Thriving in a competitive, corporate culture is something that I’ve been asked about countless times and in different ways. Here’s a list of things I noticed over the years and have seen to make a difference between mere survival (leading to burn out) and thriving over the long haul.
1.) Make the right friends. You’ve no doubt heard it’s crucial that you cultivate and develop a lasting network of people you’d want to work with, and sometimes more importantly who’d want to work with you. These friends may wind up being the potential buyer of a project one day and you may be the deciding factor between awarding the work to your firm or to that of another. There are also going to be pressure-filled projects and unforeseen challenges. The right friend will be able to listen perhaps remind you of what you value and your goals, be honest and help you adjust your perspective before jumping back in the fire. This is different than someone who will stir you up, feed the fuel of negativity, and “one-up” you with stories of their own. This may feel good in the moment, but really doesn’t help you in the long-run.
2.) Develop a point of view. Ask for the direction you need at the start of the project, do your own research, and come up with a game plan or opinion on how best to proceed. Check this out with the level(s) above you – (depending on the scale you may first want to run it by a peer). Your well thought out conclusion and proposed solution will be respected much more than your task-related questions one after another. In the beginning when all you have is questions (understandable and expected), try to collect and go over them at regular, agreed-upon intervals rather than piecemeal or one at a time. Oftentimes, the best way to showcase your technical talent is to ask a really insightful question, something that connects the facts & circumstances to the bigger picture of the client’s industry or another part of the business.
3.) Roll up your sleeves. There will be a number of opportunities presented to you over the years. You will undoubtedly have to work hard and put in lots of long hours. Be thoughtful about the projects you take on and don’t be afraid to talk with a more senior colleague about the developmental opportunities associated with them. Recognize and understand the sacrifices you may have to make. Ask to be assigned to the “train-wreck” project in order to learn the most and accelerate your growth. Just don’t do too many of those in a row without a break (see #4).
4.) Have a life outside of work. It’s not enough to have things outside of work that you care about. You have to share them with others to build better connection and understanding. You also have to actually go and spend time doing those other things. Build in regular vacations. Plan ahead to have true back-ups in place so that you can truly unplug. Over the years, I saw numerous highly talented people burn out from not taking time off. I even recognized the importance myself and didn’t admit it could happen to me.
5.) Stop multi-tasking. When you are doing 10 different things at once, your mind is stretched in multiple directions. Instead, focus on one task or topic at a time and in the long-run you will be more efficient, more productive, and less exhausted. Schedule in some protected focus time each day where you aren’t in a meeting, or accessible by phone or Instant Messaging. Look for ways you can make your focus time known in a diplomatic manner (ex. please do not disturb sign on workstation or office door).
6.) Be authentic. Show that you are relatable to both external and internal colleagues and clients. Show that you are confident in who you are and at the same that you are an eternally curious learner. Having both of these working together will instill trust in your abilities and show that you are not overzealous or will attempt to “go it alone.”
7.) Self-awareness. Recognizing your unique gifts and skills, and asking for ways to develop them is the best thing you can do for your career. If there are basic skills needed in a particular role that you don’t innately have, you can work to develop them – but recognize when you might be swimming upstream. Is this the right role for you? How much happier would you be in a role that played to your strengths and was aligned with your gifts? If you aren’t clear on what these are, work with a coach or read a book like “Now, Discover Your Strengths” by Buckingham & Clifton which has a complementary online assessment.
8.) Seek out a champion. Notice how the people around you react to different people. Make a list of characteristics you want to be known for, and find someone that shares some of them. Email that person or seek out time with them and pick their brain. How did they develop their own personal brand? Be open to feedback. How do they see you? What can you do more or less of? What would make you more effective in achieving your goals? It is equally important that you hear about your positive qualities and what people want more of from you as it is anything you should stop doing.
9.) Don’t make assumptions. Ask for and give specific feedback. Use open ended questions in order to be sure and get the feedback you are looking for (ex. how or what). Be honest and kind with your words. Recognize that you are part of a team. Look for what you can offer in service to the team and others’ development and you will cultivate your own learning.
10.) Bring mindfulness to work. When stressed, our bodies tense up, breathing becomes shallow, and cognitive function begins to slow. Focus on your breathing as a way to quiet your mind and notice where you might be feeling tension. Take several slow, deep breaths. Breathe into the tension and imagine it taking a physical form, and then floating out of your body. Do this several times a day or whenever you start to feel overwhelmed and notice the impact it makes on you and those around you. Other effective ways to give your brain a break are taking a walk outside and setting an intention at the beginning of each day of how you want to be.