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Passion, People and Principles

Advice on Careers

post # 152 — August 5, 2006 — a Careers post

What do you think I ought to cover in my next podcast series?

I intend it to be, like my past series, about 14 or so 20-minute presentations, exept this time the topic will be advice to individuals in building their careers.

I’ll draw on previous articles of mine (like It ‘s Not How Much You KNow, But How Much You Want It, Cultivate the Habits of Friendship , and the many career blog posts we have discussed here.

But I’d love your input on which topics would really be useful to cover.

If you were going to give advice to someone at the early stages of life as a professional (in any business or industry) what would would you try to help them understand early?


Duncan Bucknell said:

Hi David

I think that is is very important for young professionals to take responsibity for the type of work they are doing. They must earn the right to be doing work they find interesting, and they must take the responsibility to go and get it. (Whether internally from a particular partner, or as they become more experienced, from clients.)

If they are not happy with the mix of work they have, then they should act to change it, themselves.

This obviously translates in to a lot of useful skills as their careers develop, and I think, the right mindset to set them up to enjoy and be even more successful in their work.

I was lucky enough to pick this up very early in my career, from you.



posted on August 6, 2006

Bill Peper said:

Having served as the director of career services of a prestigious law school, I have faced this challenge directly. While the items below may seem obvious, trust me that many students, especially those who have never worked a full-time job, are oblivious to many of these points.

Here is some of the advice that I would give my son (and gave our students) when entering a professional career:

•Create a personal brand of “excellence,” not just competency. Everyone hired (presumably) is competent, or they will not last very long. Only 11% of professional baseball players make the major leagues, although all are objectively outstanding players. The real question is whether the new employee is will to “pay the cost” to become excellent.

•Be prepared to work REALLY long and intense hours. This intense work will continue indefinitely, so get used to it.

•Accepting a professional position turns students into adults. They will be judged by a standard for professionals, not kids.

•Plan to arrive early, stay late, and work weekends.

•Commit to continue learning, studying, and challenging yourself. As Davis taught me in a seminar many years ago, one can gain a competitive advantage by planning “non-billable” time. As a result of David’s suggestion, I have read dozens of books each year for the last 14 years.

•Learn to type and become an expert on the software packages used at the office.

•Seek feedback and treat it as a gift.

•ALWAYS meet every deadline, but if you cannot do this, let your superior know ASAP

•If there is a problem, own up to it immediately.

•Keep your boss informed on your action

•Ask for recommendations for junior associate to serve as a role model.

•Become accustomed to asking questions such as, “What should I do to be successful at this firm?” and “What do I need to learn about the business side of this firm, so that I can begin to learn business development skills. Proving to superiors that you “get it” when it comes to business is a great way to boost a career.

•Show an active interest in business development.

•Create a weekly checklist to assist in ensuring that you develop proper habits and practice introspection on a regular basis.

•ALWAYS complete administrative tasks on time and completely, especially billing. It is virtually impossible to reconstruct billable hours after the fact, and you must make sure that you get credit for all of your work.

•Create value-added habits that will help distinguish you among your peers — volunteer for committees, organize parties, and interview college students.

•Don’t be afraid to tackle projects beyond your current competencies, even if that requires donating some time to get up to speed.

•Don’t assume that work will be fun and fulfilling every day. While there will be many good times, much of the work assigned to new associates is tedious and labor intensive.

•Do not stand around and BS or disappear for long stretches. Always let someone know if you are leaving.

•Try to answer all calls within one hour and develop the habit of sending short e-mail messages like “Got it. Will reschedule the meeting for Friday.”

•Ask questions if you are unclear on an assignment and make sure you know when the project is due. If you have multiple assignments from that person, ask that person to prioritize the tasks.

•Be honest if you cannot take on a project. Better to say no up front than to disappoint a superior.

•Try to arrange an informal performance review every couple of months to ensure that you are getting proper feedback.

•Read Robert Kelley’s “How to Be a Star at Work,” Dale Dauten’s “Better Than Perfect,” and David Maister’s “True Professionalism.”

•Avoid excess Internet surfing, personal telephone calls, attire that does not fit the environment, and any activity that could possibly be considered sexual harassment. Think carefully before sending any e-mail and use a spell check. Employers keep tabs on all of these activities.

•If you are not happy, try to move to another practice group. If it becomes clear that the firm is not where you should work, start looking for a job. Eventually your unhappiness will impact your work.

•Treat the office staff like royalty.

posted on August 6, 2006

Tim Burrows said:

Bill, there are some good ideas in your list. However, I think a bit of “spin” might be needed on a one point.

Your advice about needing to plan to work REALLY long and intense hours is, I think, true, but my initial reaction on reading this was a feeling of slight depression!

After I thought about it a little though, I realised that in my experience, I have alternately worked some really long hours and loved it, and done the same and hated it. The distinguishing factor was the kind of work that I was doing.

