Privilege Blog

9 War-Weary Requirements For Doing A Good Job

I’ve been working for 34 years now.  I took time off to stay home with kids but, as anyone who’s been the primary caregiver for small children will tell you, that counts as work. And it turns out that in the 3rd decade, you develop a few maxims.

These are mine. I imagine you have yours. To be recited, either sotto voce during a long walk down the hall, or con brio to the assembled multitudes.

1. Always Be Closing

You can talk for 6 hours, eloquently, without any impact. Business is not art, not valuable in the ether. It’s a machine. Figure out the key things you and your group need to get done, and always be closing. This will require reminding people a lot, “And the point is?” Politely, of course. With small children this just means saying, “Shoes! Shoes! Shoes!” when it’s time to get into the car.

2. You Can Be Dumb And Nice, Or Mean And Smart, But Mean And Dumb Is Not OK

Seriously. We can all put up with nasties who deliver, if we have to. Witness Steve Jobs. We also have a soft spot for the slightly less competent, who smile and cheer us on our way. But if you’re going to abuse me with stupidity, I’m gone.

3. Half The Battle Is Showing Up Consistently

It’s great to be intelligent. Enjoy your smarts. But your value to others is directly diminished by how much time they spend waiting for you.

4. Concluding That It’s Someone Else’s Fault Teaches You Nothing. Corollary, Clean Up Your Own House First.

Sure, the other guy could be doing it all wrong. Sure, the problem may not be your fault. But you will never uncover that until you take a look at yourself, your team, and your department. Learn from even the most offbase accusers.

5. “Yes” Is The Best Way To Catch A Bad Actor

Let’s say someone’s pushing you to do something you think it misguided. As long as the downside is low, the best way to prove your point is to say “Yes.”  Natural consequences are on your side. Plus, think of all the organizational capital you don’t have to use up in a fight. (Read this book. The concept is explained quite well.)

6. You Will Never Have Enough Information. Get Over It.

As a professor told us in business school, “You will be paid to make decisions under uncertainty.”

7. Treat The Information You Do Have With Great Care

Make sure you’ve modeled your decision well. This will often mean spreadsheets and I am the worst spreadsheeter known to mankind. However, it turns out that even a rough model, using guesses and assumptions, clears stuff up. As long as you use the same unit of measure and compare apples to apples. That said, people who know math are your friend. If you know it yourself, rejoice.

8. Replace Buzzwords With The Simplest Language Possible And You Cut Through Denial

Compare, “We have to optimize the conference logistics,” to, “We have to make sure nobody gets stuck in O’Hare.” Simple language leaves room for humor. “Because anyone who spends too much time in the Clanging Tunnel Of Gershwin will be useless the next day. Dah dah dah dah dah dah dah dah.

9. Always Be Closing. Don’t Be Afraid To Repeat Yourself.

All of the above requires persistence, in case I hadn’t made myself explicit. The only sure way to fail is to give up altogether.

Have a wonderful aimless weekend, retaining and restoring all tenacity for Monday. When you are likely to need it again.

53 Responses

  1. I had to laugh at number one now that I have a grandson with ADD in the household–shoes, shoes, shoes is indeed the mantra. Number 3 is a big one in my field–academics somewhat value their freedom to organize their day, which can create delay when others are depending upon them. And number 8 is so true, BUT if you want to advance in academia you DO use the current buzz words. It’s a game.

  2. Thank you for crystallizing the concepts that have been formulating over my first 10 working years into simple language I will remember forever. This list is priceless.

  3. #8 is a brilliant suggestion (and if I dare, truism). I worked with a man who engaged in techspeak in a seeming attempt to baffle others with BS. Later he worked for me, and I began gently correcting. I am periodically guilty of using speak with obfuscates by virtue of the fact that I love words, and it was a most excellent reminder to have the man before me in my office during our 1-on-1’s – in some ways, like seeing my own failings reflected (see #4 above!).

    Great post!

  4. Wise and well said. I would only add, learn to take satisfaction for a job well done. Learn to take credit gracefully, too, when it’s offered, but, understand that positive feedback is not the culture of most places.

