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What I Wish I’d Known: Get Credit for What You Already Do

Contributor: Liz Stiverson

What I Wish I’d Known is a series in which MBAs offer lessons learned about integrating work and life in their first jobs.

“I will never forget my first bad review. I was an Analyst at an investment bank in Milwaukee, and at the end of my first deal, I sat down with the Vice President to talk about my performance. He opened the conversation by saying, ‘You’re doing good work, but I’m afraid you’re not putting in enough time on projects, and that could really limit your long-term potential here.’ I was speechless. I had been at my desk seven days a week, 14 hours a day for the past two months. When I said as much, my boss looked confused and asked ‘Why don’t I see emails from you on nights and weekends?’ I had assumed the polite thing to do was to respect his personal time and delay the delivery of all my emails until normal working hours unless it was an emergency. I was putting in the wrong kind of face-time – visible where he couldn’t see me and silent where he expected to hear me.”

— Joanna, 28, MBA candidate

Joanna’s is a familiar story.  For many people, it takes a lesson learned the hard way to realize that how you work can matter as much as the quality of the work you do. Here are two insights to spare you the same hard knocks:

Know the norms about communication on- and off-peak time.

Face time and flexibility mean different things in different organizations. Joanna assumed that what counted was being in the office, but what mattered to her boss was not where she worked but how much time he was able to observe; she could work anywhere she liked as long as he was aware that she was putting in the time.  After that first difficult conversation, she started working weekends from home, sending all emails immediately.  She was as productive but spent less time because she was saving time on her commute and she was now getting credit with her boss for the work she was doing.. Recent Catalyst research found that most high-potential employees have access to some kind of flexibility at work, in hours or location. When starting at a new firm, in a new department, or with a new manager, ask about these unwritten norms. If you don’t feel comfortable initiating that conversation with your boss, ask your office mates, other members of your team, or colleagues who have worked with your boss before. This will help you both deliver on the real expectations at work while allowing you to have time for the rest of your life.

Look for ways to work smarter, not more.

For a smart and motivated new hire, the easiest and perhaps most natural response to Joanna’s boss would have been a chagrined, “Sure, I can definitely put in more time.” Our bosses are also smart, motivated people who want to get things done, and most of us will be challenged at some point about how much time we spend at work completing specific tasks or projects. Another common form the question takes is, “Why do you think it will take to the end of the week to finish this? Can’t you do it by Wednesday?” Joanna did an important thing when she answered by giving her boss more information and asking clarifying questions. Rather than immediately offering more time – thereby trading off time for yourself, your family and friends, and your other interests – be sure you understand what’s needed. It might be simply better communication. Protect the time you spend not working by leveraging the work you’re already doing.

Not working for a firm that offers flexibility, or wondering what happens when face time is non-negotiable? Visit the Forum next month for a What I Wish I’d Known perspective on realistic expectations for work/life integration at the beginning of your career, and first steps you can take toward more flexibility.

About the Author

Liz StiversonLiz Stiverson is a 2014 MBA candidate at The Wharton School. Reach her in the comments section of this post.

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