I would almost go so far as to say that you could remove the suggestion and simply advise people to find work that they love to do (as David has suggested many times before). My feeling is that if people do this, they will automatically find themselves working the long, intense hours that they need to invest to be successful in their chosen field.

posted on August 6, 2006

Bill Peper said:

I wholeheartedly agree that one should find work he/she loves to do. However, the students that I encountered (like most of us) had no real basis for making that decision prior to working in that area. I was certain that I wanted to do civil litigation in law school, but I found that I really enjoyed estate planning far more once I experienced both fields.

My students stressed their desire for a good balance of work and private lives. There did not seem to be an expectation that long and intense hours are typical for new professionals.

posted on August 7, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Can I get more of your help by re-posing my question?

Rather than at this point, asking you for gidance on the specific carerr advice you’d pass on, I’d be curious about what you think the “chapter headings” should be.

For example, I could do individual 20-minute podcasts on:

Managing Your Boss

Maintaining Your drive

Key Social Skills to Develop

that sort of thing.

What do you think the topic headings should be?

posted on August 7, 2006

Bill Peper said:

Here are some possible topics:

Reality of Professional Life;

Transitioning to the Work World;

True Professionalism;

What to Look for Seeking a New Job;

Excellence not Competency;

Establishing Great Work Habits;

Productive “Non-Billable” Time;

Continuing Commitment to Success;

Making Your Boss Happy;

Developing Social Capital;

Foundation for Business Development;

Feedback as a Gift;

Finding a Niche;

Establishing a Solo Practice;

and Knowing Whe to Leave.

posted on August 7, 2006

Greg Magnus said:


The most important topic of all, find a job that you love and don’t settle for anything less.

Too many people compromise when it comes time to select their career path. “I do it for the money” is a phrase too often heard.

When it is all said and done, few people on their death beds say, “I wish I spent more time making money.”

The richest people I know, older folks, always tell me they wish they spent more time living and less time chasing the almighty dollar.

Thanks for the great post.

posted on August 7, 2006

Dan W said:

The number one problem I’ve found in the business world is poor listening skills.

By “good listening,” I mean the following:

1) Understanding the point the person is making, and not reacting to the point you assume the person is about to make

2) Showing that you’ve heard the person, even if the point they’ve made is uninformed or unrealistic

3) Paying attention to nonverbal cues.

Context: I’ve done a lot of training on fundraising. I find that new fundraisers are often so eager to make the point that they lose the ability to tell when someone’s already agreed with the point they’ve made.

Taking that into other workplaces, I’ve found both as manager and managed that people are very often reacting to what they think was said, rather than what’s being said. I’m sure I’m not the only ones who’s seen meetings get derailed as two people start trying to hash out a point and neither person is able to understand where the other one is actually going. (The worst part is when two people are engaged in a perceived conflict over a decision, and they’re actually very close to being in agreement.)

posted on August 7, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Dan – your phrase – “so eager to make the point that they lose the ability to tell when someone’s already agreed with the point they’ve made.” – it cut me to the quick. I s-o-o-o recognized myself in that one.

Along with some of Bill’s topics, I could re-title this “Important things I’m still trying to learn how to do well.” (in fact, I may start a new thread on that topic soon.)

posted on August 7, 2006

david foster said:

Try to understand the specifics of the particular business, rather than jumping to apply whatever tools/methodologies are cool in your field at the moment. Far too many technical people want to apply whatever the buzzword tech of the moment is rather than thinking about what the business needs. Far too many MBAs want to apply the analytical methodology or “paradigm’ of the moment rather than really understanding the business and its true risks and opportunities.

“When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

posted on August 7, 2006

Peter Macmillan said:


The above comments (from the guys – where are the ladies when we need them most?) are tremendously helpful.

Do you think that one day we will be able to extend these kinds of principles (and other insights from your consulting practice) to cover non-western cultures, particularly the Chinese culture which is my context in Hong Kong?

Often misunderstood concepts like “face” and the importance of hierarchy impact on almost everything we do here, and can greatly change the communication equation.

I regularly have to ask Chinese colleagues to “interpret” the outcome of meetings for me, or at least share their perspectives. This includes their analyses of phrases used, body language etc. And often things not said will be of critical importantance for knowing where a project is headed – or not – and how quickly we should move to the next stage.

I also want to comment on Bill and Tim’s interesting exchange about “loving” one’s work. To be honest, this is not so important in a culture that emphasises filial responsibilities over self-realisation. I have lost count of the times I have received a blank stare after asking my colleagues whether they love or are passionate about their work – it just doesn’t occur to some of them as being a relevant consideration!

I know that getting things right in a western setting is itself a huge challenge. But when do we tackle the global marketplace for professional services?

Just a left-field interjection …


posted on August 7, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Peter, to pick up on only one slice of what you have offered: – I have always been interested in the concept of “face” anf think that there is much that Western cultures can learn from it.

