Summary: The Unspoken Rules By Gorick Ng
Summary: The Unspoken Rules By Gorick Ng

Summary: The Unspoken Rules By Gorick Ng

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The Three Cs

Your challenge as a newbie is to convince your managers, coworkers, and clients to answer “Yes!” to three questions:

  1. Can you do the job well?
  2. Are you excited to be here?
  3. Do you get along with us?

Which means you need to convince your managers and coworkers by demonstrating the Three Cs:

  1. Competency: To show competence is to show that you can get the job done fully, accurately, and promptly without needing to be micromanaged.
  2. Commitment: To show commitment is to show that you are fully present and eager to help the team achieve its goals.
  3. Compatibility: To show compatibility is to make others comfortable and eager to be around you.


“Let’s Give This a Shot!

It’s all about having the mindset of “Let’s give this a shot.” Do you have a crazy idea that probably won’t work—but might work? Let’s give this a shot. Is there something you’ll probably fail at—but might succeed at? Let’s give this a shot. Is there something you probably won’t like—but might like? Let’s give this a shot.

Think back to the last time you seized an opportunity that led to something even better. Did you land your current job by talking to someone you don’t usually talk to? Did you meet your significant other at an event you almost didn’t go to? Or, like me and Sandy (who opened my eyes to the unspoken rules), did you learn something by asking a question you almost didn’t ask? If so, you’ve already experienced the power of “Let’s give this a shot.” Now it’s time to bring this same mindset to your new job—and to keep it with you for the rest of your career.


Ask Like a High Performer

Perception matters here too, of course. How “good” your question is depends on how well you can convince your listener that you couldn’t have answered it on your own.

Explain where your question is coming from before asking the question itself. So, instead of just asking your question, try going with the structure of “Here’s my question, and here’s why I’m asking this question.” Or, “Here’s what I know, and here’s what I don’t know,”

Sure, there’s nothing stopping you from jumping straight into your question. But in doing so, you forgo the opportunity to subtly hint, Hey, look how much work I’ve done to figure out.


Be Proactive

A key difference between school and work: school is about keeping up; work is about stepping up. In school, you are rewarded for following instructions—simply show up to class, listen, read the textbook, and submit your homework by the deadline and you’ll be a star. In the workplace, there is no syllabus, no textbook, no clearly numbered list of homework problems to complete. Sometimes, people are so busy meeting their own deadlines that they may not even notice that a new member of the team has shown up. And sometimes, despite their best intentions to set you up for success, even the best of managers can look forgetful and uncaring when their own managers summon them for that surprise meeting minutes before you arrive. The result? The workplace favors the proactive. If no one steps up to help you, step up and help yourself.


Learn To Tell Your Story

Your internal narrative translates into nothing more than “me,” “me,” “me.” Your external narrative, on the other hand, translates into “This is what I want … and this is how I am competent in and committed to this work.”

Step 1: Build Your Internal Narrative

Work backward from the end goal: imagine how you’ll look back at your work experience on your last day. What will you want to have done?

Step 2: Build Your External Narrative

Once you have your internal narrative, the next step is to turn it into a set of talking points that you can tailor to your audience for your external narrative.

Step 3: Add Structure

What if others ask a forward-looking question like “What kind of work are you interested in?” Do your homework, then show your homework. And don’t just use ingredients from your fridge—include details from the online research you did.

Step 4: Finesse Your Style

Maintaining your competence: Make it clear that you have something to offer and are doing important work—without coming across as if you either know what’s best or have no idea what’s going on.

Maintaining your commitment: Demonstrate that you are eager to learn, help, and grow without coming across as power-hungry, trying to take anyone’s job, or looking to make anyone look bad.

Maintaining your compatibility: Make it clear that you are excited to be a member of the team without sounding like you are trying to do everything or be someone you aren’t.

