What Experts Say About Lessons Learned
The other day I was asked about what lessons I have learned over the past 25 years that could be distilled into a hindsight approach. I thought that was a great question and so, as with all great questions, I asked the Internet. Rather than ask for the nearest location of a great teriyaki takeout place, I put the question to the search bar in the form of “What things do I know now that I wish I knew then”.
The results were pretty interesting, and fairly consistent. They also seemed to track the answers I would personally give at this point in my career, if asked the question in that form. I think there is somewhat of a distinction between a lesson that was learned in the course of a career, and the desire, in hindsight, to have perhaps learned it earlier than when it ultimately sunk in. I am not a fan of pining over regrets, but as with most people, I often think about decisions (or non-decisions) that were made, positions taken, opportunities taken or not taken, and whether they would have made for a different course. I can also point to a few things that I definitely would have handled differently now then at 25 or even 35. So, in no particular order:
HAVE FUN – Colin Powell recommends that leaders enjoy their command time. “Take leave when you earn it, spend time with your families, don’t always run at a breakneck pace”. People have a hard time relating to machines, so being human in your job is important to yourself and those around you.
ALWAYS BE LEARNING – A-B-L…with apologies to Glenngarry Glen Ross and Alec Baldwin, “Always Be Learning”. Never turn down an opportunity to learn something new, and never get to a point where you think you have nothing to learn. A positive attitude towards personal development is something that will follow you for your entire life if you let it, and provide continual reward. The barrier to ABL is fear. When we are young, we are fearless, which often translates into learning the hard way. As we become older, our desire to learn is often trumped by our fear of failure, or the unknown, or pain, or regret. Fight that, to the bitter end.
TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF – One thing that I have learned is that leading takes energy. You need to have more of it than most. You will get there first, leave last, and expend the most energy in your group. When everyone is down, you need to be up. This comes at a price, which is the need to pay attention to your health, your body, and your fitness. When you are younger, you can make a resolution to remake yourself and carry it out in an acceptable time frame. As you get older, it takes more time and effort to achieve the desired effect. You need to be “on” every day so start early and make your health a priority. It is a critical element to a successful and happy career, in addition to your life outside of work.
MENTORS, SPONSORS, AND PEERS – A mentor helps to guide your learning process at work or in life. Get one now. There is always someone who does something you want to do, only better. Or perhaps, having done it before you, they have the map. Sponsors are people not invested in your job, and free to criticize or counsel. They are people who have an interest in you excelling. Treat them like gold. Your peers (that do not fall into the Mentor or Sponsor group) are often overlooked, can be a group of similar people invested in your success because you are invested in theirs. I have heard many stories of peers holding tight their little job tricks and secrets for fear of giving a potential competitor an inside edge. That is ridiculous. What better way to impress a promotion panel than to describe how your project tracking system has been adopted by everyone in the office. Putting regular effort into making peers successful is another way of demonstrating your commitment to the mission first. The definition of a team is when everyone is equally committed to each other’s success. Be a good teammate.
LOVE WHAT YOU DO – No amount of money will make you like your job. And, if you hate being there, it will be pretty difficult to be good at it. I have met few people in my career who hated their job but were good at it. Your first priority every day is to be good at what you do and if you are trying to overcome your loathing for your job, it’s not hard to guess you don’t like your team either. Trouble ahead.
TAKE THE LONG VIEW – The most common analogy here is the marathon/sprint paradox. Bottom line – the people you are working with are going to be there a long time. With you. So, figure out a way early on to work with everyone and carefully consider when you are ready to torch a bridge. Your ability to see the second and third order of consequences to behavior or decisions gets better as your knowledge increases. So, move slowly at first and learn the playing field.
MAKE GOOD FRIENDS – Any boss will tell you, and any book will inform you, of the 90/10 rule. As a boss, you will spend 90% of your time dealing with 10% of your team. As a boss, you have to do it, and do it well. As a friend, figure out the soul-suckers early on and play accordingly. Focus your attention and energy on the people who want to grow and learn and succeed and seem to want you to do the same. These are the people who are willing to commit to a 50/50 relationship with you. Accept nothing less. Good friends are people who can critique you without fear that you will retreat, and vice versa. Surround yourself with honest people who will tell you the truth, both as a leader and a friend. And since I started with Colin Powell, I will end with him – “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier”. There is no stopping a group of optimists determined to succeed. Pick well.