The Best Professional Advice I Ever Received

Here is an article written by Jeff Haden for BNET, The CBS Interactive Business Network. To check out an abundance of valuable resources and obtain a free subscription to one or more of the BNET newsletters, please click here.

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Experts often like to pretend they developed the wisdom they impart all on their own, as if they were hatched from a business incubator complete with incredible knowledge and insight.

Of course that’s not true, especially for me. Whatever I do know — and it’s not a lot — I learned from someone else.

Here is some of the advice I was given that made the biggest difference to me professionally:

“Express your individuality on your own time.” In my first job after college I sometimes let my personality overshadow my responsibilities and duties, and it definitely hurt my performance and limited my opportunities. We’re all servants (in a good way) and our customers, peers, bosses, and direct reports all have needs. Meeting those needs — on their terms — is more important than somehow “staying true” to ourselves. Integrity is vital, but most of the time “individuality” should go. Even artists conform.

“Face value has no value.” It’s easy to view the actions of others through the lens of how that behavior impacts us, especially if their actions impact us in a negative way. But employees don’t try to do a bad job. Customers aren’t intentionally difficult. Bosses aren’t simply out to get us. There is always more to the story; fail to look deeper and you miss an opportunity to make a bad situation better — for everyone.

“They’re just as scared of you.” I wrestled in high school and traveled to summer tournaments where the other wrestlers seemed larger than life. I assigned them a near-mythical status because they came from different states and wore t-shirts from high-profile camps and wrestling clubs. I never imagined they saw me the same way; my Granby School of Wrestling t-shirt was just as intimidating. The same is true in business: Underneath the Armani and Wharton School and name-dropping is a guy or gal just as nervous and insecure as you are. Symbols of success are often a mask. The playing field is always more level than it seems.

“When you fire someone and need to say more than, ‘We have to let you go,’ you haven’t done your job.” Except in unusual circumstances, firing an employee is the last step in a process. if along the way you’ve identified sub-par performance, provided additional training or resources, set targets and timelines for performance improvement, and followed up when progress is lacking, then there are no surprises, no additional conversations necessary, no arguments to have… the employee knows. And you’ve done your job as well as you can. But even so…

“If you can sleep the night after you fire someone, something’s wrong with you.” Even if you’ve done everything right, firing an employee feels horrible. (I know they “fired themselves,” but still.) You’ve impacted their career, their life, their family… you should feel awful. If you don’t, it’s time to step out of a management role.

“Always sell harder than you think you should.” I’m fairly shy and often insecure, so “selling” is hard for me. I felt more comfortable waiting for bosses to discover my talents and offer promotions, and I feel more comfortable waiting for potential customers to somehow discover me. That’s a problem, because success in any field or profession is built on salesmanship — the ability (and willingness) to determine needs, overcome objections, provide solutions, and be charismatic and convincing. Be enthusiastic, especially about yourself. People will respond positively.

“Seriously… just shut up.” I used to talk a lot. I thought I was insightful and clever and witty and, well, just a doggone hoot. Occasionally I was, most of the time I wasn’t. I talked a lot because I had a big ego, but truly confident people don’t feel the need to talk at all. I hate when it happens, but I still occasionally realize I’m talking not because the other person is interested in what I have to say but because I’m interested in what I have to say. Never speak just to please yourself; you end up pleasing no one.

“Pick something to believe in and stick with it.” When I first started racing motorcycles the then-World Champion told me he always walked an unfamiliar track before riding any laps, a ritual that allowed him to see surfaces, bumps, and potential racing lines he might otherwise miss. Good enough for him, good enough for me, so I started doing the same thing. Did it work? I certainly thought so… so it did. Pick something tangible and do it every time, whether preparation, follow-up, processes… you’ll feel more confident and your performance will be better. Think of it like wearing lucky socks, except in this case your “superstition” actually makes a difference.

I’ve got more (screw-ups tend to be magnets for advice, so I’ve received a lot) but I’ll stop there. What about you — what can you add?

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Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about management as he worked his way up the printing business from forklift driver to manager of a 250-employee book plant. Everything else he knows, he has picked up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest CEOs he knows in business. He has written more than 30 non-fiction books, including four Business and Investing titles that reached #1 on Amazon’s bestseller list. He’d tell you which ones, but then he’d have to kill you. However, he does invite you to visit his website at: www.blackbirdinc.com.

 

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