Nailing the Three Cs takes time. You’ll need to practice, recognize patterns, and practice some more. Don’t worry if you feel like you overshot or undershot at first. Observe the body language of your listeners. Pay attention to moments when people are frowning, crossing their arms, leaning back, shifting their gaze, or tilting their heads. These could be subtle hints for you to reframe your story next time. Look for smiles and nods too, since they mean your story is being received well. Then, use people’s responses to further tweak your story.

Step 5: Practice!

Though what you say is important, how you say it can be just as crucial. This book isn’t a public speaking guide, so we won’t go into too much detail, but the key is to sound confident but not arrogant, proper but not robotic, and upbeat but not immature.


Take Ownership

Transitioning from school to work is about more than just making money and having a manager. It’s about shifting from the mindset of I’ll wait for instructions to the mindset of I’ll try to figure it out.

Taking ownership isn’t an overnight transformation. It’s a journey. Everyone knows that it takes time to learn something new—anywhere from several days to several months, depending on the complexity of the role. When you first start a job, expectations of you will never be lower. But before long, you will “graduate” and often without warning.

Of course, different managers will have different working styles. Some will graduate people faster than others. Some will appreciate your proactivity more than others. Some will respect your point of view more than others. But the responsibility will come—and people who once were waiting for you will now rely on your opinion and, above all, your leadership. The more comfortable you are with embracing such a mindset shift, the sooner people will be convinced of your competence—and the sooner you’ll be able to make an impact.


Manage Your Workload

Although focusing on the most urgent and important priorities can help you tame an overwhelming set of tasks, doing so is rarely enough. You may reduce, say, ten tasks down to four, but still: if all four are both equally urgent and important, you still won’t have enough time in the day to do everything—and do it all well. It’s normal and expected to find yourself in such a situation.

People understand that every situation has its trade-offs. When making promises to other managers or clients, your manager may say that work can be done cheaply, quickly, or with high quality. You may be able to achieve two of those, but rarely will you achieve all three. Your job is the same way. If your manager needs a one-day task done in one hour, you will need to make trade-offs. As long as you are being proactive, articulating the trade-offs, and giving reasonable explanations that frame your situation not as “I can’t do this because I’m uncommitted” but as “I’m committed, but my hands are tied, so these are the options,” people are generally understanding.

A word of advice: it helps to under-promise and over-deliver, as long as you’re convincing with the signals you send.


Read between the People

Learning the chain of command—who reports to whom—is one of the most important things you can do when you are new to a team. Your primary tool will be an org chart. Once you’ve done identifying formal powers, you need to uncover the informal powers—the influencers. These are the people who may not have the authority to make decisions, but do have the leverage to influence decisions.

Influencers come in five types (with some people occupying more than one role):

  • Gatekeepers. People (often they’re assistants) who work closely with the senior leaders—and who can influence whether you get to meet with them and how they perceive you.
  • Veterans. People who’ve worked in the organization the longest—and who can help you learn how to effectively navigate the system based on what has and hasn’t worked before.
  • Experts. People whom others tend to listen to or who know a particular topic well—and can help make you make your ideas more palatable to others.
  • Socialites. People who are known and respected around the organization—and who can introduce you to the right people and shape others’ perceptions of you.
  • Advisers. People whom your manager and other senior people tend to trust—even if it’s not clear why—and who can help you convince the higher-ups to agree with your ideas.

Of course, no one walks around with these labels on their foreheads. You need to observe your coworkers’ behavior and recognize patterns. Do meetings or decisions always have to go through a particular person? You may have found a gatekeeper. Is someone always invited to meetings, asked for their opinion, or brought up as someone you should talk to? You may have found a veteran, expert, or socialite. Does your manager always reference the opinion of a particular colleague? You may have found an adviser. Once you’ve found an influencer, introduce yourself to them. Get to know them. And though it’s important to be nice to everyone, be especially gracious with them.


Spark Relationships

Relationships aren’t built from singular conversations. They’re built from many interactions over many weeks and months. Here are seven tactics to try, from least involved to most involved.

