Initially, colleagues expect to see professionalism and good judgment, but they know you haven’t learned the ropes yet and will cut you a break for small errors. Soon though, you’ll be juggling multiple projects and emails and immersed in the day-to-day. Practice good business habits early and they will become second nature. Fail to do so and your challenges may cascade.
Use these best practices to build a great professional reputation.
1) Respect your colleagues’ time. Don’t ask the same question twice. Instead of asking a colleague about a business practice, ask where to find the reference materials so you can answer the next question yourself. Never ask any question Google could answer in ten minutes or less.
Prepare for every meeting. Listen more than you speak, and when you speak make it count. Ask questions that advance the conversation, not just ones that interest you. What you ask says as much about you as what you say.
When you prepare material for your manager or colleagues, apply the doctrine of “completed staff work”: turn in work your boss can accept, reject, or question, but don’t turn in half-finished work with unresolved questions in place of a clear recommendation.
2) Keep your commitments. Colleagues will forgive honest mistakes but they will not forgive unreliability. Blow agreed deadlines and no one will care about the quality of your work. Unlike school deadlines, sometimes failing to deliver your work on time can lead to disaster. Communicate with your manager and stakeholders about which deadlines have no wiggle room so you can prioritize accordingly.
Agree only to deadlines you know you can meet … and if anything happens to jeopardize those deadlines, communicate immediately! Underpromise and overdeliver and you might even earn a reputation as a miracle worker. If you delegate, don’t abdicate; owning a project means ensuring the people who owe you parts will deliver. On vacation? Sick? Ensure your work gets covered. “Sorry, I was out that day” does not fly in the business world.
3) Practice outstanding email etiquette. Some colleagues may primarily “know” you via your emails, so your emails must reflect the level of professionalism you wish to convey.
Follow these two rules above all. First, be responsive. Ask your manager about your organization’s expected turnaround time for replies. If you meet her standard, she will have your back. Second, if someone assigns you a task via email, send a brief reply acknowledging receipt and stating, restating, or renegotiating the deadline.
Don’t use email to apologize, negotiate, argue, or air grievances. It’s too easy to misread tone. If you feel your blood pressure rise, take a short breather and then address the issue in person. If you need a response in half a day or less, walk down the hall or use the phone.
Everyone despises mass email abuse. Be judicious about sending emails to large groups, and especially beware hitting “reply-all.” Sending an unnecessary all-staff email is the quickest way to look like an idiot. Ask your manager when in doubt, and read more about how to use email.
4) Stay positive. Things will happen at work that frustrate you. You may need to vent about them. Vent only to a trusted friend or colleague, do it behind closed doors, and do it with the goal of getting to a better place emotionally so you can then be part of the solution. By contrast, whiners complain indiscriminately, publicly, and unconstructively, none of which help advance the organization’s mission. Vent if needed, but don’t whine.
Pick your battles and avoid organizational politics. You can listen to drama without taking sides. If a colleague instructs you to keep something confidential, do so. Avoid being branded as part of a clique as they have a reputation of gossip and exclusion. Having a few close friends is normal, but also be the sort of person anyone in the office would want to hang out with.
Never whine that your tasks are beneath you. Do your job, not the job you wish you had. You will earn better tasks by doing the ones you have well without complaint. Also do not whine about mornings or you risk being judged. Visibly slog your way to 11am every day and people may assume you are hungover or lazy. Be the enthusiastic person your colleagues are excited to work with.
5) Hang out with winners. Be known as a team player, eager to learn and serious about your career. Identify colleagues known for doing good work, regardless of department, and spend time with them. Generally they are more experienced and at higher levels in the hierarchy. These are the people you can learn from. Volunteer to assist when they need help, provided doing so does not jeopardize your core priorities.
Never pass up a chance to learn from senior leaders. If a manager hosts an optional book club, brainstorm, or information session, and there’s any chance it could be valuable for you, attend. Managers notice who invests time in optional activities to help the organization, and they notice who doesn’t.
If any of these colleagues invites you to lunch or happy hour, say yes early and often. Say no too many times and the invitations will dry up; nobody likes rejection. Or take the initiative and invite them. Periodically ask them for advice. Ask what it means to be successful in your role. Ask what you can do to improve. Solicit, accept, and learn from their feedback.
Chad Wilcox is Chief Operating Officer with the Institute of Economic Affairs in London. This is the second of a five part series.