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Bosses Don’t Give Gold Stars — and Other Career Advice

A star chart (like one from elementary school) with multi-colored stars on it.
For those who are beginning their careers, here are four key principles for on-the-job success.

When I was hired for my first job, my father took me aside to give me an important insight. “Carolyn, you are motivated by gold stars, high grades and lots of regular feedback,” he said. “But you won’t get that at work. Don’t expect praise for merely doing what you were hired to do. If you keep getting paid, you will know you are doing a good job.”

I’ve thought of his advice nearly every time I’ve received a paycheck. Over the years, I’ve learned other valuable on-the-job lessons, lessons that were amplified once I became a believing Christian. So for those who are beginning their careers, here are four key principles for on-the-job success:

1. Pay your dues.

In any job, it’s important to understand you have been hired to fill a position on a team with one critical mission: to make and sustain the organization’s profitability. You have a role to play in this mission, but it’s not the starring role. In fact, you have to prove yourself to the rest of the team that you are worthy of that role. It’s called paying your dues. To that end, you need to know that no one really cares about how fulfilled you are — or are not — in this role. It’s not about you, but about the organization.

I lead a small documentary film company, but it’s not unusual that I receive unsolicited résumés. Most come with sincere letters explaining how much the applicant likes film, how the applicant grew up watching film, and how the applicant loves to travel and how filmmaking can provide that opportunity.

Honestly, I dismiss those letters right away. Don’t tell me how a job at my company can fulfill all your dreams. Tell me why I need you for my company’s critical mission. Then I will know you understand the big picture and that you might make a significant contribution.

Your goal with any new job is to figure out how to add value. Know exactly how your position contributes to the company’s bottom line. Be prepared. If you don’t know, ask informed questions, but only after you have done some research. Never ask busy people questions that you have not researched. I repeat: Don’t make other people do your homework. Those of us who were already working when the digital age arrived marvel at the wealth of information available through “the interwebs.” Fire up your keyboard and do your homework so that you can come up with the one really insightful question that proves your worth simply because you figured out what was valuable to ask.

One more vitally important tip: Respond. As in, respond to your emails. Respond to your phone calls. Respond to your invitations. Never think it’s a good idea to ignore your boss, your clients or your colleagues. Or anyone who is trying to throw a party, plan a wedding or invite you to dinner, for that matter. It doesn’t matter if you “don’t do email” or you “don’t like talking on the phone.” Get a response back in a timely manner because it honors others’ work and time. These few practices will show that you understand the process of paying your dues and will help you move up in an organization.

2. Get to the point.

One of my first jobs was working for a Fortune 50 company in their Washington, D.C., public relations office. I was at the bottom of the food chain; I was clueless about the importance of hierarchy, and I had no idea that my only role was to shut up and listen.

My boss’ boss was the executive vice-president of communications, a direct report to the CEO. Our division had an unusually short chain of command in that large multinational company, all of which set me up for being at a dinner on a business trip with my boss and his boss where I showed my immaturity by talking too much. I didn’t pick up on any of the signals until the EVP made it really clear what I was supposed to do. Turning to me, he cut me off mid-anecdote by saying, “Would you shut the (bleep) up?”

Here’s an important insight for women, a tip that will make you far more effective in all your interactions with men, both in your romantic relationships and on the job: Get to the point. Nearly all of your communications will benefit from getting to your point quickly. Your listeners can always ask for more details if they are interested, but if you frontload your conversation with too many details, you will generally incite frustration and impatience.

In her book For Women Only in the Workplace, Shaunti Feldhahn writes:

“The way many of the men I interviewed described it, they prefer the conclusion or the bottom line up front because it helps them listen. Without it, they find it more difficult to absorb the information. One executive explained, ‘There’s something about a male brain that wants the end of the story so he knows why he’s listening.'”

While this might be a masculine tendency, in my observation it serves busy people of both genders. Time is the most precious commodity in the workforce because it’s the only resource you can’t renew. Profits can be restored, people can be replaced, but the passing of time is relentless.

