By now you know that you could work all night and all day and never catch up with your work. White-collar work is never done. The more work you complete the more assignments you will get, so how do you win? How do you get ahead of your job in the Knowledge Economy we are all living in now?
I asked my dad that question when I was a young HR manager. I was working crazy hours. “On the one hand, I love my job,” I told him, “but on the other hand, I’m overwhelmed. Every day I get new issues and crises to deal with. When I walk into work every day I feel like I’m driving straight into a snowstorm.”
“Everyone feels that way at first,” my dad said. “You will never catch up, much less get ahead of the snowstorm, if you focus on the snowflakes hitting your windshield. You have to focus on something else.”
“What is that?” I wanted to know.
“What is your job about?” my dad asked me. “What is the reason your position exists? What big things could you create, fix or bring about that would have more impact than answering another two or three more phone calls or dealing with another two or three minor issues every day?”
I thought about it. I decided that the purpose of my job in HR was to make our company an amazing place to work. I figured that there were three components to that mission. One component involved recruiting. I had to hire great people but more than that, I had to make the company a place where recruiting would be easy because our reputation as a fun place to work would spread.
The second component of my job involved our current employees. They had to know that they were supported, and they had to have the training and communication to be able to do their jobs without any roadblocks. The third component of my job involved our leaders. Some of them were very experienced managers and others were newly hatched. Our new supervisors didn’t have a clue how to manage their teams, and part of my job was to help them.
“I have an idea what the big-ticket items in my job are,” I told my father, “but I can’t see how to free up enough time in my day to work on them, with all the snowflakes hitting my windshield.”
“Start by thinking about those three big-ticket items at home, at night, when you can focus,” my dad said. “Write about them. Put together a plan that incorporates all three of your high-impact elements, and present that plan to your boss.” That’s what I did. My boss was excited about my plan.
“Thanks for taking the initiative,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about our priorities for HR but I hadn’t gotten around to putting them on paper, but you’ve nailed it.” My plan included elements to push forward in each of the three ‘big-ticket’ areas I had identified as my areas of greatest focus in the coming year:
– In the Recruiting arena, I wanted to install an employee-referral bonus program, forge relationships with the local community colleges and coach our supervisors on interviewing candidates.
– In the Employee Relations realm, I wanted to create an annual calendar of events and communication, launch a newsletter and create a series of fun posters explaining what to do when common, uncomfortable interpersonal situations crop up at work.
– In the Leadership Training zone, I wanted to start a monthly drop-in lunchtime workshop for supervisors and managers and design and deliver a simple leadership curriculum with the help of our local employers’ council.
“Where will you find the time to do all this stuff?” my boss wanted to know. “There is always a line of people waiting outside your office door.”
“That’s because I haven’t known exactly how to solve the problems that cause all those people to come and see me,” I said. “Now I have a better idea of how to handle those meetings.”
I can listen to and problem-solve with employees for hours, but it was much more exciting and uplifting to be able to tell our employees “I know — your supervisor Sally is not always kind and not always patient. Thank you for letting me know that she needs help. I want to ask you a favor. Can you please be patient with Sally while she is learning how to be a supervisor?
“I am launching a supervisory training program and supervisor brainstorming lunches next month. You will see Sally change. You will change, too. That’s a better solution than coming down the hall and waiting to tell me the things that Sally says and does that bother you – isn’t it?”
Of course it was!
I worked on the big stuff, and the small stuff took care of itself. That is how you get ahead on the job — not by working more hours or giving every To-Do item less of your time but by making a big goal that will change whatever is broken or add whatever is missing in your department or your company.
That way, when the end of the year rolls around you’ll have something to show for your efforts, beyond “I took care of eight hundred and sixty-seven small issues this year!”
Three months after I got religion about the difference between working reactively and working proactively, you could see the difference in our company. It was easier and faster for us to recruit new employees. Our teammates became our best recruiting sources. They liked the extra money they earned in referral bonuses and they liked bringing their friends into our company.
Employees were no longer lined up waiting to talk to me about every unfortunate issue they had experienced at a supervisor’s hands. I was still their advocate — and, of course, the supervisors’ advocate too — but now I advocated for them in a different way. I advocated for them at a higher altitude — not down in the weeds.
Our supervisors felt more comfortable handling sticky situations in their departments because we talked through case studies every time we got together for a brown-bag lunch. Soon we added another brown-bag lunch event for non-supervisory employees. We invited our team members who were experts in one thing or another to present to anyone who wanted to come.
One of our folks was an amazing classical guitarist. He played for us one day at lunchtime. Another fellow was very involved with Habitat for Humanity and he told us about the houses he had built. I didn’t realize it right away, but we were building community at work. That is the best thing an HR person can do!
Can you look at your job from altitude to see what the roadblocks that will keep your department or your organization stuck until they are removed? Those are your big-ticket items. You will always have a to-do list, but as you gain altitude and create a vision for yourself in the job, you’ll find that the items on your to-do list change. Within a year after launching my plan, managers were consulting me to talk about their own visions — not to get my help writing up an employee over some silly infraction the way they used to do in the frustrating days of working in the weeds.
You will rise up in your job, in your organization and in your own field of possibilities when you get out of the weeds and ask questions like “Why does my job exist?” and “How could I have the greatest positive impact on this organization?” To get your answers, you’ll need to ask a lot of questions of other people. If you don’t know your organization’s mission, now is a great time to find out what it is!
You may find that getting ahead at work means learning about a new area of the business you haven’t been exposed to before. Getting ahead might mean changing jobs or becoming a supervisor or going back to school. It will be an individual decision. All of us have different goals, and “getting ahead” can mean very different things to different people. What does getting ahead mean to you?
That is a great question to ponder as you get altitude on your job and your career. No one can drive into a blinding snowstorm forever. Get above the flurries and look down at your path. Ask yourself this question: “Where am I trying to go, and what is in my way?”