Graduation is a time when everyone feels they have permission to offer unsolicited advice. You are graduating, therefore you must need guidance! Your college may even have booked a high-profile speaker to appear at your commencement to provide advice — despite whether their life experience is relevant or not. Should you listen to a movie star or pharma CEO because your college president has decided that their motivations and outcomes are going to closely mirror your own? Of course not. So on the topic of advice, we won’t be presumptuous and say that our experience is so important that it simply must have an impact on your life outcome. Advice is only effective when it’s asked for. Advice unsolicited is actually an admonishment sometimes disguised with euphemisms like “constructive criticism” by “concerned people” who are “just trying to help.” We are as repulsed by free advice from important people as you are, so let’s throw all that out right now.
We did. however, work in the White House in two presidential administrations and had job requirements that demanded we deal with many types of important and powerful people in government and the private sector, and to be effective regardless of the obstacles. There are very few places in the world that are the nexus of power, culture, customs and tradition like the White House during an event like an official State Dinner. Combine those variables with whatever the news cycle of the day is and you’ve got real time riddle-unraveling as you try to hold on the reins. It’s that experience where we made certain observations about what made someone effective or not. It’s in the heat of that chaos that we observed what the true definition of success is — and it’s not what you think. We wanted to share some of those observations with you because these may be things you remember someday and choose to deploy — and don’t worry — this isn’t unsolicited advice!
Here are some ideas that stem from our job experience in the White House that might relate to you as you enter the world of work. This is what we’ve seen, and the lessons we have learned.
1) Plan for things to go wrong. Take the version in your mind of how things will play out, large and small, and throw it away. There will be unexpected obstacles at virtually every point from a traffic jam making you late for your job interview to equipment breaking to waking up on the morning of the big event with a severe ear infection. Nothing goes as planned and the best plans allow for disruption and adaptation. Just acknowledging this universal fact before putting in our best effort at anything will help us keep our cool, our sanity and our smiles. You’ll adapt. So will others around you. Sometimes you’ll fail. Things will go wrong and life will go on. Plan on it.
2) Keep your eyes on the ball. It will be tempting to compare opportunities that you may have to those of your former school/classmates. Keep in mind that this is the inception of your work experience. Do not concern yourself with what others are earning or that your job doesn’t measure up to theirs – yet. There will be plenty of time in the future to be competitive and to build on your experience. You will take lessons from the most unlikely places and no experience is wasted – even if it serves to prove you want to make sure you never have to work a certain job again. Each incremental job you take and every position is a step on your life’s ladder. As long as you are constantly moving forward and you don’t stop, you are doing the right thing.
3) Work hard for your boss and the team. It is important to be eager and work hard but don’t do it by trying to “outshine” your co-workers. The boss should recognize your commitment. There is no reason to create tension with others; they could make your job much more difficult. Also, bosses value those who work well with others, people whom they know won’t cause problems. Polarizing figures don’t get promotions and job offers or plummy assignments. A good portion of your energy on the job will be spent “working around” those that are difficult or present unique challenges in both style and substance – embrace it. The world of work is different from a fraternity or your apartment roommates. You don’t get to choose who you are assigned to work with most of the time or who is on your project team. Understand before going in that you won’t like everyone you wind up working with and everyone won’t like you. That’s ok! As long as you are kind, smile, and are forthright in your work efforts you’ll eliminate many obstacles and stand out to your supervisor as a problem solver rather than simply a problem. Trying to outshine co-workers is a sure way to insure friction and resistance as time goes on. Be a worker among workers who gets it done and is accountable.
4) First Impression: Dress for Success. For an interview, dress like an executive. First impressions are important If it is an office environment where most don’t wear ties, it’s still good to wear one for the interview. It’s noticed and a sign of respect of the employer (and your possible boss). Also – think of this – there are no real consequences for being over-dressed other than someone telling you how nice you look. However, there are drastic consequences if you make the mistake of underdressing for an event or work situation. It sticks out like a sore thumb. If you are going for an interview, formality in attire will never hurt you. If you are showing up for the first day of work or for a meeting, try to find out ahead of time how the others are dressing. NEVER BE AFRAID TO ASK! Saying to a superior or colleague “what is the dress code for this event?” is appropriate and usually appreciated as a question rather than resented. When you get the vague “business casual” answer, be the best casual dresser they have ever seen. You can’t go wrong by overdressing.
Lea Berman and Jeremy Bernard are former social secretaries under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, respectively. You can buy their new book, “Treating People Well” at Amazon.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.