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Sun, March 24

Life in the Trenches: Ten things I've learned

Life happens, even in the workplace, so pay attention.

Life happens, even in the workplace, so pay attention.

Lessons Learned in Corporate America

Corporate America is much maligned these days as being a cesspool of greed, avarice, dwindling 401Ks, and reckless speculation. Headlines aside, I've known far more decent, hard working people than I have Bernie Madoffs (though they don't always get promoted). And I have learned a number of lessons in how to 'play well with others' and generally progress in business life that I think will hold my son in good stead, should he ever decide to listen.

I share these with a big nod to two of my many business mentors, Ed Niehaus and Mike Thoma, as well as Toltec teacher Don Miguel Ruiz, author of The Four Agreements.

1. Be Ruthlessly Objective. This is something my father taught me. Try to remove emotion from your analysis of any situation, particularly as you are choosing your response. Don't make assumptions about people's motives and do not take anything personally - people don't do things because of you; that's a self-centered world view. Make considered, well-reasoned choices based on the facts at hand, and you will sleep better at night.

2. Be Impeccable With Your Word. One of Ruiz's Four Agreements and the hardest for me by a long shot. "Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love." Or, there's my favorite quote from Alice Roosevelt Longworth: "If you don't have anything nice to say, come sit next to me."

3. Learn to Write. In this age where most career paths push science and technology, develop your verbal and written skills. If you can express yourself clearly and articulately you are way ahead of the game, no matter what your chosen field, from tennis pro (Roger Federer can express himself in four languages actually) to software developer.

4. Always Do Your Best or the best that you can in the circumstances. If you are a moral, driven, or in my case insecure, neurotic person, this is the only way to keep from mercilessly beating yourself up. Also, spurn the urge to mercilessly beat yourself up; it is wasted energy.

5. You Have Two Ears and One Mouth. Your communications with others should reflect this ratio. Listen twice as much as you talk (especially in front of clients or prospective clients).

6. You Are Not a Special Snowflake. My tongue is in my cheek when I say that because my almost-four year-old is the most extraordinary child since that Bethlehem guy, and yet... there is a video going around the web that says there are more honors students in India than there are children in the US. My high school, part of a well-known national experiment in urban magnet schools, had over 3,000 smart, fairly cutthroat kids in it. Over 60 percent of them were the children of immigrants. Raising my son on the mean streets of Prescott in a hugely supportive school community, I worry he may not intrinsically know that there is always going to be someone working harder than he is to take his place. And that person likely won't be from Prescott. I know the parenting trend now is to teach kids that they are each shining stars with individual talents - that little league games don't have winners and losers. I'm all for self-esteem, but I also want my son to be prepared for the new global meritocracy he's going to enter. Watch your back, kid!

7. The Best Product Doesn't Always Win. With the ascendancy of the 'Net I am actually seeing a seismic shift in this rule. As people get more access to better information, the playing field is getting more level. However, for the most part, big ticket commerce still happens because of relationships. The best product can be outsold by a craftier competitor who has a better understanding of the customer.

8. People Will Live Up or Down to your Expectations. (Also true for dogs and horses.) I find this one to be true as a manager, as a mother, and as an animal person. I even have another blog entry on this point (see The Nurtured Heart). If you expect greatness, people will strive to live up to your expectations. If you expect mediocrity, contrary to Hollywood movies, few plucky people will set out to prove you wrong; they are already defeated.

9. Look the Part. It's been refreshing working in London where people dress in fine fitting suits because they are proud of what they do. There is caché in having a corporate job, and if you dress like your manager, your chances of advancement are that much greater. Look like you care.

10. Don't Just "Admire the Problem." I am a data-driven person in a data-driven industry. But all data can be manipulated to further an agenda. Too often we get stuck in analysis paralysis, and today with the rate of change in technology, that is suicide. Measure your performance, understand the impact of your work, but make informed decisions and move on, sans the belly-aching.

So all that said, I'm sure my son will rebel and will disdainfully leave Corporate America to us Willy (Jilly?) Lomans. Truth be told a big part of me hopes that's the case. Still, the lessons I've learned extend beyond the workplace, and I hold inestimable gratitude to those who have invested the time to teach them to me.


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