3 life-changing lessons I learned from my first MD

I count myself as utterly fortunate to have worked alongside someone I found inspiring, patient, compassionate and generous with his advice; for the best part of a year and a half. ‘Alongside’ in a quite literal sense, since we sat beside each other for around half of that time. A couple of years on, it is my pleasure to share some pearls of wisdom with the world, in the hope some of you will find them illuminating and helpful.

1. “Give and receive feedback freely”

Imagine a world where you could give anyone constructive feedback without fear of offence. Or a world where constructive feedback didn’t give you that horrible feeling in your belly when your pride is knocked. Would you learn more about yourself? Would you be a better person for it? Would you work in a more productive environment?

It’s not that easy to imagine, is it. But my guess is that your answer to each question is yes.

Receiving and acting on constructive feedback is one of the hardest things to do.

Our natural reaction to it is to recoil in disgruntlement and injury. I know I did. Around one year into my recruitment career, in a one-to-one meeting, my MD gave me the feedback that I sometimes came across as abrupt, blunt and a little insensitive. Obviously, I never meant to be — I suppose I wanted to be taken seriously. But it was still really tough to hear, and totally at odds with the way I saw myself.

But that’s how feedback works. It’s always going to be at odds with the way you want to see yourself. The raison d’être of constructive feedback is to help you improve something of yourself. And if you’re not open to it, you’ll never be aware of your shortcomings, and so never be able to do anything about it.

When you are given the gift of feedback, never lash out, but acknowledge the gift and be open to learning more about their reasons for the feedback. Let them know it is valued, and take some time to step into their shoes and work out which behaviours caused them to view you this way. Could anyone consider that feedback fair? What could you do to change your behaviours? To what extent are you willing to try to make those changes?

Encourage an environment around you where everyone is open to giving and receiving feedback. That way, not only can you improve yourself, but you can give the gift back to others in return.

2. “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not doing anything”

In the second week of my first ever full-time job around 4 years ago, I made a huge mistake. I thought at the time it would cost me my job before it had ever even really started.

It took the best part of a week for the leadership team to convince me I belonged at the company — but it was many months before their most important lesson sunk in. If you are, as my MD quoted John Wooden, not making mistakes — you’re not doing anything.

Of all your endeavours in your working life, how many do you expect to fail? How many risks do you intend to take? How many risks do you expect to pay off?

The only sure-fire way to ensure that your failure rate is zero is to do nothing. The most successful individuals fail regularly. What they have learned to do is fail fast and learn from their errors.

In other words — an efficient way to failure is failure to fail..! Now, obviously, that does not mean we should aspire to failure. Whilst obviously not something to be sought, it is not something to be feared. Proportionate failure should be seen as a signs of hard work, a taker of measured risks, even entrepreneurship. If everyone always did things the same way, we’d never make progress. Don’t fear failure, but learn how to fail and how to learn from it.

3. “Solutions, Not Problems”

Even now, the corporate flavour of this snippet sets my teeth slightly on edge. But there’s a valuable sentiment in there that I believe has helped make me far more efficient. And that has carried over into my software development career and helped made me an effective problem solver.

The ‘Solutions, Not Problems’ principle was a pillar at my first company, and one that my MD passionately promoted. At first, I just couldn’t understand it. I had loads of problems — I was new..! But that wasn’t quite the distinction that was meant. Avoiding asking for help wasn’t what was meant here. It was more that, wherever it made sense to do so, one should try to solve one’s own problem by oneself before asking for advice on a solution, in the right way.

Imagine the scenario: you approach you manager. “How do I find my IP address?” Now, if you’d Googled this, you’d know straight away what their IP address was, because Google tells you if you Google that. Damn, I bet you wish you just tried to solve your problem yourself! You’d have shown initiative and saved yourself and your colleague time. You’d also have gained confidence in your ability to solve your own problems.

At Northcoders, we encourage our bootcamp students to spend a minimum of 10 minutes trying to solve their coding problems themselves before seeking help. We encourage them to know what their problem is (for example, their error message) and to be able to explain what steps they have taken to try to solve it themselves. Not because we’re mean — but because in the working world, we know their managers will expect the very same. That extends beyond the world of software development.

Everyone on every team has lots of problems to solve. It’s their job. So the best way you can be a valued team-mate is to be part of their solution. Be proactive. Rather than consulting them for a solution, consult them for advice. Don’t just ask:

“How can I do X?”

but instead, try to ask something more like:

“I want to achieve X. I am considering Solution A and Solution B. I think I prefer Solution B because of Reason 1 and Reason 2. What do you think?”

I learned that managers view team-members who bring solutions as crucial. They prove they can take ownership, take problems off their managers’ plates, and thus become indispensable. Their positive, can-do attitude saturates through to everyone else, too. Bringing solutions to your team, rather than problems, helps you earn respect from your team. As a solver of problems, you might even find others coming to you for help. And that can’t be bad for your career!

I am still trying to follow this incredible advice better. It isn’t always easy. But I am certain that these snippets of advice have helped me get to where I am today, and I am certain they will continue to serve me well for years to come. I hope that they will help you, too.

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