Thursday, April 30, 2015

Sweating the Small Things -- Advice for Our Kids

I confess to being one of those people who grew up trying at all costs to avoid work, and would do a pretty poor job at something if I didn't want to be asked to do again.  That tack didn't work too often, but I still tried it.  Growing out of that approach was a lot harder than I thought it would.

So ... the other day, on my exercise bike, I saw a clip of a commencement address given at a university by Bret Baier, the TV news reporter who works for the Fox News organization.  One part of it made me sit up and take notice, especially given my corrupt youth as someone looking to avoid work where possible.

I couldn't readily find a copy of the speech, but memory serves me well enough to convey the point that Baier made.  In essence, addressing the young men and women getting their degrees and charging off into the real world, his message was this:  

You will have some small tasks to do, and you may think they're terrible or boring or menial.  Do them anyway.  Do them well.  Because someone above you will always notice.

Wow, I thought, what a great piece of advice to give anyone.  Not just college graduates, from the mouth of a commencement speaker, but to much younger people, varying the maturity of the message for the age of the recipient.  

I thought about that quite a bit.  At 64 in a week or so, I have quite often been the person doing the small task, and I have also quite often been the "someone above" who is supposed to notice when someone else does the task well.  Now, I don't expect ever to be that person again; I expect to be a consultant the remainder of my career, which means that there will always be a "someone above" to please -- my client.

But particularly, I thought about how I had reacted in the past to the efforts of subordinates and people in organizations I had led.  Strange, I thought -- Baier was right; I always noticed when they did their assignments well and on time.  I relied upon people who did that, even though I sometimes didn't consciously think that way but rather, just did it.

I think if it were I, not Bret Baier, making that speech, from my own experience and my gut, I would have said something like this:

"Employers don't just give jobs away; they create them out of need.  As a result, they look at your productivity and attitude -- particularly your productivity -- the same way they look at any asset they have spent money on.  You are a laptop, or a copier, or a health insurance policy.  If you don't do as expected, you are no longer worth what you are paid.  If you do perform, if you at least do all the things we expect you to do in your job, you add value to the company and to the "brand" that you have created for yourself for that employer.

"If you do perform, your employer will start asking whether you can do more, and when they do, and when you are able to take on more, you add still further value to your brand.  You will rise because of that value -- for that employer or another.  Employers will be willing to invest in you, because you have proven the return on their investment is there, and the risk is less.

"And all of that, new graduates, is because you did what you were asked to do and, however small the task, you did it well, you did it on time.  May God hold you in the palm of his hand."

I expect Mr. Baier probably said it differently, and perhaps a little better and more articulately.  The message, regardless, is the same.

Do what you are asked.  Do it well, and do it on time.  Someone above you will notice.

 Copyright 2015 by Robert Sutton
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  1. As a Boy Scout leader, you could look at the 11 year olds and see the ones who always did things better than asked, and put in more effort. In 5-7 years, those would be your Eagle Scouts. One boy had to carve something useful to earn his Totin' Chip and be able to use a knife without close supervision. Most boys carved a tent peg. He carved a working knife, fork, and spoon. A few years later he was the best Senior Patrol leader I ever had, and earned his Eagle rank easily. He's very successful still.

  2. Actually, Anon, during all the years I was the one doing the hiring, the presence of "Eagle Scout" on a resume was an almost automatic trigger for an interview. The type of ethic that makes an Eagle Scout does not go away. And that's coming from someone who was never a Scout growing up.

  3. I remember a conversation with one of my neighbors, a CFO in a very successful investment firm. I was struck by the fact that with all of the success he had in life, being an eagle scout was what he was proudest of.

    1. That may be because it is more indicative of the innate ethical compass and fundamental work ethic of the individual than anything done in adulthood.