May 13, 2004
"He carried on as if he were still in school …"

I've already quoted here from How To Be A Star at Work by Robert E. Kelley on the subject of Dwight D. Eisenhower's mentor relationship with a superior which helped him learn the ropes of military bureaucracy. Here's another quote from that same book, which emphasises a regular theme here, which is the way that schools, by their nature, are not good at teaching you how to work cooperatively. The good news is that Kelley, unlike even most of his "Star" cooperators and initiative-takers, reckons that he can teach this.

When Lai and Henry were hired at Bell Labs, they had very similar credentials: 3.8 GPAs from top-ranked electrical engineering programs, summer internships at computer companies, and glowing recommendations from professors. Yet each took a very different approach to the assignment they were given for their first six months. In the morning, they took classes in telephone technology and in the methods Bell Labs uses to conduct its work. Afternoons were spent on break-in projects – work that needed to be done but would not jeopardize crudal projects if done badly.

Henry holed himself up in his office as if he were writing his dissertation or studying for a bar exam. He collected volumes of technical documents to acquaint himself with the latest ideas. He began learning how to use exotic software programs he thought might be helpful in his work. He would surface only for a bathroom break or a mandatory staff meeting. "What's going to count," he remembers thinking at the time, "is whether I can prove to my coworkers how technically smart I am."

Lai set aside three hours each afternoon to work on her assignment. In whatever time was left of her workday, she introduced herself to coworkers and asked questions about their projects. If one of them needed a hand or was facing schedule pressures, she volunteered to help. And even though Lai was new to the workplace culture, her colleagues appreciated her willingness to help them out, especially given that their problems were not hers.

One afternoon, a colleague couldn't get a program to work in a software project that was due the next week. Lai thought that a new programming tool that she had picked up in an advanced course could handle the problem. She offered to work on a solution while her colleague focused on the larger project. Her coworker was grateful to have help fixing the program so that he could keep to his schedule, and he also appreciated the information on the new tool.

When some sophisticated software tools needed to be installed in everyone's office PCs, the traditional but very unproductive company process forced each person to install it by trial and error. Lai had experienced the same cumbersome installation process during an internship and thought it made more sense for one person to do it for all the machines. Since no one was specifically responsible for the work, she stepped forward to take on the job. When it turned out to be tougher than she realized, requiring two weeks rather than the four days she had planned, Lai could have backed off, but she saw it through.

"Once I got up the learning curve, it seemed silly to make everyone else go through the pain I did," she says. Volunteering for the project forced her to come in early and stay late for several days so that neither her work assignment nor her class work would suffer.

On another occasion, a colleague who had been scheduled for a dreaded all-night lab testing session had to attend an out-of-town funeral, and another staffer had to fill in. More physically than technically demanding, these sessions take place from midnight to 7:00 a.m., the only period when the computers can be freed up to accommodate large-scale testing. At a hastily called staff meeting, the veterans kidded one another about grabbing the "plum assignment." At the point where the staff expected the supervisor to assign someone arbitrarily, Lai volunteered.

"I figured that it was most important to get accepted into the team, and what better way than to help them out?" she said.

Even the drudge work of a midnight shift, she said, was like a mini-apprenticeship. "I got a quick peek into the work they were doing and what kind of things I would need to know. Sure, some of the work I did for them was grunt and gopher stuff, but ... to meet the schedules, they needed a hand. Since my schedule was more flexible than others', it made sense for me to help out. Plus, they got to know me and my capabilities."

After six months, both Henry and Lai had finished their technical classes and their first assignments. Both of their projects were successful and judged to be technically competent. Indeed, Henry's work may have been slightly more technically proficient than Lai's.

But when it came to workplace reputation, Henry came up short. While he was known as a nice guy, he also was pegged as a loner. Henry was seen as technically adept, but there were question marks about his ability to share his skills with coworkers. He carried on as if he were still in school, where individual performance is the rule, Lai was seen as an initiative taker, someone who saw a problem that was not her responsibility and stepped forward to solve it. Lai had been able to create the impression of being in the lab group for much longer than six months. Managers noticed this, of course, and already were looking at her as a candidate for fast-track assignments.

Our observations of Henry, Lai, and dozens of other Bell Labs engineers show that any newcomer in a unit of professionally skilled, competitive workers must demonstrate the initiative skill within the first six to twelve months. Otherwise, the new hire will be relegated to the pack – labeled, perhaps, like Henry, as competent but not productive in ways that benefit the group. In the late 1980s, when managers across the country were forced to cut staffs, the workers who hadn't shown initiative, like Henry, were often vulnerable.

Yet learning how to take initiative effectively is not taught in school or even in the workplaces that now demand it. Even where it is taught, learning on the job is not easy. Stars have the initiative moves down, but most can't teach them to others.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:42 PM
Category: Relevance