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Donkin on Work - Psychometrics

November 2006 – How to develop the right attitude to work

If you have yet to discover a piece of internet browsing software at a website called StumbleUpon.com, I can recommend it for the way it transforms that otherwise rudderless exercise called “surfing the net” in to a stimulating experience.

The software is an intelligent browser which enables you to select from a range of about 500 topic categories, not quite the number listed in the Dewey decimal system, but a broad field of choices nevertheless.

The browser then uses your choices to select from the billions of web pages out on the web. Every time you click your stumble button it brings up another page. By clicking on additional “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” buttons, you can register your approval or disinterest. In doing so you are refining your selection criteria still further since each rating is digested by the software.

The stumble button on my home page now has a pretty good idea about the kind of material that pushes my own particular buttons. I would guess that it throws me one interesting site for every five attempts which is not a bad hit rate.

One of the web sites I found last week was Similarminds.com, a site that enables you to undertake a selection of personality tests. Sometimes I get calls and emails from parents who want advice about various commercial services offering personality testing and assessments for their graduate-level offspring.

While I would not deny that such services have some value - and the ones I have come across do use respectable instruments - I do question whether it is necessary to pay for such advice when there is guidance available free on the internet.

The internet tests do not, of course, include the kind of face-to-face consultation that is offered by some services, but practicing the tests on a site like this will give aspiring executives among graduates an insight in to the kind of personality-focused questions they may encounter if they apply for a traineeship with a large employer.

Practice on a site such as this is useful in the way it provides some self-knowledge, but it does not deliver the kind of detailed pointers about how to approach your work on the first rung of corporate management.

I might have made fewer early career mistakes if I had been able to draw on the sound practical advice delivered in a new book, From New Recruit to High Flyer, by Hugh Karseras, an investment banker and former McKinsey & Co consultant.

His chapter on workplace attitudes, for example, includes observations that may prove unpalatable to anyone who believes that big City salaries do not extract their pound of flesh. The good news, he says, is that you can get on in such jobs without displaying academic brilliance, but not without commitment.

The work ethic and work attitude was rated highly among about 100 senior executives consulted by the author in researching the book. “There is no substitute for hard work and, let’s be clear here, hard work is not only about working long hours; it is born of a deep desire to get your work done to the highest quality and in timely fashion,” writes Mr Karseras.

That said, he does not subscribe to the investment banking habit of putting in “face time,” the practice of working late in order to be seen to be there by your boss.

Another piece of good advice, is “never complain.” It’s not always easy to find yourself doing some dull job when you have always been among the academic elite at school and university. But, as Mr Karseras points out, nearly all “first-rung” jobs in the City will entail some drudge work at times. If you can’t feel enthusiastic about a particular job, he says, then fake it.

Demonstrating a willing attitude to do the dull along with the exciting, to make cups of tea for your colleagues or work the photocopier, he argues, will always go down well with a boss.

Most management and career books don’t tell you this kind of stuff. Refreshingly and deliberately, he has omitted “leadership lessons,” that seem to go with every new tome on talent management. As a student at Harvard Business School he noticed that its alumni were sometimes viewed as arrogant, partly from the way that its MBA students are instilled with the sense that they are “future leaders” from the day they arrive on campus.

But, as he notes, those leaving business school are still going to occupy relatively junior jobs on completion of their course. “The reality of the first-rung job is that you have to do a lot more following than you do leading,” he says.

The best parts of the book are those that try to instil in first-rung professionals a sense of humility, respect and team work. “You should not view any task as beneath you,” it says.

In my experience it is dangerous to consider anyone in your workplace unimportant and that is a lesson for managers as much as juniors. One of my former colleagues remembered working as a junior reporter with a similarly junior colleague who, he said, was “given hell” by one section editor. One day, that same editor found himself answering to the former junior who turned out to be the vengeful type. In this case neither individual had demonstrated the finest human qualities and neither survived a full-term career.

I have few quibbles with Mr Karseras whose advice is first rate, honest and important for anyone pursuing a career in corporate management, but I worry about the system that demands such persistent focus from employees.

As he points out, “you cannot expect to be the best first-runger while working a 50-hour week when the other first-rungers are working 60 hours. If you do not recognise this trade-off and do not explicitly choose to make it, you will only become frustrated and disappointed when you see others progress faster.”

But what kind of trade-off is acceptable? Too many people today, I believe, are choosing their career ahead of their family life. Tellingly Mr Karseras quotes Kim Clark, the former dean of Harvard Business School who would tell MBA students on graduation, “No success in the workplace can compensate for failure at home.”

Those kinds of choices also need the right kind of attitude, an attitude to life that does not stress work for work’s sake, but that keeps a sense of perspective about a career and the meaning of success.

Unlike so many modern consulting-style management books that are thinly veiled marketing tools for the writer, this one has been written in easy language with a genuine desire to fill a gap in management education. Attitude matters in publishing too.

“I wanted to write about the things I would have appreciated knowing in the first two years of my career, a lot of the small common sense stuff that you don’t think about when you’re starting out,” he says. As one of life’s stumblers I too would have appreciated such advice and would commend it to anyone seeking to build a successful career.

From New Recruit to High Flyer: No-nonsense Advice on How to Fast Track Your Career by Hugh Karseras

www.stumbleupon.com

www.similarminds.com

   
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