  1. Say hi to them again. It’s surprising how many people don’t do this. Not acknowledging someone you’ve met can have an impact similar to saying, “I don’t remember you.” Give a hello, nod, smile, or “Nice to see you again.” If you don’t remember someone’s name, try, “I’m so sorry, we went so quickly with our intros that I totally forgot your name. Mind reminding me again?”
  2. Ask how things are going. A simple question like “How was your trip?” or “How did _________ end up going?” can be an easy way to signal that you were paying attention and that you care.
  3. Share relevant news. Did you find an article, video, podcast episode, newsletter, or event that’s relevant to someone? If so, forward them the link with “You may have already seen this, but it reminded me of our conversation.” It’s an easy way to signal that you’re still thinking of them.
  4. Offer an introduction. If you come across anyone who has similar interests or who might be helpful to the person you met, ask if they’d like an introduction. Then reach out to your contact to see if they’d be interested and, if so, become the broker of that double opt-in introduction we discussed earlier. You, too, can become a socialite—and an influencer.
  5. Show gratitude. If someone gave you advice or help, send a thank-you email shortly after your meeting (ideally, the next day, but within a week at the latest). Not doing so, especially if you requested the conversation, can have an impact similar to saying, “I’m not grateful.” Consider updating and thanking the person who brokered the introduction, too. Be generous with thank-yous. Make others feel good. Everyone appreciates the validation of “Thanks to you, I _________.”
  6. Mention you’d like to work together. When you’re talking to someone who works on a team or project you’d like to join, try saying, “If you’re in need of an extra pair of hands, please keep me in mind.” You can’t get what you don’t ask for. Remember the mindset of Let’s give this a shot!
  7. Ask to grab lunch or coffee, or do a catch-up call. This approach can also work if you want a longer conversation, such as if you’re interested in learning about their experiences (e.g., with grad school) or work (e.g., a prior project they led). But meetings can be burdensome, so make sure you have an idea of what you’d like to talk about, and consider reaching out to only a few people at a time so that you aren’t seen as one of those aggressive networkers.


Master Meetings

Mastering meetings is as much about projecting competence, commitment, and compatibility as it is about reminding yourself of your role. Here is what an executive recruiter told to Gorick:

“Understanding and knowledge are more valuable than simply pretending and getting through the meeting. Pretending may work in the short run, but the people who ask the right questions and learn will eventually overtake you. Rather than pretend, be honest when you don’t know. Being curious, teachable, and self-aware is more important than being perfect.”

In other words, the end goal is not simply to be noticed, but to be curious, to learn, and to contribute. Don’t forget to bring this mindset with you to your next meeting.


Show Your Potential

The key to getting promoted is to find an unoccupied space that matters to your team—and then claim it. How do you find one? Ask yourself five questions.

  1. What can I do that hasn’t been done?
  2. What can I fix that hasn’t been fixed?
  3. What can I bridge that hasn’t been bridged?
  4. What can I know that others don’t know?
  5. What can I share that hasn’t been shared?

As much as we’d like to think that all hard work and talent will be recognized and rewarded, unfortunately, the world isn’t always fair. Sometimes, you may set yourself up for a promotion and not get it because of a lack of objectivity or a lack of opportunity.

  • A lack of objectivity: Some managers will prioritize what’s best for you. Others will prioritize what’s best for them.
  • A lack of opportunity: Maybe it’s a bad economy. Maybe the industry is doing poorly. Maybe your department is getting restructured or your supportive manager left for another role. Whatever the reason, you could do a great job and still not get ahead.

In the end, showing your potential is about convincing others that an investment in you is an investment that’s good for the organization. It’s about proving that you are not merely good at your job, but indispensable to the team.

You may not be able to control the wind and snow on this wilderness expedition that is your career, but at least you will have done all that you can to set yourself up for success—and paved a path of least regret for yourself.

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