Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Think one step ahead

If I were to summarise the secret of getting ahead in your career (in job or in business or for your venture), this would be it. Think one step ahead. It could very well apply in your role as an entrepreneur, venture capitalist, indeed it could apply anywhere in your life, even at a traffic signal where you are trying to butt ahead.

But from a career perspective in any given firm that you land - right at the bottom of the heap as perhaps a management trainee, this will be the most invaluable advice that you get and you will never get it in as many words. Now that I have used up the main message of my piece right at the outset, what is the value that I will add? Well, read on. Perhaps I have thought one step ahead too.

Typically most MBAs join a firm as a management trainee. The management trainee has a set of tasks assigned to him. If you are in a firm that has a corporate management trainee program, you will be working with one department and have a dotted line to the corporate group as well. Which means both the groups will have you work on specific initiatives or
projects and you will have a bunch of regular day to day work that you are responsible for. In both of these, you can keep thinking a step ahead over whats expected of you.

One of the invaluable pieces of advice that I received at the start of my career from a high flying Finance Executive was "Our hiring process is good enough for us to get people who will do what they are told. What we need is people who will do more than just what they are told". Again, think one step ahead, put in a different form.

What is it that a company wants out of an MBA? Even at the lowest rung? Think about it. The companys basic need is to thrive (not survive) in the market. And every little thing that the company does is to meet this objective. The MBA (or any new hire for that matter) is expected to do this. So, one of your first perspectives to the firm that you are hired
is to give an "outside-in" perspective. Think one step ahead in the group you are in and give them a presentation on your observations in that group after a month or so. (If it seems funny that a one month old in a company can give a recommendation, please stop your MBA preparation before you finish reading this.) As perhaps the lowest fish in the foodchain, you are expected to have your ear to the ground and a voice at places where that sound can be heard. Use it. As a newbie in the department or on the field, you can see the action out there and you can share this with those who matter. Who knows? You might contribute in your company coming up with a new product or a blockbuster service.

Set up meetings with group heads and department heads either individually or as a group (this is better). Picking their brains gives you insight into the way they think, the way the company thinks and overall gives you a better feel of the ecosystem. And the added benefit, is that they will recall your name. (How important is that, take a guess.)

If you have a peer group as management trainees, ensure that you meet and share the knowledge about different parts of the firm - do this as an initiative nobody told you about. Why? Once a firm is established with departments guarded like forts, each department outdoes the other in "keeping things secret". This is one of the relics of our stone age
mentality when people hid food in order to keep predators away. This attitude is reflected in the 'secret' mentality. As a group of management trainees, by doing this initiative you will be a step ahead in connecting the company across their departments and many time you
will make them aware of how work gets done. Of course, I need not tell you how beneficial it will be in case some of you continue to work with the firm for a longish spell. How that for thinking ahead?

When your boss (and you will have one, unless you are starting off on your own with your own money) asks you for a deliverable, think in his shoes. And ask her questions. Why does she want what she wants? Whats the target audience? What is the level of detail expected? If you are asked for data, give a bit of your analysis as well. If you are asked for high level information, put the detail in the appendix. If you asked for some numbers supply the work out method as well. This may sound simple, even obvious, but many a time, what you give will be very apparent to you since you would seen it through a few iterations. But
for someone who sees it for the first time and without the luxury of you nearby to explain, everything that you put together would be Greek and Latin. So, take that extra step and make everything you do self explanatory. Add analysis, footnotes and all of this is doing a little more than what is asked. Are these must to have, perhaps not, but they are nice to have and your work will be appreciated if you understand what exactly is required and deliver that.

If something is expected to be delivered on regular basis, try to get to it earlier on, a step ahead, so that you spend time with the data, analyzing it, not running after it. When you know your boss is working on something, help her get there. Ultimately if your boss doesn't reach her goal, you don't. And how is this one step ahead? Well, you are thinking from your bosses shoes, aren't you? And this is the exact thing you need to do. While you will have your own job description, the best and fastest way to learn what goes on at the next level is to, help your boss by being one step ahead of your job description.

A lot of what is required to succeed at your job is all about thinkng one step ahead. It is not as easy as it sounds though...

(An edited version of this piece was published in Advancedge in Mar09)

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