- Wise Words -
Default to Action
by pat montague
What School and College Doesn't Teach
For professionals at the early stage of their career, learning how to take real ownership over their work and to manage their managers can be difficult but essential skills to master.
In school, most things (lectures, assignments, grades) come at students, top down. Only in the latter years of secondary education do students even begin to manage their own schedules and productivity. Even in seminar formats, common in college and graduate school, rarely do students really have to worry about anyone’s performance but their own. While exceptions no doubt abound, it is not the norm for students to consider their professor’s workload or to go out of their way to help fellow students succeed. Classmates are implicitly the competition under a curved grading system and students are instead incentivized to make a clever comment or two in discussion, in order to get a check mark or gold star next to their name. (Side note: this dynamic often crosses over to the first few years of professional life as well. Think of bullpens full of investment banking analysts, idly sitting in the office at 9pm, waiting for comments from their MD on some ill-fated pitch book, just so they can stay up all night tweaking the model accordingly.)
Yet in the workplace, unlike at schools and universities, coordinated teamwork across seniority levels is key. In fact, the primary means of production are often the most junior employees. This is especially true in (fixed) asset-light, knowledge-based industries like digital media where people, not machinery, drive output. Just as a social network becomes more valuable to a user the more friends she has on it, firms become more valuable the more their employees can work together to coordinate and amplify their productivity. (Another side note: think of how college athletes are often seen as having good proxy experience for the workplace, and thus well-regarded by recruiters in many industries.)
In such an environment, Early Stage Professionals must quickly learn how to partner with all members of their team — whether above, alongside of, or below them in an org chart — in order to succeed at their job and progress in their career.
Very clearly, I remember beginning my first job at an internet startup at the age of 25, my only prior work experience having been in much more formal, hierarchical industries. I had two bosses: one, my direct supervisor, 3,000 miles away in California and, the other, in New York where I was based, but managing a growing, 20+ person sales org and living on an airplane. It was the first time I had to manage not just myself, but also those around me, and especially those above me.
Becoming Action Man or Woman
The transition was not easy. In fact, my first 30–60–90 days were characterized by mediocrity, some potentially career limiting moves, and possibly even a ‘letter in my file.’ Essentially this was all because, though I was completing my work to a fairly high standard, I was waiting to be told what to do next.
Soon, however, I realized that it was not (either of) my manager’s responsibility to keep tabs on me or to feed me assignments. While they certainly checked in with me and provided direction, it was my responsibility to navigate my own path and, crucially, to find the one that best complemented their own efforts.
To be sure, this included some mundane tasks, like scheduling more meetings, taking more notes, and running more reports. But by owning my work I found more agency in my career and was afforded greater involvement in the strategic direction of the company.
Learning this lesson also has serious compounding effects. As is so often the case in the workplace, and especially at high growth and/or resource-stretched organizations, there exist almost unlimited potential initiatives but relatively few people to actually execute them. In such a vacuum, those in the habit of taking initiative get many more opportunities to do so (in some cases, probably independent of their ability to be successful). It’s a real virtuous cycle.
In my case, this included taking over a slew of projects that at the time weren’t seen as top priority by management:
To make the point more bluntly: what may not be the focus of top executives today is often the driver of growth in the future, and thus an opportunity for outsized responsibility.
Of course, I kept my managers in the loop with my progress and made sure that what I did aligned with their goals. And as I showed that I could deliver for the business, management became more engaged. By the time we sold the company, I had gained responsibility and experience that I (and my bosses) would have never imagined in those first 90 days.
All told, navigating the transition from a top down academic world to a networked professional one is difficult. It is also essential and rewarding when done well. For early stage professionals to become truly successful in their jobs and to start developing a career, they must master it. The short hand I use is: learn how to manage up and make sure your default is always action, never inaction.