Interpersonal Skill

In 11 years in business, I have noticed the critical link between interpersonal skill and career success. The biggest stumbling block to achieving your career potential has more to do with your ability to work effectively with people than it does with your technical business knowledge (i.e., product launches, supply chain management, technology or finance). My personal experience has taught me that no individual can get very far in accomplishing a worthwhile objective without the voluntary cooperation of other people in the organization. Unfortunately, few companies provide training on this topic or offer new employees guidance on how to put their best interpersonal foot forward when joining a new organization. Even fewer graduate or undergraduate academic programs offer training or classes on the topic of interpersonal skill. In this Career Tip, I thought I would give some thoughts on professional conduct to help on this subject. Some of these points seem basic or obvious; however, I am highlighting them because I have seen violation of them be responsible for frustration, career setbacks and diminished effectiveness

1. The Menial Work. No matter how menial and trivial your early assignments may seem, give them your very best effort. I see some former military officers who feel that the minor activities of a project or job are beneath their dignity and unworthy of their education and military experience. They expect to prove their true ability in some major operation, project or task. It just does not work this way, especially early in your new business career, and thinking this way puts unneeded dents in your new work relationships. You are being watched by others in the early stages of your career, and looking down your nose at your first humble tasks rubs people the wrong way. Instead, regardless of the perceived significance, tackle all your work with spirit and focus, and people will not only notice, but like you more for your attitude and team play.

2. Take care of your present job. Occasionally, JMOs entering business careers worry too much about where their jobs are going to get them, whether they are being led in the right direction, or when the next promotion is coming. Of course, these are important considerations, but my point is that broadcasting your concern over matters like these in your first year can be damaging to important relationships (like those with your boss and your peers). People don’t like working with other people who are overtly ambitious. Even if you do a good job, wearing your ambition on your sleeve will hamper your upward potential. If you take care of your present job, you will be recognized and you will move up. You don’t need to obsess about it or run the issue up the flagpole every Monday morning. Let your career future take care of itself. Generally speaking, companies are always on the lookout for competent people to move up into more responsible positions. Your ultimate success will come more from getting “base hits” on a daily basis than it will from hitting the big pitch over the centerfield fence. Plus, people will like you and respect you more because you are not simply “looking out for #1.”

3. First impressions count. Whenever you start a new career in a new organization, you start as an outsider. In your first couple of months, people are going to judge your first impression, your personality, and your fit with the team. Be proactive. Go out of your way to introduce yourself to people and make conversation. Be interested in them and learn about their backgrounds, work interests, etc. A hiring manager who had recently hired his first former military officer commented about how quiet the former JMO was in meetings and that he waited for people to come up and introduce themselves, and seemed reticent about engaging his new co-workers. Like it or not, he was being labeled as standoffish, distant, and aloof. Even a slow couple of weeks of doing this can negatively affect a career for years. After all, first impressions count. Practice connecting with people, smiling, exhibiting good manners and social skills, remembering names, showing enthusiasm, etc. People will label you as approachable, communicative, and someone with whom they enjoy working.

4. Watch military “war” stories. Anyone who serves in the military should be proud of their accomplishments, but beware of relating everything you see in your new career back to something that happened to you in the service. Don’t get me wrong, your new co-workers will like you to regale them with the occasional military story or vignette, but I too often hear about former military officers going overboard. You don’t mean to do it, but you inadvertently one-up your non-military peers every time you open your mouth and separate yourself from them (not a good way to join a new organization). This can be especially bad when two former military officers get together. They alienate every non-military person in the room. By being respectful of people around you, your interpersonal skill will go a long way to establishing good working relationships.

5. Turn the wheel for a time before you start changing the wheel. I have always liked to recruit proactive former military officers who can look critically at an operation to identify better ways to get results. This is a very good skill that will help you grow in an organization. The problem is when you start trying to change things in your first 3 to 4 months, it rubs people the wrong way. I recommend you actively participate in an established process for your first 6 months before you start trying to change the organization. This is smart business and shows respect for people around you. I recently talked with a former military officer who carried a notebook around during her training program to write down ideas about processes that needed to be changed. This can be a good idea, but she got herself into trouble with peers who thought it was a bit presumptuous of her to think this way when she was so new to the organization. The worst thing is that in too many cases, she jumped to the wrong conclusions, and her suggestions were over-simplified and lacked insight and experience. This can happen when you jump in too fast and don’t get all the facts. The point is, spend some time turning the wheel before you start trying to change the wheel. You will be smarter, you will have better relationships in place, and people will respect you for your interpersonal astuteness and insight.

6. Work for your boss. Your boss deserves your best interpersonal skill. In the big picture, you work for society, your company, your family, shareholders, and yourself, but don’t forget that your boss hired you and as your immediate supervisor, this is a relationship that is very important to your future success. In their zeal to get things done, some young leaders push back on their supervisors too frequently, or consistently spotlight the negatives and vent frustration, or inadvertently ignore their direction/priorities. Certainly, from time to time, a little push back and direct communication can be constructive, but too many people forget their interpersonal skill around their boss. This is not a good idea, and I have seen the consequences like strained relationships, career setbacks and lost loyalty. You will find it best to effectively serve your boss with a positive attitude, loyalty and a can-do mentality. Besides, most of us get more satisfaction out of our jobs when we are able to give our boss our personal loyalty with the feeling that we are working together to get the job done.

7. The Golden Rule. The Golden Rule is about being fair. It says that you should treat everyone around you by the same set of values with which you want to be treated. In many ways, your character is defined by the way you habitually treat others. What are the Golden Rules that guide your interpersonal habits (appreciating others, fairness, professional sense of humor, cordiality, humility, manners, respect, and honest communication)? To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, what kind of person you are speaks much more loudly than what you say.
It is easier to recognize the validity of these principles than it is to apply them consistently, just as it is easier to accept the principles of healthy dieting than it is to habitually eat well. The reality is you will have a lot of trial and error on these topics throughout your career. Be aware of them, be honest with yourself, seek feedback from people around you, and learn from your mistakes.

Book Recommendation. To improve your interpersonal skills, there is no better book than How to Win Friends and Influence People. I recommend you read this once a year and keep it handy for a refresher anytime you feel like you could have done better interpersonally.

From the entire Cameron-Brooks Team, we wish you a meaningful Holiday Season.

Joel Junker

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