I have worked in a variety of corporate cultures—big firms, small startups, restaurants, Congressional offices, and IT support desks. There are some habits which I have found to be extremely valuable across the board (or, at least, habits that I appreciated in others and tried to develop myself). In an effort to create a “Guide to Being a Good Employee” that goes beyond “Show up on time and pay attention to detail,” I wanted to lay out these habits for you.
1) Be friendly. This can be as simple as smiling when you say hello, telling others what you value in them, being self-deprecating and phrasing suggestions as questions (“You should do X” comes out a lot better when you say “Why didn’t you do X?”—that’s not criticism, just a factual question). I can tell you from personal experience that others are willing to overlook the occasional screw-up or flare-up when that person is the one who tries to brighten the office on a daily basis. Senior staff will also be more likely to take a personal interest in your development, which is pretty great.2) Be willing to pick up the phone. As someone who vastly prefers communication via e-mail—it’s quicker, can be conveniently referenced, and lets you edit your thoughts—I am painfully aware of the importance of phone communication. First off, it is high touch—people remember and appreciate the stranger who follows up on a useful e-mail with a quick phone call. More importantly, it is a lot more difficult for people to ignore or say no to you on the phone than by e-mail. Attempts at rejection are easily turned into positive conversation over the phone. Its easy to say “I respect your position, but I’d appreciate if you could explain your reasons” to someone, and develop a constructive conversation. In an e-mail, you leave the other person the option of simply ignoring you, something that is hard to do on the phone.3) Get your hands dirty. Sure, no one likes fixing the copier, but it’s really not that bad. You learn how it works and eventually you become the person in the office who can fix the copier, printer, and fax machine. That person does not get fired. In fact, I’d encourage you to take this approach with everything from new technology to weird sets of data, filing systems, or cranky customers. Everybody values the person who is enthusiastic about solving the tough problems—particularly if that problem is not very glamorous.4) Translate. I am sure that every single person is familiar with the tech who can fix your computer but pisses you off in the process. In fact, I spent a year at ITS simply as the guy who could turn tech-speak into everyday directions. With the exception of the miraculously intelligent, if you can’t communicate your expertise with people who do not share that same expertise, you are not an expert—you are someone with a lot of useless knowledge. All I’m saying is that you should understand more than just your own field.5) Don’t take charge. When someone walks into a room and starts laying out a bold strategy, people appreciate that person—unless it’s the junior analyst they hired three months ago. In the vast majority of situations, senior staff want you to demonstrate leadership by coordinating activities to make sure nothing falls through the cracks. “Walk before you run” and manage before you lead.Ike Potter graduated with distinction from Pomona College in 2005 with a Bachelor’s degree in economics. He has worked for NERA, an economics consulting firm in Los Angeles, where he recruited recent college graduates. He also helped launch a boutique tax firm before moving to New York, where he worked for a year as a temporary technical assistant for several law firms. He is currently with The Cowen Group, a speciality recruiting firm that focuses on electronic document management and discovery for Fortune 500 companies and top law firms. Potter can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.