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Doing Hard Time in the Workplace

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Obvious but not at the level of consciousness

Many things are obvious.  But some things are not obvious until someone points them out to you.  That is the curious thing about “obvious”.  Things that are obvious may not be at the forefront of your consciousness.  If obvious things do not operate at the level of consciousness to the extent that they influence judgement and behaviour then obvious things can be the most overlooked aspect of decision-making.  Even though, when someone tells you, you say, “I knew that all along”.  Sure you did.  But did it matter?  If obvious things do not operate at the level of consciousness and you do not consider them in making judgments, then you become oblivious to the obvious – the obvious which is right in front of you all along if you could recognize it.

Word games?  No.

I recently read a posting by Seth Godin (link and quote below).  In that posting he made a distinction between people who “work long” versus people who “work hard”.  This distinction is a way that people differentiate themselves in the workplace.  And this differentiation makes all the difference in the world in terms of career advancement.

The Long Work

What characterises the long work is that it is work of repetition.  An example of “work as repetition” that immediately occurs to most people is factory work.  In you ever saw the series “How it’s made” on the science channel then you can see many examples of this.  Put 24 bags of potato chips in a box; seal the box; stack the box.  Repeat – 8 hours a day; 5 days a week; 52 weeks a year.  My favorite episode is when they showed a lady who, by hand, but the eyes on peeps.  Another episode showed a lady that put eyes on chocolate bunnies.  (Two eyes only, please – don’t frighten the children).  How about a punch press operator?  Slide the sheet of steel into the press; apply 500 tons of pressure; produce a fully formed fender for a Detroit automobile.  Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Work as repetition – the long work – is generally work that is well understood.  The process that the work encodes  is predictable and the outcome is well described.  You simply do the same thing over and over with very little variation.  There is no mystery about it.  You simply “show up” and do the work with very little thought.

The Hard Work

What characterises hard work is the opposite of long work.  Hard work is the work where the process is not wel understood, there are lots of unknown or unpredictable variables, and the outcome may be easily recognizable in the future but the consequences of not achieving the outcome can have dire consequences.  In some cases, the outcome of the work may be discernible only over a long period of time as you continuously invest time and money.  An example would be corporate executives who make investment decisions in new products or services to meet a projected corporate growth targets in the context of consumers and markets whose demands fluctuate and the unknowns of competitors response strategies.  Other examples would be political decision-making and social policy.  Read related postings on Wicked Problems and Physics Envy (links below)

Why it matters and how it operates in the workplace

I recently spoke to a person who told me his wife was about to retire.  This person’s wife was vice president of a Fortune 100 financial services company.  He also told me that his wife had worked for this company for the past 25 years after getting an MBA when she was in her late 20’s.  In response to a comment by me about his wife’s long tenure at this single company he said, “Doesn’t everyone who works for a company this long eventually end up as a Vice President?”

If you read a resume and see that a person has 20 years of experience what do you think?  What does 20 years of experience mean?  Is that 2 years of experience 10 times over?  Is it 10 years of experience repeated twice?

I ran across a person who consistently racked up 50-60 hour work weeks.  This person was on a salary and was not getting any additional compensation for any hours over 40 hours a week.  I asked him why he worked so many hours without being compensated.  He told me that if he worked hard he would get ahead.  Really?

Where’s Waldo?  Did you every work in a company and find that there were a few people who seem to have a new position or role in that company every three to five years?  They stay in one role only long enough to master it and them move on.  It seems that the first thing they do when they get a promotion is to figure out the next step up the corporate ladder.  This strategy becomes obvious if you examine the careers of executives.  A handful started in the mailroom and worked their way to the top.  Others like former Motorola CEO Ed Zander didn’t waste too much time in any of a series of jobs.  As you can see he spent about 5 years in each job before moving on: Career: Raytheon Company, 1968–1973, engineer; Data General Corporation, 1973–1982, senior marketing positions; Apollo Computers, 1982–1988, vice president for marketing; Sun Microsystems, 1988–1991, vice president for corporate marketing; 1991–1995, president of SunSoft; 1995–2002, president and COO; Silver Lake Partners, 2003, managing director; Motorola, 2003–, chairman and CEO.

The Take

Do you want to get ahead in your career?  How do those people who get ahead differentiate themselves?

From Seth Godin’s Blog (here)

Long work is what the lawyer who bills 14 hours a day filling in forms does.

Hard work is what the insightful litigator does when she synthesizes four disparate ideas and comes up with an argument that wins the case–in less than five minutes.

Long work has a storied history. Farmers, hunters, factory workers… Always there was long work required to succeed. For generations, there was a huge benefit that came to those with the stamina and fortitude to do long work.

Hard work is frightening. We shy away from hard work because inherent in hard work is risk. Hard work is hard because you might fail. You can’t fail at long work, you merely show up. You fail at hard work when you don’t make an emotional connection, or when you don’t solve the problem or when you hesitate.

