In work, as in life, we learn from trial and error: I was having Problem A so I implemented Solution A and it didn’t work. Then I tried Solution B and it did! Next time I’ll know to use Solution B first thing. And so it goes, over and over again, throughout your career. Forty years or so go by and, finally, you’ve got it all figured out. You retire with the proverbial gold watch and a head full of valuable knowledge.
Wouldn’t it have been nice to have that information at the beginning of your career instead?
Quint Studer wants to make that wish a reality. In his just-released title, The Great Employee Handbook: Making Work and Life Better (Fire Starter Publishing, 2012, ISBN: 978-0-9828503-3-6, $28.00), he shares the wisdom he’s learned from working with thousands of employees at every level. His work with CEOs, in particular, made it clear that high-level leaders value certain skills in the people who work for them—and those skills may not be what you’d expect.
“The issues most people struggle with have little to do with our ability to do the work,” notes Studer. “It’s all the things that happen around the work. It’s how good we are at keeping projects moving. It’s whether we make life easier for our coworkers or more difficult. It’s how well we can read and respond to customers’ unspoken needs.”
In The Great Employee Handbook, Studer provides a wealth of how-to advice aimed at helping readers become more productive and successful on the job. He divides the book into three sections aimed at the three “worlds” employees inhabit: the worlds of the boss, coworkers, and customers. When we’re able to master these skills, everything in our life goes more smoothly—not just from 8 to 5 but after hours, too.
“When we’re more effective at work, everything changes,” explains Studer. “Leaders value us and set us up for success. Coworkers like us and want to help us. Customers like us and keep doing business with us. All of these conditions work together to make us happy on the job—and when we’re happy on the job, we’re happy at home.”
He reveals twelve secrets seasoned employees know—secrets that anyone of any experience level can use to their advantage:
• In the boss’s mind, the ball is always in your court. Once the boss gives you an assignment, she may mentally mark it off her to-do list. She may even forget about it. It’s up to you to do what you need to do to move it forward quickly. Never let yourself be the hold-up. Check in with the boss regularly on the project so that she doesn’t have to bring it up. If you hit a roadblock and can’t proceed until you get more information, let her know—just be sure you’re not procrastinating.
“Sometimes people let a few missing details hold an entire project hostage,” notes Studer. “I find it’s always better to complete chunks of work and fill in the missing details later. This is good for your workflow but it also reassures the boss that you’re doing the best you can to keep the project moving. It relieves a lot of anxiety for her.”
• Park Ranger Leadership is exhausting and ineffective. When you bring the boss a problem, always bring a solution. Leaders are like the rest of us: overloaded and overwhelmed. Yet, despite the boss’s already massive to-do list, employees habitually add their problems to his pile. Studer calls this the-boss-will-figure-it-all-out mentality Park Ranger Leadership—and he insists it’s the least effective way to get things done.
“Think about it this way: If every time you got lost in the woods, a park ranger showed up to lead you out, you’d never learn to find the way out yourself,” he explains. “That’s what many leaders do, and it creates a situation where employees stop trying to solve problems. They think: Someone up there has always figured it out before, so they will this time, too. But that’s hard on the leaders and it’s limiting for the company.
“When you bring a problem to the boss, also bring a solution,” Studer adds. “The boss will appreciate your initiative and creativity. Also, you’re closer to the problem than he is so you can probably come up with a better solution. If all employees did this, the whole company would be stronger, more innovative, and more resilient.”
• There is one thing the boss cares about more than anything else. Figure it out and act on it. When you know what matters most to the boss—what her what is, as Studer expresses it—then you can laser-focus on meeting her needs in this area. Let’s say you’ve noticed negativity drives her crazy. She just can’t stand griping and complaining. It puts her in a bad mood and makes her want to hide out in her office. Once you realize this, you can make an effort to frame your communications with her in a positive way.
“This is not sucking up and it’s not a self-serving exercise,” explains Studer. “It’s just being aware of your own behavior and tweaking it to create a productive working relationship with the boss. It’s good for her, it’s good for you, it’s good for everybody.”
• Knowing the why makes all the difference. If you’re not sure what it is, ask. Let’s say your company implements a major change in the way you capture and process customer feedback. No one likes the new system. It’s harder and more time consuming than the old way, and you’ve noticed your coworkers seem resentful. The problem, says Studer, is that no one told them why the system changed.
“When companies implement change, there’s almost always a reason why,” he notes. “But leaders may not always explain that reason, and people almost always assume the worst. Instead of getting behind what seems like an arbitrary new rule, they resist it.
“If this happens at your company, ask about the why,” Studer urges. “You can tell others what you find out. Not every company understands the value of transparency, but sometimes one employee taking the initiative to ask why can change that.”
• There’s no substitute for being liked. Do you greet people with a smile each morning? Do you bring breakfast for everyone once in a while? Do you say happy birthday? Do you offer to take their trash when you’re taking yours out? Do you congratulate coworkers when they have a big win? There are a million little ways to contribute to what Studer calls the “emotional bank account” at work. These deposits have a big, big impact—and they reduce the pain of the inevitable withdrawals.
“Go out of your way to make people happy when you can and they’ll forgive you when you make a mistake,” he says. “These things are not that hard to do; it’s just that we don’t always think to do them. When you start looking for ways to be a positive force in your coworkers’ lives, you’ll be amazed by how many there are—and what a difference they make.”