  5. 1. Thank you for considering the work of a primary caregiver as, well, work. From the bottom of my “once busy lawyer-now an exhausted mother” heart, thank you.
    2.I agree that mean and dumb are not acceptable…but I don’t accept mean and smart either. I am done with mean people, not matter their excuse.Nasties who deliver should work on their atittude, no matter how bright they are. I will quote marvellous Roald Dahl when he said, in an interview with the BBC:
    “I think probably kindness is my number one attribute in a human being. I’ll put it before any of the things like courage or bravery or generosity or anything else.”

    Or brains even?

    “Oh, gosh, yes, brains are one of the least. You can be a lovely person without brains, absolutely lovely. Kindness- that simple word. To be kind- it covers everything in my mind.
    If you’re kind that’s it.”

    Have a lovely weekend!

  6. Great advice, Thanks!
    Now all I have to do is go over your list with my hb. Number 3 is his weakness ; )!

  7. I love this list and I am going to come back to it. Thank you for the recognition of motherhood as a real job. Shoes!

  8. Ha! It took me decades to discover the truth of #5. Cheerfully walking down the wrong path, never minding the time lost, nurturingly nodding when the person in question finally gains insight.

    Well, as they say, the work itself would be quickly done if it weren’t for the people involved …

    Great post.

  9. Words of wisdom if I ever heard them. Especially “Shoes, shoes, shoes!”. Sometimes work feels like it has more in common with wrangling small children than one might expect.

    I often combine 6 and 8, and expand them into “the perfect is the enemy of the good” (a slogan which is sometimes my screen saver.) If you’re trying to be perfectly precise, create the perfect product, or make the perfect decision, you will always fail.

    1. I love that quote! Reminds me of the part in Tina Fey’s “Bossypants” where she says that each SNL episode didn’t go on because it was good, but because it was time to tape.

      Sometimes you just need to throw your work out there, and stop worrying about/waiting for it to be great.

  10. I love this. Part of my day job (the non-farmers wifing job) involves training new graduates in our profession. The two things I find I need to address all the time are the following:

    Punctuality – you have to at least start the day on time. Lateness is just rude and shows disrespect for coworkers.

    Attitude – even if you have had a bad day, you still need to show some grace and be courteous. As I say to our trainees – on days where you don’t feel like smiling and being courteous you just have to fake it! No-one is paid to be grumpy at work.

    Interestingly now I reflect on it, these attributes are pretty helpful as a stay at home Mum too. Shoes, shoes, shoes!! (And why is one shoe always missing, even if you located both 5 minutes before?? Where on earth do missing shoes hide? I think there is a little parallel universe they slip in and out of.)

    Take care Lisa.

  11. Great post. After all these years, I’ve learned that pointing fingers is a waste of time, and the most beneficial thing to do is say, “okay, let’s figure out how we can get to the most positive outcome here, and agree upon a plan for doing so.” And then do it! RD

  12. You have inspired me to make a few additions:
    1. Resist thinking the other person is a jerk; she might just have another business model. Listen to it.
    2. If you screw up, stand up. Don’t hide your mistakes.
    3. Leaders: what you permit, you promote. And you are the prime example.

    And, a corollary: to close, you have to know what the desired outcomes are, in concrete. observable (and whenever possible, measurable) terms.

  13. These maxims are thoughtful and useful, thanks for sharing. Some examples of #1 “Always be closing” have been given but I would appreciate more examples from you or others sometime as I often observe myself and others sort of just spinning in circles a lot and I’m always looking for ways to stop!

  14. As someone who deals with information, I can appreciate numbers six and seven, especially six. And cutting out the superfluous information can be just as difficult as finding the pertinent stuff.

  15. This is quite possibly the one entry I should tattoo somewhere visible on my body to constantly remind me of what matters with any job I undertake. All kidding aside, this is one of your best columns yet and I appreciate these reminders. I will print this one and keep it for as long as the print out perpetuities rule lasts.



  16. A wonderful post with great advice. Being punctual and courteous I think is just so important in all situations in life…… (And, I an going to send this post to my daughter too!). X

  17. Informative and interesting post.

    Margaret Thatcher’s ‘Iron fist in a velvet glove’ approach has always worked well for me. Ida

  18. In working for myself as an interior designer, #1 rang all my bells. If I wasn’t “closing”, I was wasting my time (and not getting paid). All 10 are great, and yes, thanks for recognizing motherhood as a real job.