Are there one (or two) basic, practical books that a Westerner who doesn’t have a colleague to ask can read to understand the details of how it works?

Is there a “Face for Dummies” guide?

posted on August 7, 2006

Peter Macmillan said:

David, I do not know of any books that focus just on the concept of ‘Face.’ This may reflect my own very limited knowledge and/or it may be because face is just one part of a much broader, interconnected social framework.

I do have a book on Chinese Business Etiquette around somewhere, which I will try to find during the day. It was written by a westerner, as I recall, and answers the kinds of basic questions a lot of us ‘outsiders’ have.

I must also admit to the incredible advantage of my wife, Stella, being Hong Kong Chinese. On the concept of face she insists that it is really little different from the western concept of ego or respect (she lived in the west for 20 years). But my own take is that it is probably more evolved and sophisticated in a social sense than this suggests.

To illustrate crudely, I was recently invited to a one on one lunch with a civil service Mandarin. Stella says that he gave me incredible face by doing this. The same official also attended a karaoke party I held recently, which amazed a lot of people who did not think he would attend and also gave me a lot of face (not least because much of the music was not going to appeal to him – Bee Gees excepted) so he was seen as doing it “for me” rather than because he wanted to himself. He was very good at the Chinese opera parts, however!

Similarly, by accepting an invitation for a meal from a subordinate or attending early at the house of my in-laws on Chinese New Years day, I can give them a good deal of face (but unfortunately not up to Mandarin standard!).

This kind of face translates into increased status and respect, thereby giving one, say, greater authority and an ability to get things done more easily (without questions asked – a little different from the west where questions can signal interest rather than impertinence).

As yet another aside, asking questions can easily be viewed as bad form in Chinese culture, particularly asking questions of someone of greater status. As you can imagine, this can be a big communications callenge for the consultant when dealing with Government officials and clients alike.

Hope that helps, but I don’t want to digress too much from the original post.

Will get back to you with the name of that book I mentioned.


posted on August 7, 2006

Peter Macmillan said:

David, the book I mentioned above is called “Chinese Business Etiquette: A Guide to Protocol, Manners and Culture in the People’s Republic of China,” by Scott D. Seligman

In Chapter IV titled “Some Basic Cultural Differences,” which includes such topics as Individualism versus Group-Centeredness, Confucianism, Guanxi-Connections, Reciprocity, and Privacy, the author states in a section headed Mianzi – Face:

“Another important cultural concept is that of mianzi, which is Chinese for “face.” The Chinese are acutely sensitive to the regard in which they are held by others or the light in which they appear … In English you can lose face and you can save face; in Chinese, however, you can also give face. Giving face means doing something to enhance someone else’s reputation or prestige.”

He also warns:

“Face, or mianzi — the regard in which one is held by others or the light in which one appears — is vitally important to the Chinese. Causing someone to lose face, through a public insult or dressing-down, or by failing to treat him or her with respect, results in a loss of co-operation and often retaliation. If you do so you will also lose the respect of others aware of your transgression.”

Some of the author’s commentary appears to me to be quite subjective. Nevertheless, it is probably as good a starting point as any for exploring what “face” means for professional service providers in Asia.


posted on August 7, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Wonderfully helpful, Peter. I don’t know if you have just given me “face”, but you have given me friendship and help. Most appreciated!

posted on August 8, 2006

Eric Tong said:

here is an example about “Face”

you should say:”you are so clever,Tom” though everybody include Tom himself know he had done a stupid thing. it’s not encourage,only a “face”

posted on August 9, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Thanks, Eric.

I had a mentor (Canadian) who used to say

posted on August 9, 2006

Eric Tong said:

Peter have given you a big “face” I am a Chinese student in Xiamen University. you can ask the meaning below for Chinese among you “人敬我一尺,我敬人一丈“ ”人如果不要脸了,什么都做得出来“ ”打人别打脸,骂人别揭短“ ”见好就收,穷寇莫追“

posted on August 9, 2006

Shaula Evans said:

My friend John Kang kindly came up with translations for the first two of Eric’s ayings about ‘face':


If someone respects me an inch, I’ll respect them a foot.


If a person doesn’t want face, he can do anything.

I hope other readers can translate the last two sayings for us.

. . .

I’m enjoying the conversation here about ‘face’ and business — I hope you’ll revisit it, David.

This week we watched Alain Corneau’s film Fear and Trembling about a young Belgian woman working in Japan. The movie is really a case study on face! I highly recommend it.

posted on August 10, 2006

Shaula Evans said:

Going back to the original topic here about career advice and your upcoming podcast series, I was just reading a blog post by Michael Hyatt, President and CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers, about how the secret to career success is responsiveness.

Of course, taken to its logical conclusion, his advice boils down to the need to take an attitude of serving others, as you’ve discussed on the blog earlier, David.

posted on August 16, 2006

nancy said:

please talk about the etiquettes in business negotiation,thanks!

posted on October 21, 2006