You’re excited that your boss gave you an extra project to work on. You look around the office and secretly feel a tinge of pride that she selected you for this assignment. It must mean that she thinks highly of your skills, intelligence and ability.
You worry a little about how you can get this work done in time when there is already a pile of other stuff on your desk to get through. A few late nights and weekends later, the project is complete and you finally share it with your manager. She beams and is delighted at the great job you’ve done. The reward for a job well done is another assignment. This pattern continues on for months. It starts to trouble you when, in company meetings, your supervisor doesn’t acknowledge your extra efforts and makes her bosses think that she did it all. The realization kicks in that she probably hasn’t even mentioned you. Senior management has no idea of all your hard work, creativity and commitment—nor do they even know your name.
It’s a lesson learned. You must be clear-sighted and hyperfocused on the goals that you would like to achieve, with an understanding of how to get there. Any work you take on should directly lead toward your ultimate goal. Anything that distracts you from the target should be ignored.
We live in a time when people think it’s cool to say how busy they are. They equate busyness with productivity. These two are very different. In the example above, the employee was busy with work that didn’t help him advance his career, but it helped his boss. He may say, “Maybe she’ll show some appreciation,” but by the way the manager acted in the meeting, probably not.
It is important to learn how to politely say “no.” To take on work so that you can show off how busy you are is unhelpful. Politely excuse yourself from assignments that will push you further away from what you want to learn and what you need to do to grow your career. If you are a coder, any work that takes you away from coding is time lost and you’ll fall behind your peers.
Steve Jobs famously said, “It’s only by saying ‘no’ that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.” The idea is to figure out what is important in your job and career. Then, map out a plan as to how to achieve it. This entails only taking on certain projects, accepting specific jobs, working at particular companies and selecting managers who can help you advance. It sounds cold and calculating—and it is. That is what will separate you from the herd. When you are so busy, you’re running around in circles like a hamster on a wheel. If you’re focused, everything you do points toward the right direction. Think of who will win a race: the rabbit who chases every carrot and zigzags in different directions or the turtle who keeps steadily moving forward?
I’ve learned this lesson the hard way. I like to say “yes.” Over the years, I’ve accepted job orders because I didn’t want to disappoint a client. For my newsletter and blog, I’d accept advertising to please a company. I’ll acquiesce to speak at a conference because they asked and I don’t want to seem rude. All of these things turn out to be time-sucking bandits that take away from my primary goal—to recruit and place executives with top companies. By trying to be nice, I end up doing a poor job on a number of different things instead of doing a great job at one thing. The recruiting assignment that wasn’t in my wheelhouse took a long time and the hiring manager, instead of appreciating my efforts, was disappointed that we could not produce viable candidates quick enough. The advertisers, who I gave discounted rates, incessantly asked for analytics, had never-ending questions and continually asked for changes to the ads. The conference made me miss two days of work and I found out that I had to foot the bill for hotel and airfare. If I would have just said, “No, thank you for asking,” I would have spent my time more efficiently on the thing I do best, which is recruiting in my specialized space.
There is another positive aspect to just saying “no”—standing up for yourself, your principles, integrity and beliefs. In the corporate world, you will face moments when managers or colleagues try to pressure you into doing things that are unethical, illegal, immoral or just plain stupid. In the moment, it is hard to push back. After all, you want to be seen as a team player, one of the gang and someone to be depended upon. By responding affirmatively, you get the feeling that you’re making connections and have a sense of belonging, even though you know deep down that you’ve made a big mistake. Instead, hold your ground and stand up for yourself. Don’t get suckered into something shady. Just politely and firmly say “no.”
This is an easy concept to put into practice starting today. Look at your workload and decide which projects are extremely relevant to your future growth and put them at the top of your priorities list. Find a way to delegate or get out of everything else. I recognize that there will always be annoying tasks that you’ll get stuck with. The goal is to finely tune your focus, so that you can accumulate as much experience and knowledge in your field as humanly possible. That way, you eclipse your peers, receive promotions and fast track your career.