  19. Sheer brilliance. Would it be awful to add that if one is physically attractive (good-looking, well-groomed and appropriately-dressed – but not so much so that it is a distraction to your contributions) in addition to nice and smart, one’s success at work – and likely in life – is probably inevitable?

    1. Amen! Lay some more of that wisdom on us! I’ve only been working for abou 10 years, and in a wide variety of jobs, so I still feel in need to tips on how to actually get stuff done while working for an organisation…

      1. I wonder if perhaps I have now told you all I know:). The rest is just remembering it.

  20. Very interesting, and I’d like to comment on number 2, and number 5.

    Number 5 first… in theory, this makes sense. I have found that in practice, it can be a big mistake. The problem is that in many cases, if you get pushed into doing something you know is the wrong thing to do, and there are negative consequences, YOU will still be blamed. You might have the satisfaction of saying, “I told you so,” to the person pushing for that course of action, and perhaps those aware that another person was pushing for the course of action will see the light. But in many organizations there is still going to be someone who doesn’t care about the details – they want a positive outcome, and they know that you were the one who took the wrong course of action, or signed off on it, so it is your fault. In some situations, if the person pushing for that wrong course of action is above you in the hierarchy, they may throw you under the bus when someone above them comes down hard on them for what happened. (Even high-level executives usually have at least a couple layers above them in the corporate world.)

    Number 2… in a healthy organization, this is true. Among people with significant organizational experience, this is true. Unfortunately there are times when you have to answer to incompetent people who prefer to work with dumb nice people and do NOT like or put up with smart and mean ones (or, smart and straightforward, matter of fact ones, which some people view as “mean”), and it can have devastating consequences for your career track. I was recently in a situation in which I was the executive director of a small non-profit. The large Board to which I answered was made up of community members with no experience in the industry in which we worked, and in many cases, no work experience at all. But, they insisted on micromanaging. And, they didn’t want a competent ED who could analyze situations, point out problems, and propose solutions. The Board president time and again talked about how “mild-mannered” another employee (who frankly, was incompetent and completely unqualified for her position) was, and how nice she was to deal with. But, it wasn’t her job to run the operation, so she had the luxury to be “nice” by not pointing out problems. The Board SHOULD want the person who is willing to say the unpopular things, point out unpleasant realities, and get things done. But, they preferred the “nice” person who didn’t know enough to recognize problems. That way, they didn’t have to deal with anything difficult. I was the third ED of that organization in 2 years, which is saying something. When I left, they hired someone with no experience at all, but who they thought “sounded really nice.”

    1. You are pointing out, I think, the difference between doing a good job and being recognized in an organization. The two things are not always aligned, it’s true.

  21. Perfection.

    I agree with an above commenter, that literally the only thing that I think is missing is “If you make a mistake, own it. No excuses, no dramatics, just the facts and an apology.” You learn very fast that way who you shouldn’t be working for, and save your boss a lot of headaches.

  22. I think I smell a cross stitch pattern.

    Shoes! Shoes! Shoes! with a tiny car driving away … or some such. I’ll make this my Montana summer project and send it to you from the Back of Beyond where I’ll be living :)

    1. I can’t believe you’re moving! And the cross-stitch would go right in my office.

  23. “Treat The Information You Do Have With Great Care” -everyday in my legal field job I keep that in my head as a mantra. “Treat information carefully”. Don’t overshare or overexplain. Don’t share with inappropriate parties (unless it’s public record). It is so, so important!

  24. I love this list! I’m putting it in my office (somewhere discreet) when I start my new job in the fall.

  25. Lisa, I’ve been reading your blog for 6 months now (found it through Corporette), and this is the best post yet! I may also have to put it on my wall.

  26. This post is straight wisdom, with a great splash of common sense. Thanks so much, Lisa.

    As another reader said, I feel like I should print this & post on my bulletin board. At home, of course–I worry it wouldn’t do to show your hand so fully at work. :( Am I overcorrecting, Lisa? I’m quite young for my job–and as an English major, was until recently still learning not to be extravagant with sharing–perhaps I am being too stiff!

    1. If this had been a post about how to succeed politically, then putting it on your wall would have been a bad idea. But since it’s just about doing a good job, I think anyone who sees it would approve. It’s not over-sharing to say you’re trying hard. And I’m very honored to be useful.

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