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There's a Reason They Call It Work - Ten Lessons from the Trenches

When I think about my 36 year long career (so far), there are a lot more highlights than low lights. Here are ten lessons that have helped me navigate the world of work. I'd love to hear from you what I missed.
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"There's a reason they call it work", my Dad would say. "If it was fun, they wouldn't need a separate word for it." His point was that all jobs are a mix of things you enjoy doing and those you don't. If you're lucky, there are more parts that are enjoyable than those that aren't. As I approach my second Father's Day without my father, I've been thinking about his legacy and the lessons about work and leadership he taught me. He owned his own company, but was always quick to point out that he still had to report to customers, suppliers, and the bank. He had a lot of fun, but he worked 18 hours a day 6 days a week for much of his career - which didn't end until he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease at age 77.

Last week I had the opportunity to attend two days of leadership training with a few of my colleagues. We were the first group to do this training, and will be followed by over 200 of our senior management colleagues in the coming months. Our company is in the midst of a period of significant transformation and growth, and the training is designed to get the leadership team more deeply educated about the strategic vision for the company. Most of the program, however, focused on the behaviors that will be required from the leadership team in order to achieve the business transformation.

A lot of leaders dread this type of training, especially if they've been leaders for a long time. And those of us who've attended a lot of these trainings over the years have definitely experienced boring and ineffective programs. The program I attended was effective - cross functional participants facilitated networking, the content was designed to be highly interactive, and the group was energized to lead our teams into our company's future. This program issued a call to action to our leadership team to have the courage to lead ourselves, our teams and our company. And it provided us with very specific coaching on management techniques that can help accelerate our already impressive growth.

This training also got me thinking about the lessons I've learned about leadership the hard way during twenty plus years as a leader. I've been lucky. When I think about my 36 year long career (so far), there are a lot more highlights than low lights. Here are ten lessons that have helped me navigate the world of work. I'd love to hear from you what I missed.

Respect the Irenes in your organization. This one comes courtesy of my father, pictured above on a trip back to the headquarters site of his Newfoundland-based company in 2007. My first job was doing the payroll, manually, at his codfish processing plant in Witless Bay, Newfoundland. Irene was the long time office manager who knew how to make things happen. Her's wasn't just functional knowledge, but a deep insight into how to motivate behavior all over the organization. Getting to know the Irenes everywhere I've worked since has saved me time and embarrassment.

Speak up. This one applies when you have a good idea and/or when you know that something just isn't right. It takes courage to challenge the status quo or to call it quits on something that just isn't working any more. It's also what makes you a leader.

Assertions absent data are just your opinion. This is a corollary to speaking up. If you want to promote your idea, you need to be able to substantiate its merit with objective data. Establish a clear and detailed vision of what your proposal achieves, and vividly explain the steps to get there.

The workplace is different for women. Even as organizations have welcomed women into the workforce in the last 30 years, the realities of childbearing and rearing can still throw them for a loop when it comes to contemplating alternative career paths and flexible work options. The world has come a long way since 1985 - when my then employer asked me to sign a letter committing that I wouldn't get pregnant. And we have a way to go. There remains a significant gender gap when it comes to compensation and opportunities for advancement.

The company's money is the company's money. In the interest of encouraging employees to be frugal, companies often exhort them to "treat the company's money like it's your own". This seems to confuse some people - whose behavior can lead you to believe that they must live like sultans from Dubai on their own time. Don't waste company resources and don't play games with your expenses.

There is power in silence. This is a thesis topic in its own right. Relationships and careers get derailed when things are said in anger, ignorance, or just because the speaker decided to keep talking while s/he shouldn't have. Keeping your mouth shut at the right times gives you time to think.

Email is both friend and foe. I'm old enough to remember the workplace pre-email. It's a fantastic tool for conveying information and agreements quickly to lots of people. The dark side of this ease of use is how much workplace productivity is sacrificed to individuals coping with volumes of email that get in the way of "real work". It's a rotten tool for negotiating agreements. And it makes it way too easy to communicate something in haste that you'll regret later.

Selling is the most important skill of all. The years I spent as a sales rep were among the most valuable of my career. Planning and persuasion are key to success in sales - and in business in general. I don't care what your functional expertise is. If you can't persuade others to take action, your own success will be limited.

Management has its ups and downs. This one could also be called "be careful what you wish for". It's great to manage a team of capable, creative and motivated people (as I do now). However, as your responsibilities, compensation, and access to information increase, so does your risk. Your mistakes become more costly and visible and the time you need to invest in doing a good job increases. You have to make tough decisions that can lead to unemployment for people you care about.

Not everyone can or should be a manager. Organizations need to continue to find ways to retain highly talented individual performers whose goals don't (or shouldn't) include people management.

Keep your job in perspective. This one isn't always easy, but is probably the most important of all. Jobs have their ups and downs. Organizations do, too. Be respectful of other people, work hard while you're at work, don't be defensive in the face of obstacles, and when you go home, shut the door on the workplace. Much is written about how organizations can help promote work life balance. Ultimately, though, only you can define and protect the work-life boundaries that work for you. If you can't honor that balance in your current job situation, then it's up to you to find one that will work for you.

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