What I Wish I Knew When I Was an Employee

Recently, I encountered a thought-provoking question posed in an online small business forum:

What is something you know now, that would influence what you’d do if you worked for someone else again?

And it got me thinking.

I left my last full-time job in 2010 to start my own business. In the last six years of sitting in the director’s chair, I’ve learned so much from all the wonderful people who have worked in my company. As such, I would do so many things differently if I were to transition back to employee status.

And while that isn’t in the short-term plan, it could potentially happen through a merger or acquisition, which is in the long-term plan.

I’m writing this in the hopes that it helps any employees out there to better understand how they might best support their bosses, and in so doing, advance their own careers at an accelerated pace.

(Nota bene: I know this relationship is not a one-way street. Just as employees can do a lot to contribute to their companies and success of their bosses, so too should employers seek to coach, mentor, and develop their employees.)

  1. I would only ask for input after first having prepared a potential answer myself.

Let’s say Bob and Sue both walk into my office at the same time. Bob asks, “Can you solve this problem for me?” while Sue says,“I’ve done some research and here are three ways we could tackle this problem. Can I get your input?”

Who is demonstrating more value to the company? More initiative? Who is making the boss’s life easier?

I wouldn’t want to be a Bob. I’d be a Sue.

2. I would proactively problem-solve.

Every business, process, service and product has room to improve. Over time, it’s so easy to get lost in the day-to-day activities of a job so that only big problems get any attention.

One of my favorite quotes is “small hinges move big doors,” and it’s especially true in business. One little tweak could mean a world of difference in achieving better results, so I would keep my eyes open for those opportunities.

Then, applying tip #1 above, I’d approach my boss in this way:

“I’ve noticed we aren’t operating as efficiently as we need to be on our website creation process, and there seems to be a breakdown in getting feedback from our clients in a timely manner. I found this tool that will send automatic reminders to the client at a schedule we set, and it has a 30-day free trial. Could we test it out?”

3. I would actively build relationships across all departments.

I’ve witnessed “us vs. them” behavior creep up within several of the organizations I’ve worked for:

  • Sales vs. operations
  • Sales vs. marketing
  • Sales vs. sales (what is it with competitive sales people?!)

And I’ve seen that behavior cause companies serious grief. While some healthy competition can be motivating and fun, going too far can create a toxic environment that kills productivity and morale.

If I were ever an employee again, I’d seek to build relationships and friendships across silos, and proactively encourage others to do the same.

4. I would try to understand my boss as a person and make his or her work life easier.

We are all human, motivated by and scared of different things. I’d try to get to know my boss on a psychological level (in a non-creepy way, of course) to understand how I could best support him or her.

What are my boss’s strengths and weaknesses? Any blind spots? Any activities he or she could delegate to me to spend more time on higher priority initiatives?

I appreciate it so much when my employees seek to understand and support my work style, and I try to extend them the same courtesy.

5. I would try to think more strategically.

Some employees get stuck in “just tell me what to do” mode, or struggle to problem-solve when issues arise. By understanding the overall vision, mission, and goals of the company, employees can begin to think strategically and make better decisions.

By thinking strategically and in alignment with the company’s goals, I would hope to reduce stress and decision-fatigue for my boss while contributing meaningful insight and ideas.

6. I would treat my areas of responsibility as my own mini-business-within-the-business.

As such, I would set up metrics that are meaningful to my boss and the company, and would effectively track and measure my success. I’d also proactively provide status updates to further demonstrate that ownership mindset.

By fully “owning” the tasks assigned to me, my boss would learn over time that he or she could fully trust me to drive results.

7. I would proactively contribute to the company’s culture.

Culture is so important to the overall job satisfaction of employees. Here are some things I would do to contribute to culture:

  • Collaborate with other employees wherever it made sense.
  • Recognize other people doing great things and publicly acknowledge them.
  • Help to organize off hours activities, like volunteering opportunities or outings.

Again, this is just one side of the relationship between employee and employer — bosses have their own crucial ways they can nurture employees. But that’s for another article.

I’m grateful for the perspective I’ve gained by living on the other side of the fence for the last six years, and if I ever find myself in employee status again, I hope I’d be a lot better prepared to make a big impact on the business.