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The A to Z of career success

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Business Spotlight - epaper ⋅ Ausgabe 11/2021 vom 27.10.2021


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A to Z: rolling out your career plan

It’s now been 55 years since I started my first fulltime job, at the Jiffy Carwash in Derby, England, for £4 (€4.70) per week. Since then, I’ve had 30 to 40 jobs — some wonderful, some dire. I’ve worked for some excellent managers and some deranged ones. For about half my working life, I’ve also been talking and writing about business communication and how to improve it.

Here, I have put together an A to Z of comments and suggestions to help you to navigate the weird and wonderful world of work.


Alternative CV. An American friend of mine in Paris helps unemployed people write their CVs. He tries to find out what really makes his clients different from everyone else. Since this is rarely evident in a conventional CV, he asks them what other jobs they’ve done and what they learned from them. He says people often reveal qualities of leadership, courage and initiative that are completely ...

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... absent from their official CVs. You may find it useful to think about your alternative CV, and how you can integrate more aspects of yourself into your job search.


Boss. I hate this word. It’s so, well, bossy. For years, I’ve been waging a campaign to get people to use the much friendlier “nearest leader” (from Norwegian nærmeste leder) instead, so far with a total lack of success. But at least we don’t have “superiors” and “subordinates” any more. Or do we?


Cultures. Yes, cultures, not culture. We all have multiple cultural identities, like layers of an onion. These help to define our unique individuality. My “culture onion” includes — in no particular order — being male, married, with a family, European, politically left-of-centre, a supporter of the football team Derby County, a Buddhist, a trainer, a union member, an ageing swimmer and so on. These are all more or less well-defined self-identifying groups with which I share certain values, traditions and habits. It can be fun to compare one’s own culture onion with those of friends. More practically, understanding the different components of the cultural identities of others can help to improve communication in the increasingly diverse workplace.


Digital well-being. It’s becoming more and more difficult to switch off from work, but also more and more important that we do so. Remote working makes working hours fuzzier. The increasing use of direct messaging rather than email creates expectations of an immediate response, as well as making working relationships more ambiguous. But always being available is bad for our psychological health, our relationships and our ability to enjoy our free time. Employers need to make a clear policy statement on this. All employees need and deserve protection from managers with dangerous 24/7 tendencies.


Empowerment. The difference between empowering and delegating is simple: if you empower a team member, you give them the task and the responsibility. If you delegate a task to a team member, the final responsibility for the outcome stays with you. Deciding whether to empower someone or simply delegate a task to them is an important aspect of being a leader.


Feedback. The objective of feedback is to improve performance (see Business Spotlight 6/2021). Some people use the “sandwich” method: starting with some praise, then getting to the meat of the matter, the developmental feedback, and finishing with more praise. Business communication trainer Helen Strong taught me the “1 – 2 – 3” method, whereby you say: 1. this is what I saw or heard (fact); 2. this is the effect it had on me (opinion), and 3. this is my advice to you (advice). Whether you use this or another approach, you and your colleagues will benefit from giving each other open and honest feedback. Building a feedback culture makes people happier and more productive.


Global responsibility. If your organization doesn’t know the size of its carbon footprint, it should. Philosopher Roman Krznaric tells us we are colonizing the future and disenfranchising future generations. Do whatever you can to make your organization greener.


Health. A top priority. The half century or so that we spend working can be damaging — sometimes, seriously damaging — to our physical and mental health and well-being. It’s not always possible to give these things the attention they deserve, but it’s dangerous to ignore our health for too long.


Interviews. A German human resources director once told me how she liked to keep her recruitment interviews simple. “I just ask them to tell me the story of their life,” she said. I’ve adopted the same approach, and the results are always interesting. Some people talk for five minutes and some would talk for five hours if you let them. Some keep it workrelated, others can get very personal. What they don’t tell you is as revealing as what they do. And it’s amazing how many people will tell you about their children and even their pets — but not mention their spouse or partner.


Jargon. Technical jargon may be OK among specialists, but business jargon is all too often a cover for muddled thinking or a misguided attempt to make something sound more important than it is. So, beware of any “thought leader” or “change agent” who “reaches out” to you with “110 per cent” promises about how, “going forward”, you can “leverage” the “low-hanging fruit”. Avoid such language — and people who talk like this.


K.I.S.S. “Keep It Short and Simple” is the golden rule of communication. It helps you write clearly and to the point. Your readers will be grateful to you for not wasting their time. It’s a good rule when talking, too.


Listening. I’ve had to work hard to go from being a terrible listener to being an average one. I’ve learned two things from talking to good listeners. First, listening is easy when the subject interests you; it’s when it doesn’t that you have to make an effort. Second, good listeners put everything else out of their mind and focus completely. And they do this because they believe the speaker merits their attention and respect.


Managing. From all the reading and talking about management I’ve ever done, one conversation with a young South American stands out. He told me: “Every week, I ask my team three questions: ‘What do you think I’m doing right? What do you think I’m doing wrong? What do you want more of?’ And then I act based on what they say.”


No. Everyone needs to learn to say no, so the sooner you start, the better (see Business Spotlight 9/2021). Saying no stops you from taking on too much and from being exploited by others. It also helps you to manage your time and work-life balance. It’s not always possible to refuse someone more senior, but if you are constantly overloaded, you need to think about whether you’re in the right job. Always serving other people’s interests — and not thinking about your own — is not a good basis for job satisfaction.


