31 Days to Professional Improvement
To a large degree we define ourselves by what we do. When we introduce ourselves to other people one of the first questions is "What is your job / position / speciality?" And it is only natural since it gives a reference as to what to expect from that person. However this is a very limiting view. A store clerk today can become a police officer, who can later be elected to a government office. The person remains essentially the same, the positions have changed, but no-one would treat a government official the same as a store clerk. What has really changed is responsibility and professional power.
Too many times people give up and stop wanting to expand. They have a job that surveys show that they are mostly dissatisfied with but is relatively secure. They know the rules, they know their co-workers, and they are competent in their daily tasks. These people look at higher paying positions and consider whether they have the skills and aptitude for that job and never try for it.
Professionalism is about trying to do the best job always. To a large degree this is already mandated in the company guidelines and the employee handbook. But as the old expression goes "You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink." A employer can lead an employee to providing the best service, but it can't make you do it. You can do an acceptable job, fulfilling the letter of the job, but not really exceeding and providing the best that you can do on a job.
Why should you give the best? You are not going to be paid more because you do more, in fact you may be given more work to do once you show your increased productivity. The reason is professionalism. As stated before you are more than just your job. You will define yourself for future jobs by how you approach your current one. Having an attitude of "They don't pay me enough to care." or "I'm only doing this until a can get a job as a (dream job here). I'm not going to waste my effort busting myself over this job." Exceeding your job will give you the strength to meet the challenges that you will face later. Prove to yourself what you can do if you try.
Many times you already give your best, and feel that there really isn't more that you can do. There is always the basics of working with the company to improve overall performance. Here's a partial list
- Does a complete job, always. No shoddy shortcuts, no shuffling off the workload to someone else.
- Mastery of on-the-job knowledge, knows the products, the variations, and the policy on every item.
- Neat work area. Some work areas cannot be pristine, but they can be neat. Tools back in the toolbox. Scraps cleaned up. Clear notes on what is being done, and it's status. Items filed neatly in drawers. Given a need for an item it can be found quickly.
- Supports fellow workers, and not undercutting them. Giving a hand when needed, and cooperating within the company.
- Reliable on the job. Will come into work on snowy days if it is truly possible and leave 30 minutes earlier to clean the car of snow and drive safely into work. Reliably is maintaining top performance whether or not you are being directly supervised.
- Top customer service where possible. For any job there is always possible customer interactive somewhere. Make the customer feel welcome and help them with a smile.
- Willing to learn beyond just the basics, and being using that knowledge to improve performance.
These are some of the marks of a professional. It is completely optional, and missing a point or all of them probably won't affect you job security much. The point is yourself and how you want to see yourself. Do you need to be professional to be successful and happy? Of course not, there are notable Hollywood starlets who are very skilled at being non-professional. Certain high-creativity artistic jobs require a non-linear free-form thinking and a sort of non-professional attitude to be successful. However going home and knowing that you did the best has its own satisfactions.
There is an old business adage that goes "The customer is always right." It causes many people in the business world a great deal of frustration because sometimes the customer is not right, they are wrong, abusive and expect the world to be delivered to them on a silver platter for free. However, whether the customer is right or wrong and regardless of their attitude to a large degree a premier level of customer service can still be delivered.
Customer care involves several things
- Customers are interested in solutions, not excuses. Give options on what can be done and how those solutions will impact them. What the customer wants may not be physically possible but useful options can be provided.
- Never lie to the customers. It can be tempting to lie when a customer becomes unreasonable, demanding, and starts escalating the situation as the customer will then be talking to someone else, and not you. This is not a solution, and bad for the company, very frustrating for the customer, and a pit of misery for the next unlucky employee the customer gets. Be upfront with the customer, break down what happened and the policy for handling the situation, provide a solution, and defuse the situation. Take lots of notes on this to give internally within the company so that the customer doesn't get lost.
- Never ever escalate the situation yourself. Customers can be extremely angry and abusive. You can't. Yes, it's unfair. There is a lot of passive ways that you can make a customer miserable but that is not a solution. A professional does not take it personally.
- Follow through if possible. If a customer is uncertain, confused, and needs extended help in making things work, follow through. Ask the customer when they can be contacted, call them, leave a message if they aren't there, document fully, call back. Explain and re-explain if necessary. Give the customer a checklist to reduce missteps by the customer. This does not mean give one customer so much attention that others are neglected, but many times there is a way in company policy to check back with a customer. Customers appreciate this.
