As the Founder and CEO of a mid-sized company, I regularly think about advancing myself professionally. If I grow myself, I advance our company. If our team grows professionally, the company automatically advances.
Many aspiring professionals routinely ask me about career planning and growth. I have worked with hundreds of people across three global industries (appliances, software, and consulting) since I graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) over 25 years ago. Many people I have worked with rose quickly through the ranks, while others took much longer.
In working with all of these people, I observed a common pattern of success. People who are successful in any area of life—whether it is politics, sports, business, or academics—share common behaviors and habits.
I look back and see that my own journey became easier once I realized it was better to follow the pattern followed by successful people. Once I started consistently adopting these common traits and behaviors, it was easy to succeed.
Here are five behaviors and habits that I found useful.
Learn continuously: There were years in my 27 year career when I did not advance. As I reflect on those years, I realize that I made no effort to learn anything new in those years. I was not proactive and I did not keep my skills ahead of the market. As professionals, all of us struggle with shortage of time. Often, we barely have enough time to get our work done every week. Where can we find time to learn? People who progress seem to find the time. At our company, we have a required learning hour every week. We spend one hour every week (just 2.5% of a 40 hour week) discussing a new technology or technique as a team. Most team members report that out of the 52 weeks per year, they attend 40 or so sessions. Most people have learned at least one or two techniques every month that save them at least one hour every week.
In the software field, we become obsolete the day we graduate from college. Fortunately, with the advent of online education, many college courses are available to us for free online. These online college courses offered by leading universities (MIT, Stanford, etc.) are used mostly by working professionals like you and me. Leading technology suppliers also offer free online courses related to the latest technologies and their products. Microsoft Virtual Academy is a great example of a website used by millions worldwide to learn.
Manage Time: As I observe our engineers who are successful and get promoted young, I see that they manage their time at work in a way that is more productive than their colleagues.
In my view, 40 hours per week, if I am working in a focused manner, is a long time to work. Most of us cannot really work for 40 hours a week. Then why do we spend 60 hours a week in the office? There are many reasons. Poor management is the first reason; no one has thought about how to correctly organize and allocate work. All of the distractions present in our workplace is the second reason. These include our constant need to keep up with personal and work e-mails, text messages, websites, Facebook posts, instant messages, and phone calls. With so many things going on, the end result is that we are constantly switching between tasks.
This is known as ‘task-switching,’ as opposed to ‘multitasking,’ or working on multiple tasks simultaneously (which is impossible for humans). Task-switching creates an environment for technical mistakes and miscommunication. As I have become more disciplined, I avoid distractions and interruptions at work.
Reduce Transportation Costs: All my life, I have chosen to live close to work. My daily commute has always been less than 10 minutes. Earlier in my life, I was lucky and lived in small towns where everything was nearby. After starting my career, I chose to compromise on the quality of my accommodation in favor of proximity to the office. Staying close to work saves me time and money, and is less stressful. I get extra time in the day every day. At our company, we had several very talented engineers who chose to live almost one hour away. In just a few years, they could not handle the stress from their daily commute and they ended up leaving the company.
Reducing my commute has several benefits. First, I reduce the stress that it takes to get to work. Second, by not driving, I reduce the probability of getting into accidents. That is why insurance companies ask me for the number of miles I drive annually to determine insurance rates. They reason that if I am not on the road, I cannot get into an accident. Third, I minimize expenses. Driving is very expensive. Maintaining a car is very expensive. Moreover, it will only get worse with prices increasing.
The next question becomes finding a home close to work. For most people who live in large cities, it is possible to find a job and a place to live near each other. We can either compromise on our quality of housing or pay higher rent.
I remember renting an apartment which was just minutes away from work. The good location required me to pay higher rent. I had to adjust my other expenses. A similar apartment was available at a lower rent in a different locality further away from work. Later in my career, I remember buying a house which was very close to work. The house was old and was not as nice. For the same amount of money, I could have purchased a much nicer house far away, but I avoided family and peer pressure to do so.
So how has it benefitted me? If you look at the benefit my living close to work has created over 20 years, the compound effect has been huge. I have many friends who live very far from work. Over 20 years, several of them got into serious accidents that destroyed their cars and compromised their safety.
An alternative is to use public transportation as much as possible, which is safer and cheaper than using private transportation. However, public transportation in most major cities is slow, crowded, and inconvenient. When I was in Mumbai, I would take the train every day between 7:30 a.m. and 7:45 a.m. A half hour later, the train would be full. If I left at 7:30 a.m., I avoided the crowd. I aligned my schedule to travel when few others were travelling.
Most people go to the office when it is the least efficient to travel. By getting to the office earlier, I avoided the crowds. It generally took a much shorter time. I was less stressed and I was much safer. The second advantage was that, by using quiet times on public transportation, I was able to catch up on my reading. Now, I listen to educational audio content. I use my time productively.
Plan Ahead: Though spontaneous plans are exciting for some, I find them stressful. When it comes to the workplace, it is much better for me to plan in advance so that other team members can plan their work around my schedule. I plan my day and week ahead as much as possible. I have also learned to plan my year in advance. For example, our company calendar is published for the coming 12 months on a rolling basis. Advance planning simplifies my life and the schedules of those around me. This simple technique has helped me significantly, since my yearly travel plan is dictated by the calendar. When planning one year in advance, some people feel constrained. However, I look at myself as getting freed up because I can fit my schedule to the yearly calendar. Planning has certainly helped me become more successful.
Improve your English-Language Skills: Over the years, I have interviewed and worked with many engineers who studied in India. Despite their technical knowledge and hard work, many could not reach their full potential because of their poor command of English vocabulary and grammar. We could not promote many of them to bigger roles because they could not write or speak grammatically correct English. Some of them have good communication skills in their native language. However, English is a challenge.
Many free websites are available to help us improve our English. Even if we spend just 10 minutes per day consistently, we can significantly improve our vocabulary and grammar. Even now, I work to improve my English and communication skills.
Anyone can follow these simple habits and behaviors. Many are really easy to do. However, the successful people actually do them consistently in a disciplined manner over a long period of time.