• Last-minute requests can derail your day. Retrain chronic offenders. Being a great employee means executing well, meeting deadlines, and, in general, protecting your own “brand.” Yet, it also means stepping in and helping others when they need your expertise. It’s not always easy to walk the tightrope between these two realities—especially when coworkers are constantly asking you for “five minutes of your time” (which really means 30 minutes or even longer).
“When you’re good at what you do, everyone wants a piece of you,” notes Studer. “That’s good, but it can also lead others to take advantage of you, even if they don’t mean to. If you don’t stop last-minute requesters, your own work will eventually suffer.
“Hold up the mirror and recognize your role in the problem,” he advises. “What we permit we promote. Usually, people find they need to be more open with coworkers about how long a task takes and how much notice is needed to get it done. When you educate others, you not only relieve your own burden; you help them do their work better.”
• It’s best to resolve coworker issues one-on-one. (Just like in kindergarten, no one respects a tattletale!) This is a tough one for many employees, because we tend to avoid confrontation. Yet taking a conflict to the boss, who then must discuss it with her boss, who may then have to get an HR rep involved, is time consuming and unproductive.
“I’m not saying there aren’t times when it’s best to go through official channels and involve HR,” notes Studer. “Certainly, there are. Yet many times an issue with a coworker can be solved with a face-to-face adult conversation. Confronting others may not always be easy, but it’s a necessary part of clear and productive communication. It builds healthy work relationships and shows a true sense of ownership.”
• “I’m sorry” are two of the most powerful words in the English language. We all make mistakes. It’s what we do afterward—after we’ve dropped the ball or missed a deadline or got caught in the act of gossiping about a coworker—that truly determines our character as employees and coworkers. And it’s what ultimately determines whether the people we work with want to help us out…or want to help us out the door.
“Apologizing shows one’s vulnerability, and vulnerability is a powerful trait,” says Studer. “People fear they’ll be rejected if they show weakness or admit that they failed. The opposite is true. It actually makes people like us. It shows we’re human, just like them.”
• Blaming, finger-pointing, and badmouthing are deeply destructive to your company’s image. It’s harder than ever to win customers and keep them happy. These days, everyone needs to be engaged in building the organization’s brand. That means it’s critical to “manage up” your company, its products, and your coworkers with every customer interaction—and when you’re off the clock as well.
“You may think you’re building rapport with an irritated customer if you say, ‘Yeah, such-and-such department is really disorganized, but don’t worry, I’ll take care of your problem,’” says Studer. “Instead, you’re actually hurting the company. Even if the customer likes you personally, he may never do business with your company again.
“Negative comments, even subtle ones, make people uncomfortable,” he adds. “On the other hand, they’re drawn to positivity. They like positive people and they like hearing positive things about what they’re spending their money on. Great employees instinctively realize this. They are ambassadors of positivity.”
• Anxiety keeps customers from buying. Do everything you can to alleviate it and you’ll see amazing results. When people are purchasing a product or service—especially if they’re spending a good bit of money—they worry that they’re making a mistake. They want reassurance. Great employees realize this and provide it at every turn, says Studer.
That reassurance may mean “narrating” the process the customer will go through via a Studer specialty: a communication framework called AIDET® (the acronym stands for Acknowledge, Introduce, Duration, Explanation, and Thank You). It may mean practicing good handovers. It may just mean saying something like, “I have one customer who bought this jacket and called me back just to rave about it. She said it was the most versatile jacket she’s ever had. She wears it with everything!”
“Anything you can say or do to help the customer feel good about their decision will have a big impact,” says Studer. “Put yourself in the customer’s shoes and think, What would I want to hear in this situation? Then, say it.”
• “A little bit extra” goes a long way with customers. Often, it’s the little things that keep us coming back to our favorite stores, restaurants, physicians, or other businesses. It’s the server who knows exactly how you take your coffee or the plant nursery owner who calls you to let you know a shipment of your favorite flowering shrubs just arrived.
“The best employees know that doing a little bit extra for customers gets powerful results,” says Studer. “They take it upon themselves to go the extra mile, without being asked to do so or without worrying that it’s not in their job description.
“I used to work at a hospital where the cafeteria cashier, a woman named Sig Jones, would actually take ER patients’ clothes home with her and wash them and return them the next day,” he adds. “She got real joy and fulfillment from serving others. Patients loved her, and they associated her kindness with the hospital she worked for.”
• Complaints are gifts. Handle them right and customer loyalty will skyrocket. Great employees don’t get defensive when customers complain, says Studer. They know they’re hearing valuable feedback that can help the organization improve its service. They listen, they sincerely apologize, and they take action to make things right. Most customers are quite forgiving in the face of such a response—and they’re usually so impressed that they not only return to the company, they recommend it to others.
“It’s a mark of maturity and professionalism to be able to respond selflessly to customer complaints,” says Studer. “It’s a rare skill. And in a time when customers have so many options that they don’t have to give you a second chance, it’s a truly valuable one.”
“I’ve worked with all kinds of employees at all levels of leadership over the years, and I’ve realized most people sincerely want to do a great job,” says Studer. “That’s even truer with the economy the way it is. People do realize they need to show value quickly; they are aware that they need to get better faster. It’s just that they don’t know how.
“If companies say to people, ‘Here’s how you can do the best job possible and be a lot happier in the workplace,’ they’ll see amazing progress,” he adds. “I think people already have the will. Once they have the skill also, they’ll be unstoppable.”