Getting Ahead at Work by Improving your Image

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Early in my career, I learned that age is no gauge for knowledge. At 22, I was meeting with executives at huge companies convincing them to buy from me. I was young enough to understand today’s technologies and trends and I also knew how to talk in a way that showed the true benefit to the client. Despite the fact that I looked 16, my behavior, mannerisms, and knowledge of the customers’ problems made me appear smarter than most.

Honing your image doesn’t only apply to sales people. Regardless of your spot in an organization, the people that portray a positive professional image are the ones that generally get ahead. I am not saying this is right or wrong, I am calling it reality and I realize there are exceptions. For instance, I’ve known several entry level programmers that got promoted despite their T-shirts and jeans and in some cases, anti-corporate attitude. They hit huge deadlines and thus proved their worth. In some positions, that isn’t enough.

For those that are in a situation like mine, here are a handful of ways to gain some clout at work in the early years.

    • Buck the trend: Whether it’s right or wrong, a lot of the managers I talk to are having a hard time with employees that are just out of college. It’s a generational adjustment really. Managers have the impression that many grads believe they are doing the company a favor by working there. In fact, the opposite is true. Nevertheless, if the hiring manager has this impression you have to address it to avoid being lumped into this stereotype. The people that are knowledgeable and offering a sincere approach to their jobs do much better than those with knowledge and a cocky attitude. If you believe you are caught in this rut, check yourself and evaluate how you act in interviews. 
  • Presentation: I am not talking about giving a presentation, I am talking about YOUR presentation. I go on 12-15 sales calls each week with new reps and the trend apparently is to forget the professional briefcase and to bring your backpack. I love backpacks and use mine all the time – but not in front of a customer or in internal business settings. I can’t think of anything tackier then getting into a conference room and then rummaging through a backpack for your pen. Dress and present yourself like you actually gave it some thought. I am not talking about wearing ties, suits, and Dockers everyday but at least consider that you’re at work.
  • Be a solver: It’s very easy to list your problems are or why you’re not happy. In fact, it’s easy enough that everyone does it – mentally, in an email, or actually on paper. This is a good practice in theory but most people write the list and live with it, or worse some complain about it looking for validation. 

A solver is someone that sees the issue and immediately prepares smart solutions. Solvers are of value to the organization because they drive change and help the company evolve. The President of your company may not see the tactical issues you are facing and instead of you pouting about it, perhaps it’s time you came up with a solution. As a side note, widespread issues are more likely to get acted upon. Being upset about the color of your cube is not something that will ultimately get a lot of traction and it will actually have the opposite effect on your image. Remember this rule: Executives care about decreasing costs, increasing revenue, and beating the competition. If you can consistently build a solid case as to why your ideas hit on one of these, you will do well.

  • Solve it, Speak it: If you have a solid solution for something, don’t just float it out there with, “I am not sure but I think this could work”. Make a statement such as, “If we do ABC, the result will be XYZ”. This is so simple and in both cases you’re getting the idea out there, but the latter sentence shows you really believe your solution will work and you are open to discussing it. Showing confidence, while being open to criticism, will give you credibility. This is especially true when you speak with facts and leave the emotions at home. 
  • The Shotgun: I am just going to shotgun a bunch of things that you should avoid. No matter how well you cultivate your image at work, doing something stupid can immediately ruin it. Each of these came from HR notices that I’ve seen at work over the last few months.
  • Don’t get drunk and “expose your posterior” (moon people) at the holiday party
  • Don’t store “3,143 songs” on your work PC after you’ve “previously been asked to delete or move them”.
  • Don’t have other people punch in for you so it appears you were at work on time
  • Logging into Myspace “in excess of 14 times per day on average” is probably not good
  • Don’t send emails at night “laced with profanity” after you’ve had several beers
  • Understand that the corporate laptop is corporate even after hours. “Surfing *bad* sites after work hours” from a company machine is still not OK.

I can go on with this one but the point is obvious. Use common sense. Your image is an asset.

A reader recently emailed me some related tips that he posted on his blog, Employee Evolution. If you want to supplement the ones I’ve listed, check his out as well.

-Jay

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