- Don't become a robot. After doing the same task repeatedly or being asked the same question for the dozenth time that day stay personable and friendly, even if you are tired. It can be easy to slip into an emotionless, burn-out state and give only "Yes" and "No" answers. The correct answer may indeed break down to yes or no at its simplest, but sometimes the customer is looking for more than a basic answer. If the question is "Are you still open?" the answer may be "No" but a more professional answer would be "Sorry, no. We closed the registers ten minutes ago. We'll be open at 8am tomarrow."
Have a plan
During job interviews one of the questions that is commonly asked is "Where do you see yourself in five years?" The purpose is to see if the job candidate has drive and self-motivation, and whether the person has realistic plans for the future. Not having a plan, while not bad, shows that the person may be passive, not pro-active, or could be a person that is coasting along. During an on-the-spot interview it can be hard to formulate an exact answer to this, and it could be difficult now to put it into words.
It is a good start to have a plan and keep the plan in a professional journal. Start with a brief statement about yourself, how you see yourself and how do you see yourself professionally. List the skills and training that you have and how you use them. List your job accomplishments that you personally feel good about in the past. List one or two job skills that you would like to have, and maybe one accomplishment that you would like to achieve. Use this information as a guideline on what you would like to work towards.
This is not a notebook meant to be shared with anyone else. This is a professional notebook meant to help you define yourself professionally. If you come across information that relates to your professional expansion copy it into your journal. If you see a newspaper article in your field that relates to what you are doing, clip it out and tape it into your notebook. If you learn something and feel that it will be very useful, copy the steps to the procedure into your professional notebook. The notebook should be filled with information you find useful. It can be very frustrating to have to search for information that you had in the past but didn't file correctly. The professional journal is a tool to help you plan what you want to achieve.
A plan is made up of seven main parts:
- A mission statement
- List of resources that you have available
- List of reasonable resources that you need to achieve your goals
- A plan of action for getting those needed resources
- A daily list of what has been achieved and what has not, and your feelings on it
- Define the goal
- Explain to yourself what the goal means for you
The mission statement
The mission statement is a definitive declaration of what you want to achieve. It should detail how you will differ from today to how you will be in the future. For example "I know car engines backwards and forwards and can take them apart in my sleep. I'd like to work on the really nice engines like they have in car shows or on the governmental ones like the big governmental snow plow diesel engines." It defines what you want clearly and shows a direction in which you want to go.
Many times people don't always realize all the resources that they already have available. You probably have some training in the field or familiarity with some of the skills needed. Time is a valuable resource, determine what time you will devote to this to learn new skills or expand the ones you already have. You probably have tools useful to your goals. These can include computers, Internet access, friends who have needed knowledge, mechanical hardware, reference manuals, access to teachers, state learning programs, and industry specific knowledge. These are available assets to succeeding in your plan.
What do you need
This involves research. Talk to people who already work in the field and get their insights as to whether your plan is well founded and whether there are pitfalls that you haven't yet encountered. Industry magazines provides valuable insider knowledge of issues and problems that commonly crop up. Many times people in specific industries group together on the Internet using message boards exchanging news and suggestions. These can often be found by using an Internet search engine or going to resources like Yahoo! Groups. The purpose of the research is to help determine what may be involved and what you may need to be successful in completing your plan.
Attaining needed resources
Usually the biggest hurdle is training or specific education. Many times training can be unaffordable. Contact your local college or university on Worker Retraining programs. Many times there are government programs specifically set up to help with the expenses. Many times there are state programs in place to issue financial aid packages or grant programs. A list of these are available through FinAid.org
If the need isn't so much the need of formal training, and the need is for the knowledge itself the libraries are a good resource. Local libraries can be a good resources, and college libraries can be an excellent resource for more specialized books. It can be far cheaper and less stressful working at your own pace from a book but requires more diligence and perseverance as it can be harder to find your mistakes and the correct solution. Talking to people who already have the exposure to the desired training and work on the task daily can provide valuable insight. In the end many times the resources can be attained without the need of classes.
The business diary
Diaries are a great way to see what has happened and what you feel. Over time you can look back and see how events developed, and ways that it could have been avoided. A business diary differs from a personal diary in that its focus should be entirely on what is being done to achieve the plan. Don't leave days blank in the diary. If other items had a higher priority and you didn't have a chance to work on the plan, record that fact along with what was the higher priority. It is important to be truthful. It is better to write "xx/xx - Had a hard day today with really demanding customers that completely wrecked my mood. Watched a sitcom on TV, and played some video games." than leaving it blank. It is natural that bad days happen and you may need a break. But over time you can look through the business diary and see a pattern on whether you are truly committed to your plan.