I think it’s worth noting that long work often sets the stage for hard work. If you show up enough and practice enough and learn enough, it’s more likely you will find yourself in a position to do hard work.

It seems, though that no matter how much long work you do, you won’t produce the benefits of hard work unless you are willing to leap.

I know full well that many people do not want to get ahead in their careers.  These people, for the most part, want to be safe and secure. Once they find a niche in a company they stay put – forever.   They seldom leave their comfort zone to try something new.  The rely on job security.  They talk about their benefits and vacation days – but not about the health or future prospects for the company that employs (has invested in) them.  They are the folks who have 20 years of experience as 2 years of experience repeated 10 times over.  There is very little sense of “wanting more” – they fall into a mediocrity.  These folks generally have a vision of the future where that future is essentially the same day repeated over and over – the long work.  It seems these folks approach a sort of equilibrium point in their career – satisfied with where they are; unwilling to make the next quantum of effort to make the “leap” to the next level.  As Seth points out, “Hard work is frightening.”  Many people who are insecure about their skills and competencies are easily frightened and they will go no farther than a safe and secure equilibrium point.

So, with this in mind, look around the workplace.  Which individuals are at their equilibrium point?  Which individuals are still on the move?  Where did each of these individuals reach their equilibrium point?  As an individual contributor?  In a support role?  In a strategic position?  If you are looking for potential talent in a corporation this exercise is important.

What about those people who think they are working in a way that will move them ahead in their career but, are really, pretty much, digging themselves deeper into the position they already have with little chance of promotion?

The lesson of Boxer in Animal Farm – “I will work harder!”

There are a lot of lessons in these novels you read in high school.  If you remember in the novel Animal Farm, Boxer was the hardest working animal on the farm.  When Boxer got hurt and could no longer work all his friends thought that he would be taken care of.  They saw a truck coming to pick up Boxer.  After loading Boxer onto the truck, when the doors in the back were closed, and the truck leaving, only then did his friends see the sign on the back of the truck: Glue Factory.

So, for the person I mentioned above, who worked at his job 50-60 hours a week without additional compensation do you think he will every get ahead?  What manager would give up such a person?  All this person’s hard work will have just the opposite effect – it will keep him in his job until he can no longer sustain this level of activity.  Like Boxer, he does the long work – not the hard work.  Worst case, when this person gets older, or when the cost of his labor is too high compared to offshore competition then, like Boxer, he will be removed.

Career as the work of repetition

What about the person who has 20 years of experience as 2 years of experience 10 times over?  Will this person get ahead in their career?  Most likely not.  That again, is the long work – repeated over and over.  Middle manager white-collar jobs are sometimes like this.  Cracking the glass between a management and executive position is exactly the difference between long work and hard work. 

Fast Movers

Really, the only way to get ahead in your career is to focus on doing the hard work and not the long work – no matter how frightening it is – in all its implications of complexity of judgement under uncertainty and risk.

Ever wonder why executives are compensated so much more than, say, a punch press operator or a person who is a welder on a GM assembly line?  All these folks may work 40-60 hours  a week but it is the nature of the work they do.  The long work versus the hard work.

When a company has to lay people off did you every wonder who gets laid off first?  It’s the nature of the work.  Work in a corporate environment can be classified as strategic or support.  That’s the difference between hard work and long work.  Those who do the strategic work of the company will be the last to go.

When the person told me that his wife was about to retire as VP of a financial services company he said, without much thought

 Doesn’t everyone who works for a company this long eventually end up as a Vice President?

It was just so obvious to him that it didn’t require a second thought.  If you work for a single company for a long time, and you consistently do the hard work, and you are competent at it, then how could it be not be the case that you make it to Vice President?  The path is inevitable.  Isn’t it?

Is it obvious that if you spend your time doing the long work and not the hard work you will be spinning your wheels in your career?

If someone pointed this out to you – so it would be at a level of consciousness – would it be obvious then?  Would it affect your judgement on how you manage your career?

Seth Godin got it right.

If you show up enough and practice enough and learn enough, it’s more likely you will find yourself in a position to do hard work…  It seems, though that no matter how much long work you do, you won’t produce the benefits of hard work unless you are willing to leap.

We need both kinds of people in the workplace.  Those who do the long work that have the stamina and fortitude to do so.  And we need the people who do the hard work – the work of high risk, potential for failure, all in the context of uncertainty and unpredictability which can be frightening to most people.

But be aware that these fundamental career choices of doing the hard work versus the long work lead to very different outcomes in one’s career over a lifetime.  Your choice.  Obvious or oblivious?


Wicked Problems

Physics envy and the taxonomy of uncertainly


Written by frrl

May 23, 2011 at 2:42 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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