Open-plan offices. Avoid them if you can. Most of the research indicates that open-plan offices lead to more sickness, more stress, more distraction, less communication, less privacy, less sense of control and lower productivity. The hybridization of work ought to free up office space for more creative uses. And employees can design their own office spaces.


Praise. Most junior managers tell me they give more praise than they receive. All too often, the absence of criticism has to be interpreted as praise. But receiving praise is a great motivator, and you don’t have to be a leader to show your appreciation of the work of others. But don’t overdo it: you should really only praise someone when they have managed to do something difficult. Remember, too, that praise is telling someone they did a good job. Feedback, on the other hand, tells them how they can do even better next time.


Questions. A good workplace is one where there is no such thing as a stupid question. Good managers are patient about answering questions, especially when someone is new to a job, with lots of new information to absorb in a short period of time. More generally, managers should reflect on how much time they spend telling people what to do and how much time they spend asking questions — and whether they have the right balance between the two.


Repetition. Never assume that saying something once is enough for most people. Repeating yourself three times is a good rule of thumb, though packaging the message differently each time may help make it stick. For key messages, repeat even more often.


Style of communication. How do you talk to people? Can you describe your style? Many people find this hard to do. Are you more formal or informal? Do you speak quickly or slowly? Are you very structured or more spontaneous? Our style of communication is influenced by our personality and the cultures we are part of. And we can sometimes have real problems when dealing with someone with a very diffe rent style from our own. You may need to discuss how to adapt to each other and adopt a compromise style. If you’re not sure about your own style, ask your colleagues. They’ll tell you how you come across.


Trade unions. Union membership correlates with better pay and gives you support if your employer treats you unfairly. Unionized workplaces are safer. Unions champion equal rights and equal pay. They are increasingly in the vanguard of the struggle to combat climate change. Joining a union also means showing your solidarity with a movement engaged in the struggle to protect and enhance workers’ rights, pay and conditions globally. The stronger the membership, the more the unions can confront multinationals and governments over human rights and environmental abuses.


Upward mentoring. Most people find having a mentor to be hugely helpful as they navigate their careers (see Business Spotlight 3/2020). So, if you don’t have one, why not get one? Don’t be afraid to ask a more senior person who you really admire. The worst they can do is say no, and most people are flattered to be asked. Some organizations also now run upward mentoring programmes so that younger people can help older ones to understand what is really going on out there.


Ventilation. Sick building syndrome may not be a recognized clinical diagnosis, but there are measurable differences between healthy and unhealthy buildings. It’s important for you to know whether the air in your workplace is actually healthy to breathe. A good employer will be able to prove to you that it is.


Writing. Besides the K.I.S.S. approach (see “K” above), here are some more tips for good writing: use normal language, read your messages aloud so you can hear whether the text really works and think about the question your readers will ask themselves: “What’s in it for me?” Also, spending a third of your writing time on planning, a third on writing and a third on editing is a good formula.


X factor. Management gurus talk about charismatic CEOs, and HR people talk about the war for talent. I hate all this talk. For me, the best leaders are those who see the X factor — the undefinable “something” that makes for star quality — in everyone. Such leaders believe that any group of people can, with motivation and commitment, become exceptional performers. I love the story about a 1960s NASA janitor who, when asked by a visitor about his job, replied: “I’m helping to put a man on the moon.” It may be apocryphal, but it says something about the significance of how we see our work.


Yoga. Lots of people think yoga is boring and slow (which is maybe why it suits me). But it’s one way to make that important lifelong investment in your own health. Yoga can wake you up nicely in the morning. It stretches parts of the body that other forms of exercise don’t reach. Deep breathing gets the lungs working and has a calming effect. It helps to improve your posture and control your weight. Then again, you might prefer triathlons or solo ice climbing.


Zoom fatigue. “Life is what happens while you’re wasting time in meetings,” as John Lennon might have said if he’d been an accountant. Why otherwise cost-conscious companies allow expensive managers to waste so much time and money in meetings is beyond me. My feedback from managers tells me that most of them waste at least 20 per cent of their working lives this way. Covid and Zoom seem to have made matters worse. One answer is not to attend so many meetings. Another is to make them shorter. Yet another is to spend three minutes at the end of every meeting discussing how the next one could be better.

Better work and a better world

For millions of working adults across the globe, work is exploitative, unpleasant, time-consuming, arduous, stressful, soul-destroying or simply a means of survival. Only a minority obtain happiness, fulfilment and reward from what they do.

The Covid-19 crisis has given us time to think about how we work — and some hope that the world of work might be changed for the better. Knowing your preferences helps you to decide what kind of job you want, what kind of workplace you feel comfortable in and how you like to interact with others.

Making work better for yourself and others is one important way of helping to build a better world. I hope this guide has given you one or two ideas about how to do this.

STEVE FLINDERS is a freelance writer, business communication trainer and leadership coach based in Malta. Contact: careers@businessspotlight.de


● The language of job applications

● The language of job interviews

Our Skill Up! booklets on job applications and job interviews contain useful vocabulary, phrases, word partnerships, grammar points and idioms for these key career situations.

You can download our special career booklets at www.business-spotlight.de/booklet