Define the goal
There is a reason why this is not done first and delayed until research is done and resources are planned out. Until you know what is involved in a plan you cannot define the goal of that plan. There are endless comedies about the disasters that await when insufficient research was done and there is inadequate preparation and the hapless person gets caught in an cascading series of disasters (see here, here, here, and here. When you are watching it at the theater it is funny. When it happens to you personally it is extremely frustrating. This is why you do all the groundwork planing first before you start declaring what you are planning to do. This avoid over-extension and publicly appearing foolish.
Now that you know why what is involved define what you want to do. This is similar to but different to the mission statement. Mission statements declare your intention. Goals are specifically what do you mean by this. Goals wrap everything that you have been researching into one core statement. That statement answers all the "Hows?" that you can foresee in your plan. For example, using the mission statement above a goal could be "I will work as a Automotive Equipment Foreman for the state DMV. They require four years experience which I have, taking three qualification exams, and need two certifications. I will work towards getting those certifications and afterward get on the schedule for those tests. I will study (various titles) to get this and periodically check with (someone) who I met at the (state capital) auto warehouse..." That is a solid goal.
The goal can be changed and is not set in stone. Despite everything you checked into maybe there is something you missed that makes it unfeasible. Maybe there is an economic downturn and there is a hiring freeze. There could be any number of reasons but adjust to the changes, keep the goal on hold as some of it may be useful for similar goals. Don't give up and throw away the plans because of a setback. Leave this on a page to learn from, and start a new page with what you will do next but keep your mission the same. You still want it but you may need to change how you will get there.
Keeping yourself motivated
The purpose for this is so that you can refer to this when you run into difficulties. Why are you doing this, what is your purpose in the plan? Answers can be more money, to be able to give more to your family, to use your skills more, because you need to leave your current job, to afford a better house, or to get better medical coverage for your children. Put a picture of what your motivation is inside the business notebook. Add to it if need be, not with more items but with greater detail as to why you are working on this plan. It could be "I love my children, (names) and want to provide the best for them. They will be graduating in a few years and I'd like to send them to college. I just don't make enough money to do this now so I'll strive to get a better job." This is just an example, your purpose is unique to yourself.
When you get discouraged, and it does happen, reread your reason and reevaluate on whether it is still important to you. Use this to carry you through the trying times.
This is a lot like shows like NBC's TV series "The Apprentice" and the British version of "The Apprentice" and Fox's series "Hell's Kitchen". Certainly these shows provide insight into why goes on in the fields of business administration and cooking, but more than that it shows that it's not always easy, there are problems, you must think on your feet and be able to multitask successfully.
Let's face it, the regular job can become dull as time goes on with little to show for it besides a regular paycheck and little appreciation. Consider branching out with something that you enjoy. All existing businesses have been formed by a person or a group of people setting up a company based on an idea. The principle of business is using what you are good at for yourself and maybe set up a sideline source of income.
The first principle of business is profit. Setting up a business can be very expensive so research is the first priority. Double check that you understand how everything will work, check prices, and check interest. Start off small with an eye to minimizing expenses.
Some people learn how auction services work, research how manufacturers bulk-sell and drop ship with wholesale pricing and finds the product that sells well and gives a consistent $1 per successful transaction. Others have vehicles and set up delivery and hauling services. Others mow lawns for people too busy, wash dogs, bake mini-cakes to sell on the Internet, or make custom artwork to customer needs. It could be generating high quality stock photography that businesses can use in advertising. Almost everyone knows something that someone else needs that has the potential to be used to generate money.
It is important to note that most businesses fail within the first year and banks in the best of times are nervous on lending for any new business (and these are not the best of times). Treat this as a sideline, not a major investment to maybe get some spare money flowing in. Most sidelines can be run for little to no money, and advertising can be similarly cheap. Start with word-of-mouth and community bulletin boards.
It is also important that this is a sideline option. There should be no interference with your steady reliable job that you currently have. As the old adage goes "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." It can be tempting to try cutting down your hours to facilitate the sideline but don't do it. Cutting back on your regular job can cause them to eventually dismiss you, and your sideline income, as with everything, can wane and leave you in a difficult position. Don't overextend.
You should also resist any issue of competition with your regular job. They invested a lot of time and money to train you to have certain marketable skills. They will not appreciate you using those skills to compete against them, and rightfully so. That would be both a form of stealing and using inside knowledge. It is a sure plan to disaster.
Most of all it should be something that you enjoy. Creating a successful sideline income is something you don't enjoy is a curse, and is just another job. If you like being outdoors find something that takes you where you want to be. If you really enjoy computers, explore the high-tech possibilities. If you enjoy computer games, yes, there are ways you can make money playing computer games (not likely though). The key is to do something you enjoy and get paid for it.
Running your own sideline income can give you a deeper appreciation on how smoothly the existing job that you have works and how a lot of the problems are already anticipated and handled. Running your own sideline venture will develop all your professional skills and more.