3. Address conflict.

When performance, reputation, budgets and deadlines are all in the mix with your colleagues, you can count on experiencing conflict.

The first thing you need to know about conflict on the job is that you don’t need to take it personally. Most of the time, you are disagreeing about a process, a task or a function. This is not about you as a person, as much as it may feel that way. Keep your reactions (and later thoughts about them) contained around the particular issue and not the history of everything that’s ever happened. This can be a particular challenge for women, as we generally are more relational than men, but it is vital we compartmentalize conflict to specific situations or examples. This is where it’s helpful to remember that it’s not personal, it’s business.

The second thing you need to know is the Gospel empowers and equips us with the words and framework we need to confront people and achieve resolution. In fact, the conflict resolution process outlined in Matthew 18 is exactly the process you need at work.

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church (Matthew 18:15-17, ESV).

The point is, go privately and directly to those who have offended you. Go with a genuine desire to understand their views and see the breach healed. Go asking questions, with the assumption you could be wrong. If you can’t reconcile on your own, get the next appropriate people involved. At work, this may be your boss or your human resources director, as appropriate. Only involve those who are or could be part of the solution. Then if that doesn’t work, you must appeal to the larger authority. But it should begin with the private conversation. Adding it to the gossip mill around the office, even to your best bud at work, is not seeking a biblical solution, nor does it protect your job.

What can be hard to understand is that, at times, conflict is a gift to you from your loving Father. It can expose your own weaknesses that He wants to correct. That is never comfortable, especially when weaknesses in the office are public. But if handled properly, conflict can lead to reconciliation and stronger working relationships.

Our natural tendencies to either go on the attack to defend ourselves or to retreat to protect ourselves never fare well. It takes calm courage to call out conflict, but it can produce amazing results. It takes maturity to look someone in the eye and calmly ask about the tensions or offenses without getting defensive. The spiritual bonus is that your humility can make a positive impact for the Gospel.

4. Put your confidence in the Lord.

Launching your career is an exciting time, but it can also stir up doubts. The emotionally challenging aspect of this time is that you have to cultivate faith in God so that you neither presume on your future nor fear what may come. Fortunately, Scripture directs us how to think about our future plans:

Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will travel to such and such a city and spend a year there and do business and make a profit.’ You don’t even know what tomorrow will bring—what your life will be! For you are like smoke that appears for a little while, then vanishes. Instead, you should say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’ But as it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil (James 4:13-16, HCSB).

You see here that James is not busting on the person who has a plan. He is merely correcting the one who has arrogantly put all his confidence in that plan. Planning ahead is good, but it has to be done with humble understanding that everything is subject to God’s will.

So it is with how you anticipate your future. Never once have I heard someone say, “My life has turned out exactly how I expected it would.” But from my mid-life vantage point, I can confidently assure you that there will be many more blessings than you anticipate and many more trials. But through it all, God’s grace will be triumphant. Of that, I am most assuredly confident.

So make your plans, but do a lot of market research as you go. Ask people in the field you are considering for an informational interview, then inquire of them what their work-life balance has been like and what advice they would give you. Find out from your business and personal contacts what they wish they had done differently as young adults. Read widely in your field, following social media and trade publications. Ask your family and friends for their counsel about your personal strengths and weaknesses.

Then pray. All your best research will only lead you to come up with a plan that might prove profitable, just as James says. But prayer will keep you seeking the Lord about those plans, and that humble dependence upon Him prevents the proud boasting that James condemns.

This article is adapted from Carolyn’s book, The Measure of Success.

Copyright 2013 Carolyn McCulley. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Carolyn McCulley

Carolyn McCulley is an author, speaker and filmmaker at Citygate Films. Her most recent book is “The Measure of Success: Uncovering the Biblical Perspective on Women, Work, and the Home.” She is a member of Redeemer Church of Arlington and is the proud aunt of six nieces and nephews.


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