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Surviving the corporate wilderness


Communication is what will take you to the next level
By Steve Prentice
January 16 2015 issue

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Like navigating a jungle with few tools, finding your way through the corporate structure can be a challenge if you are not prepared. One of the main reasons for this is that too much focus is placed on the trail and not enough on the sounds of the jungle itself.

The art of managing and furthering a career has always been about people, and not tasks. It is easy to think that a lawyer’s job is about getting work done, about submitting files on time and taking care of to-do’s and e-mails, but the truth is, at the end of each of these tasks, there is a person waiting and that is where the attention should go.

An ambitious professional should think very hard about applying the 80/20 rule to the work week; specifically, giving 20 per cent of every given week over to planning and communication. Planning is important because it allows you to schedule your most important and lucrative work to the times of the day when you are at your best (for most of us, this points to the morning hours).

However, communication is where the future actually happens, because this is where relationships are built, along with the credibility and reputation that will put you in good stead for the next stage of your career.

Talk and listen

Talking to colleagues and clients, and listening to what they say gives you the opportunity to understand their interests, their personality type, and their style. This does three powerful things.

First, you learn what motivates them. It allows you to hear what their problems and fears are, which in turn empowers you to help resolve those fears. Are they procrastinators? Poor delegators? A-type personalities with no patience? Unable to trust? The issues that burn within a colleagues’ emotional space are the issues you can help solve.

Second, conversations demonstrate acknowledgement. You are acknowledging the hard work, fears and issues that this person deals with. To acknowledge someone is to give them dignity, which is the essence of leadership. They will warm up to you, since you have demonstrated care. They will want more of that good treatment and will act differently in order to get it.

This leads to the third benefit: influence. People will do what you want them to do when there is something in it for them. They will also be open to negotiation regarding timelines, delegation, payment or other task- or career-related matters. They will leave you alone when you want to be left alone and they will arrive ready when you want them to be available.

The reason communication is important from a career management standpoint is that all the people that surround you — your clients, your managers, your colleagues and your direct reports — have influence on your career. What you learn from them might alert you to an actual opportunity.

More importantly, you might be better able to create your own opportunity — your own advancement on your career path — by talking, listening, learning and teaching, and then offering solutions. Even something as simple as negotiating shorter meetings means more time for you to do more valuable work.

To extend the jungle analogy further, it is important to become a hunter, rather than a grazer. Instead of waiting for a job posting to appear, it is up to you to hunt down the type of work you want and that can only happen when people know about you and when they value you. A person who works 100 per cent of the time on billable work might appear valuable as a revenue generator, but they allow themselves no time to identify better methods of using their talents and no time to communicate their potential to others. They are simply a cash cow and will move no further up the line.

Stay valuable

What do you know about the world outside that you can share with others? Do you have a Twitter account that feeds you information about trends and developments in business that you could use to solve peoples’ problems, or have you dismissed Twitter as a meaningless toy?

Twitter is power. By choosing to follow relevant, proactive thinkers and commentators — other lawyers and journalists, for example — you stand to know more than the people around you. You will become a centre of influence. It will be you who proposes better, cost-saving alternatives to current work practices, or who learns how to deliver more up-to-date proactive solutions and guidance to clients, which is what every professional firm strives to do.

Twitter is the drumbeat of the business jungle. It is there to tell you what you need to know. You are free to ignore the 99.9 per cent of users whose content is meaningless, but to ignore the remaining 0.1 per cent means cutting off your career lifeline. There is good, valuable information out there: valuable to you, but more importantly, valuable to others and deliverable through you.

Plan and keep alert

Life is too short to wait for things to happen. You must make them happen. Allow time in your schedule, per the 80/20 rule, to give yourself time to think and strategize.

First, strategize forward: What are you looking for? A management position? A more balanced life? A fixed number of hours? A larger departmental budget? Do you want to lead a team or work alone?

Your goals should be clear, measurable, specific and linked to the firm’s focus. Once your goals are set, set a timeline: when do you want this by? For example: “One year from now I will oversee a team of four, I will work no later than 5:30 p.m., and I will have moved up one pay grade.” Do this by writing your ideas down across an axis of time. This makes it far easier to motivate yourself to identify the people you need to network with and to justify the time required to be with them.

The execution of any plan demands review. Mistakes will be made, but gains will also be made. Connect with mentors. Share your plan with them, and share both your successes and failures to date. No plan is — or should ever be — rock-solid and inflexible.

When roadblocks appear, the solution will come from communicating with those who created the roadblocks, perhaps, but also with those who have the power to remove those barriers. Mentors, too, play a great role in providing an alternate perspective or simply a voice of experience.

If you were in an actual jungle, the best thing you could do to find your way to safety would be to get to higher ground. A hilltop gives the lay of the land, reveals pathways and traps, and transforms the voyage from an unknown to one that is at least partially knowable.

The corporate jungle is much the same. Lift your gaze up from the trail immediately in front of you and pay greater attention to what is around you.

Steve Prentice is a specialist in organizational psychology, and is founder of the Bristall Group (www.bristall.com). He is the author of three business books, teaches management and leadership at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa, Ont., and leads a CPA Ontario course called “Techniques for Establishing Control Over Your Work, Life and Career.” Follow him on Twitter @stevenprentice

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