Three (Unprofessional) Ways to Get Ahead at Work

June 23, 2015

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The world is filled with advice about how to do things at work better or differently so that you’ll get noticed, and in faster-than-due time, get ahead.

Much of such advice is excellent. Lord knows, I’ve offered up my fair share of it. Don’t deliver, over-deliver. Volunteer for hard assignments. Stay tech-current. Avoid office politics.

All professional stuff, right?

So how about some unprofessional advice for a change? That is, how about some advice about what you can do when you’re not at work to improve your chances of advancement? Because in my experience, three techniques – all conducted off the clock — can be very powerful career boosters as well.

First, read a book about a time or a culture that confounds you.

“No, thank you very much,” you’re likely thinking, or some less polite variation. And I get it. Who wants to add complexity to their blessed downtime? But here’s the thing. When you dive into the deep with a mystery, and you then somehow wrangle that mystery into the light of understanding, it can blow open your mind to new ways of seeing people and the world. It can soften you and sharpen you.

Take, for instance, my own agonizing but revelatory reading two summers ago of “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” by Katherine Boo. The non-fiction treatise, which won the National Book Award, chronicles life inside of one of India’s grimmest slums. In a word, the story is nightmarish.

And yet, I’d read it again in a heartbeat. The book enlightened me in ways that have made me better able to talk about India in my work as a business journalist, but also as just a plain old citizen of the world. Like many, I’ve long been bewildered by the contrast between India’s splendor and scarcity, its unbridled promise and unfathomable despair. “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” explored that pardox, allowing me to enter conversations with a more empathetic and informed perspective. At the same time, the book has helped me think in a more nuanced way about America’s economic divide, a topic upon which I am often asked to comment.

So pick up a book, in particular one you wouldn’t normally read for fun. The upside will come later, when you see your hard-won knowledge make you wiser at work.

Second, write thank you notes.

The best manager I’ve ever known used to keep a small piece of paper taped to her desk. “Gratitude,” it read. And gratitude she did indeed display, to each member of the team, with an authenticity and warmth that inspired nothing short of devotion from us all. But one weekend, I found out that my manager’s generosity of spirit was not a work thing. It was a life thing. Through a series of unexpected events, I ended up giving her a ride to a funeral of mutual acquaintance. Her car was in the shop; another ride fell through. I offered to help, she accepted, and when I dropped her off afterward, that was really the last I thought of it.

The next morning, though, my inbox contained a beautiful thank you note. It didn’t sound all that different from her work missives, actually. And that’s when I realized that saying thank you all the time is a discipline. It’s a practice, and a personality trait. It’s a heart thing. Do it in your off hours, and chances are, you’ll keep it going when you walk into the office. The upshot? A reputation as someone who understands that nothing good ever happens alone. Or put another way, the reputation of a natural leader.

Finally, get your hands dirty volunteering. Literally.

I often recommend that young professionals get involved in one or two small non-profit organizations that might give them a shot at becoming a board member. Governance is a great learning experience.

But with this final point I’m recommending something more gritty. Like walking dogs at a rescue, or serving meals at a homeless shelter. The reason is simple: almost nothing builds character like giving away your precious time, time you could be catching up on Game of Thrones, say, or playing tennis, especially when you’re giving it away when it “doesn’t count.”

But guess what? Character matters. It matters a ton. People may tell you promotions are all about the numbers you hit. But in any good company, character is the intangible “X factor” that managers agonize over when they’re behind closed doors, trying to decide who will get promoted.

Maybe you’re already filled with good stuff. You’re centered; you’re humble. But character is like love. You can never have enough of it. So build yours at work every chance you get, but don’t stop at that. Even if it’s two hours a weekend, spread kindness when no one is looking.

The way life usually works, on Monday morning, everyone will see it in you anyway.

And even if they don’t see it, I’d make the case it’s still all good. Growing your intellect, showing gratitude, and caring for the helpless enrich your soul, sometimes in ways work itself cannot.

Best-selling author, popular television commentator and noted business journalist Suzy Welch is the co-author of Wall Street Journal and New York Times bestseller, The Real Life MBA: Your No-BS Guide to Winning the Game, Building a Team, and Growing Your Career. The Real Life MBA: Your No-BS Guide to Winning the Game, Building a Team, and Growing Your Career. Follow Suzy on Twitter @suzywelchand Instagram @jack_and_suzy. All proceeds from The Real Life MBA book sales will be donated to fund educational scholarships for low-income students.

Suzy Welch
Co-Author, The Real Life MBA