations, work structures etc. This is where the creation of a process flow or checklist was paramount. Each in different ways made it easier for others and me to be more consistent. When this consistency is reached you can then seek to improve it in measurable ways. This makes the key difference between you and others.
In these lessons, we covered a variety of topics. These include…
- Understand a purpose
- Be explicit with what you say
- Encourage good habits
- Avoid template actions
- Challenge Preconceptions
- Know the expectations
- Set prioritised and realistic objectives
- Simplify volume
- Be Selective
- Protect your attention
- You need to rest
- Find a mentor
- Protect your time
- Identify your own rewards
- Use checklists and process flows
If you find something useful, please feel free to share with others. Also, if there is something you’d like to know more about I’d be happy to explain in more. Else, any constructive comments, challenge or feedback is welcomed too.
In learning more lessons,