To get ahead: Tried and truisms

Forget the fads. Dump the mentors. You’re your own best adviser, and the best advice to follow is the obvious

Globe and Mail, August 3, 2007

The book shelves groan with volumes of the latest fad theories. Plenty of coaches are eager to impart their advice. And there’s always a mentor to search out for guidance from the perch of experience.

So who does James Dale turn to for wisdom on how to advance his career successfully? Why, himself.

And what magic formulas has he come up with? None. For Mr. Dale, it’s the tried and true that count. He’s learned that the most effective strategies are the ones you already know.

“In fact, the secrets to career success aren’t secrets at all but, rather, ideas, values and strategies most of us know so well that we tend to ignore them,” says Mr. Dale, who credits applying the principles imparted by his parents, teachers and church leaders as major factors in his rise to chief executive officer of Detroit-based advertising agency W.B. Doner & Co. from 1991 to 1995.

His new book, The Obvious: All You Need to Know in Business. Period. is laced with advice like:

Simple is better. Don’t look for complications that will distract you; stay focused on the goal and throw out mental trash that gets in the way.

Mean what you say. Exaggeration and embellishment undermine your credibility.

Honesty is the best policy. There’s no such thing as a good liar and the truth invariably emerges. So take responsibility and apologize rather than hiding behind excuses.

If you don’t know, ask. Don’t be arrogant or afraid to admit that you don’t understand. It saves making a lot of uninformed mistakes.

Yet, “we can tend to ignore such time-tested truths because they are obvious,” says Mr. Dale, now a partner in management consultancy Richlin/Dale LLC in Baltimore. “Human nature is to look for miracles and magic shortcuts.”

But in order to state and apply the obvious, you still have to find ways to tap your inner knowledge, career coaches say. So books and advisers can still be essential for shaping our thinking. The key is not to get sidetracked by following the latest fads.

You have to keep up with the current thinking, if only to remind yourself of what you already know, says Toronto-based career coach Nina Spencer, president of Nina Spencer & Associates, and the author of Getting Passion Out of Your Profession.

Self-help books and coaching can help you develop insight because they make you focus on what you are doing well and what you need to improve on, she says.

And no matter how seemingly new career fads may sound, “in reality, they are based on long-standing truths about human nature, told from different perspectives and in different ways,” she says.

People may hear versions of obvious truths again and again – but ignore them until they are ready to use them. “There is always someone who is reaching a position to put the advice to immediate use,” Ms. Spencer says.

At the same time, “jumping on every fad can distract you from what your our life experience, intuition and common sense can tell you should be done,” says Steve Mitten, president of Principal Evolutions Coaching and Training Inc. in Vancouver.

By making the effort to distill the lessons that emanate from your life experience, intuition and common sense, you will develop an inner management expertise, he says.

“It takes work,” Ms. Spencer adds. “It is not as easy as saying ‘ know that.’ You have to discover what you know, but are not paying attention to.”

She suggests delving into books you may not have gotten around to reading that explore professional and personal values. “The original self-help books are religious texts we still lean on, whether it is the Torah, the Bible or the Koran. It can also be classics of motivational literature or current bestsellers about leadership and productivity,” Ms. Spencer says.

Reading them isn’t enough: “You also have to make a conscious effort to apply the truths you discover and step back regularly and examine what you are doing and how it relates to what you value and believe in,” suggests career coach Irene Gardiner-Harding.

And it is easier than ever to get sidetracked in the modern workplace, says Ms. Harding, a partner in the coaching company playsthatwork Inc. in Victoria.

“We lose track of our intuition because of the hectic pace of daily tasks and being told what to do by the boss,” Ms. Gardiner-Harding says.

“You can end up not knowing what you want because of all the clutter in your mind and the conflicting advice from people around you who say they know better,” she adds.

But, invariably, she finds, when you go with your gut instinct, you’ll get an answer that’s good for you.

“You may still makes mistakes along the way, but they are based on your knowledge and experience, and you can learn from these mistakes better than you can from making mistakes based on what someone else tells you,” Ms. Gardiner-Harding says.

That’s the approach Mr. Dale advocates.

People have a terrible fear of failure and would rather rely on someone else’s advice than their own instinct they because they don’t trust themselves.

But “you can learn more from failure than you do from success because it points out what needs to be done the next time around and gives you the fuel for success,” Mr. Dale says.

His favourite example is that Babe Ruth is remembered for setting a record number of home runs. But he actually also struck out a record number of times.

“Ignore the obvious at your own peril,” Mr. Dale advises. “Learning and applying what you know requires long-term effort rather than an overnight fix, but the reality is that these truths are miraculous because they work. And nothing is better than something that works.”

Stating the obvious

Truisms that are easily overlooked can be key to advancement, says James Dale, author of The Obvious: All You Need to Know in Business. Period.

Here are some of his favourites:

Obsessive-compulsive isn’t all bad. Being on time, returning calls, proofreading, editing and rerunning the numbers should never be beneath you. “If you just do the details right in your job, you will put yourself ahead of about 95 per cent of your competition.”

Be on time. People who are late develop a reputation for being late, which takes away from anything else they may have to offer in a meeting. Promptness builds an impression of reliability.

Work is a challenge, or it should be. “You perform at your best when you’re tested. So, if you’re good at what you do and if you can almost do it blind-folded, stop doing it and raise the stakes. Even if you fail, you fail at something hard, not easy, and you learn something you didn’t already know.”

Keep an open mind. “It isn’t just a 50-year-old who gets set in old ways. You can get hardening of your thinking in your twenties if you aren’t open to new ideas,” he says. “The career implication is that if you are resistant to change and change is the norm, you’re destined not to survive long in the organization.” He recommends getting into the habit of noticing and entertaining new ideas, fashions and technology. Whether you like them or not, you have to know the current trends and why they have appeal because they will have influence in the future.

Failure is good. Fear of failure leads to inaction, which leads to failure. By taking a chance, you either come out with a success, or at least knowledge you can apply to the next chance you have to take.

Consistency beats a hot streak. If you watch somebody at the gambling table, hot streaks end sooner or later – and they can turn into cold streaks. So, if you hit a big win, don’t get carried away with your success.

Don’t be a jerk. The person who consistently commands respect is reasonable, kind, decent and fair – in a word, nice. “There are a remarkable number of people in management who believe the route to success is to be a bastard, take no prisoners and be tough,” Mr. Dale says. But that’s not being smart because people will fear you rather than respect you, he adds.

Life isn’t fair. Get over it. There is no upside in dwelling on slights or missed opportunities.

Cut your losses. Not everything works out. If it isn’t working, try to fix it; if it still doesn’t improve, move on because the situation is unlikely to get better.

Wallace Immen

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