On the first day of my federal career, as a new Presidential Management Intern (yes, I’m THAT old), an orientation program speaker asked one question that has remained with me nearly 30 years, “What are the two most important things to know or practice for career success?”
I often use this question as a conversation starter when I’m leading a new team, or teaching, training, or facilitating groups. The answers can be very enlightening. I find it’s a good way to identify either what is an important value to a person, or what they perceive is missing from their current work environment. I’ve heard a range of thoughtful, as well as cynical, responses, including:
- Planning and Processes – knowing where you are going and how to get there
- Competence and Communication – being skilled and knowing how to share your expertise appropriately
- Integrity and Innovation – behaving ethically and driving improvement
- Ambition and Altruism – Having personal drive that edifies others
- Service and Smile – doing for others, pleasantly
- Compliance and Fear – often associated with the organizational culture people believe their leaders perpetuate
- Kiss up and Kick down – make the boss look good and blame someone else
- And one of my favorite responses – an exit strategy and an exit plan!
For several years, regardless of serving in the public, non-profit, or commercial sectors, my answer to the question is that it is the two R’s – relationships and results. In my experience, I found these two areas being foundational to a person’s reputation and trajectory: the ability to establish and maintain positive, constructive relationships and the capability to deliver results consistently under any circumstances.
Job interview questions usually fall into one of three thematic areas, ability (results), fit (relationships), and passion/motivation. Sometimes we see these concepts conveyed as a dichotomy. For example, in leadership develop assessments, participants are often categorized as being either more people-oriented or more task-oriented. I remember a quick self-awareness/social awareness assessment being: when someone receives an email from you, do they want to open it, or does it give them knots in the stomach. Or when you enter a room, do people light up or does it suck the air out? Which do you want to be? Do you care? And for results, the self-assessment is the resume – how can you quantify or qualify your contribution to an organization or program’s success?
As I encounter a diversity of government employees at the federal, state, county and municipal levels, some who I admire and look forward to working with, and some who I dread engaging or think of as bureaucrats and not public servants, I’ve come to the realization that there is something even more fundamental to career success. The two things are: win-win.
The idea of creating or achieving an arrangement that is mutually beneficial, one that provides something of value to both or all parties, is by its nature, how one accomplishes success through relationships and results. As a govie, do you create win-win situations? In negotiation, we find that participants can choose to look for common interests, understanding where everyone involved can find some benefit; or we can dig into fiercely held positions, without budging because we “know” it’s the right answer. A quick self-awareness/social awareness assessment I learned for win-win, was asking the question, “does this decision benefit the other parties and us, BOTH in the short-term and in the long-term? If there was a “no” for any combination, we needed to think harder about a solution.
Granted not every situation or decision lends itself to a win-win, but have we even tried to get there? In my career, I’ve had the most significant advancements, expanded my network exponentially, and achieved more sustainable results when I’ve entered and exited situations with the win-win thinking. I’ve also found that an effective win-win approach utilizes the range of thoughtful answers above to the career success question, such as integrity and innovation, without the need for the cynical suggestions.
Oh, and that orientation speaker? His answer was probably the most practical, which I’ve learned, have gathered substantial evidence for, and abide by each day as a best practice. He simply stated, “The two most important things to know or practice for career success: 1) Never, ever miss the opportunity to eat. 2) Never, ever miss the opportunity to use the restroom. Because an empty stomach and a full bladder does not allow one to devote enough focus to accomplish anything worthwhile.” As a trained evaluation and performance measurement specialist, I was particularly pleased with the answer because I believed I was entering government with the advice and guidance from the speaker to focus on the effective management of “inputs” and “outputs.”
What are your two most important things to know and practice?