6 Ways To Get Ahead At Work

RHYMER RIGBY, author of The Careerist, a practical guide to GETTING AHEAD in the workplace, explains how humour and even holidays can boost you UP THE LADDER 

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1. Learning to laugh

Humour at work is about more than just cracking jokes. It can be about finding levity in difficult situations and dealing with frustration and stress in a way that makes people feel better. Being funny humanises you and tells people that you’re likeable and open – CEOs and politicians use it this way all the time. Humour disarms people and makes them more receptive to your message; it also tells them you are confident enough to laugh at yourself. Much of being witty is about timing, confidence and presentation, all of which are skills you can learn. Remember too that there are different channels: you can be a retiring conversationalist whose piquant emails have colleagues rolling in the aisles. Of course humour isn’t always appropriate – there’s no place for levity in sacking someone  and racist, sexist and homophobic gags are out obviously. You shouldn’t victimise individuals either; really, the only acceptable butt of your jokes is yourself. Bear in mind too, if doing business abroad, what brings the house down in Dublin may bring down your career in Shanghai. And there’s a correct level of humour. Endless jokes can be tiresome or suggest you lack substance – the class clown rarely becomes the CEO.

2. Letting off steam

Socialising with colleagues is an ambiguous area: it’s not business, and yet it’s not entirely pleasure either. But it’s a necessary part of work and a good thing: it strengthens workplace bonds and improves chemistry between individuals. It also shows that you’re a team player and can raise your profile and expose you to useful people outside your immediate team. If you’re a manager, it’s great to socialise with your team to an extent – as it tells you what people at the coalface are thinking. But you should bear in mind that they may want to let off steam without you – so buy them a few bottles of wine and slip away. Remember that colleagues, even the ones you get on very well with aren’t quite the same as friends. You may be in competition with them at work – and, while you may think that sitting next to someone for 40 hours a week means you have a lot in common, it may be all you have in common. Be careful with gossip – you want to be a source of interesting titbits, not a malicious backbiter. And recognise there are limits. Having a drink with colleagues once a month is great; socialising with colleagues twice a week suggests you have little else to do.

3. Taking a sabbatical 

Many organisations offer long-serving staff sabbaticals – typically three months to a year – in order to allow them to pursue interests and personal projects that full-time employment precludes. They may be paid or unpaid and the idea is that you get enough time for it to be far more than a holiday, but not so much that the entire company will have moved on and your role will have changed beyond all recognition. (Especially in a volatile economy organisations can change very quickly and promotions may be missed.) A sabbatical can refresh you and give you time out to take stock. It can help you fulfill psychological needs that work doesn’t – and from a business’s point of view, can engender loyalty. Start by planning properly so that you don’t spend your sabbatical planning your sabbatical. If, for example, you’ve never done aid work in rural Africa before, you might visit the country in question for a week before you commit. Don’t use a sabbatical to escape problems at work either; they’ll still be there when you get back. Your sabbatical should be about running towards a goal, not away from a bad situation. You need to plan your return to work before you start your sabbatical. It will take readjustment so give yourself time to catch up. Also – be realistic about your colleagues’ interest in what you’ve been up. They’ll want to hear about it, but don’t bore them to tears with endless digital slideshows.

4. Doing lunch

Lunch is a chance to get out of the office and spend some quality face-to-face time with people. It’s a relaxed, convivial environment and gives people an opportunity to open up. You can get to know people better, improve working relationships and find out a little more about those you work with.The venue should be appropriate to the occasion, person and industry. The kind of place you’d take a 22-year-old copywriter won’t be appropriate for a 54-year-old banker. Price matters too: you don’t want your guest to feel over-awed, uncomfortable or obliged. You should also think about dietary requirements, the location of the restaurant and (if you’re to discuss confidential matters) whether you’re likely to be overheard. If you’re the host, and if it’s an important lunch, a site visit beforehand might be a good idea if it’s your first visit. Assuming you’re hosting, get there first and take the lead on food and drink. Ensure too that the guest understands why you’re having lunch – is it a simple thank you or are you there to discuss strategy or talk about doing business together? Both host and guest should exercise moderation in food and drink choices unless it’s understood to be a blowout. Naturally, if you host, you pay. Even if the lunch is with a customer, it’s poor manners to pitch directly at the table. And if you pull out a laptop for à la carte PowerPoint, you belong in a special circle of lunch companion hell. Resist the urge to take phone calls and send messages – give the person opposite you your complete attention. The rest is just good etiquette: don’t get drunk and be polite to staff. And if something does go wrong (like a spilled glass of wine) use good humour to deal with it.

5. Learning to loaf 

Although holidays may seem irrelevant to your job, they actually play an important role in your career. As well as being opportunities to relax and recharge, they’re exercises in empowerment and delegation. You should use them far more wisely than many businesspeople do. Start by preparing well beforehand. Clear your holiday with your boss and clear it with the person next to you, who will probably pick up your work while you’re away. Think about how long you can be away for. If you’re senior, three weeks may be the limit although some directors take longer. More junior people are likely to be able to have fewer constraints. Before you leave, tie up as much as you can, delegate everything else and switch off. If you have delegated well, staff will only need to contact you for real emergencies. Even so, going smartphone cold turkey may be too much for some. If this is the case, try and cut down. Check your email a few times a day; and don’t walk around on the beach with a BlackBerry. Get used to the idea that it’s OK to sit around and do nothing all morning. If you struggle with holidays (and many successful people do) tell yourself that this downtime and rest will make you a better, refreshed, more effective employee employee. Remember too that not taking your holiday is essentially the same as taking a salary cut.

6. Career karma

Traditionally pro-bono work was the preserve of lawyers. But more and more industries are now allowing their staff to put something back. So how do you ensure your good deeds go rewarded? For junior people, pro-bono work can be a great way to gain experience – both in terms of different functions and more senior roles. It can also offer a chance to step outside the normal corporate sphere and work with people you would never normally meet. It also helps you form relationships and build networks across your organisation. You may find yourself dealing with colleagues in other offices or reporting directly to very senior people. It’s also a winner in terms of job satisfaction. Many people (and companies) recognise that it adds a sort of ethical dimension to your career and this can be very motivating. For some, pro-bono work gives you a freer hand than you might normally have and it can be easier to see the results and feel that you’ve made a difference. You shouldn’t approach pro-bono work expecting to get something concrete out of it in career terms. But if you take the view that you’re doing good for its own sake good may come of it; think of it as corporate karma. Besides, it’s always going to look good on your CV.

The Careerist, Over 100 Ways to Get Ahead at Work is published by Kogan Page.

This article appeared in a previous issue, for more features like this don’t miss our next issue, out Thursday May 4.

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