I agree with Brad Feld: Most people flake. If you’re not a flake, you are far more likely be trusted, promoted, and funded. If you execute on the steps below, you’re well on your way to being a top quartile performer.
I gave a presentation to Womensphere a few months ago on the most valuable lessons I learned early in my career. Back when I was an entry-level investment banking analyst at Bear Stearns (R.I.P.), our trainers gave us some basic advice on how to be a good financial analyst. At the time these sounded obvious, but now with hindsight I think that most of your success in your career is just executing on these basic points…whether you’re a CEO or aspire to be a CEO.
- Listen, and write down what you hear. I was told to always carry a notebook (now a smartphone), because clients and your colleagues will ask you to do tasks. If you write down those tasks and actually execute them, you become known as someone worth asking to do stuff. When I meet a founder, I often will make suggestions of people for them to meet/competitors to analyze/ideas to pursue. I don’t expect them to follow on any particular suggestion; I’m just one opinion out of many. However, I do note if they are writing down my suggestions. If not, that indicates that they may not be the sort of person who’s diligent about listening to the market. Not good. Why take that risk?In general, say yes to every opportunity to demonstrate responsiveness. If a colleague poses a question to which you have no idea of the answer, just say, “let me research that.”
- Organize your data. Successful people are careful to retain and organize all of their notes: on meetings, people whom they meet, assignments for which they have responsibility. Being obsessive-compulsive is a highly desirable professional characteristic. One of my standard interview questions for salespeople is, “What CRM system do you use, and how many people are in it?” A bad answer is, “My phone, and a few hundred.” A good answer is “Salesforce.com + FullContact [or another real CRM system], and [a larger number proportionate to your number of years of experience]”.
- Find the instructions and follow them. “They promised us flying cars, and all we got was the sum of the world’s knowledge in our pockets.” Before you do any task, look for the instructions. For example, I’m amazed at how many funding pitches lack the basic information which investors require before funding, even though Google provides that information in seconds. If a founder doesn’t do some basic research before approaching investors, that’s a bad sign for their ability to operate autonomously.
- Identify the prior art. Lilin Wang, a graduate student at Cornell Tech, observes that 80% of technical problems she tries to solve in her projects have already been tackled by others. If you look for solutions on forums such as Stack Overflow before you do a task, you typically will save a lot of time. Similarly, Authorea (ffVC portfolio company) is working on being Github for academics, making the research process more efficient. Quora is a particularly good resource for founder-related issues. And include your sources: make sure to footnote/link to the origin of any data that you quote.
- Overcommunicate. If you don’t understand the goal of a task, or believe it has already been accomplished by someone somewhere but require help in locating it, just ask. On the flip side, if you envision a way to produce a better result/product, communicate that to your colleagues and ensure it is aligned with their intended goal. Either way, you are making sure you are not wasting your time and reinforcing a relationship with your colleagues.
- Double-check. The smartest person doesn’t necessarily get promoted. Rather, it’s the person who catches the inevitable mistakes and fixes them. It’s critical to double and triple-check your work. Whether it’s a text for a tweet or a fundraising deck, Raffi Sapire, an analyst at Acumen, prints out and re-reads every piece of content before sending to her team. One of the marks of a good financial modeler is building checksums throughout her model; the analogous principle holds for a good software developer. Lisa Shalett, formerly a Partner at Goldman Sachs, observes that there are two buckets of things: those you can control and those you can’t control. For the things you can control, you should nail them.
- Follow up. If you ask someone to do something, set up a reminder to make sure they actually executed it. When I meet people, I often say, “Please email me [a business plan/a competitive analysis/a resume/etc.].” Only 20% of people whom I meet actually do that. Not good. Alberto Pepe, CEO of Authorea, observes that many entrepreneurs, especially those coming straight from academia, don’t follow up (e.g., with investors and prospects) because they don’t want to be perceived as annoying or too pushy. One way to think about this is to learn to be ‘professionally pushy’. In Getting Things Done, David Allen talks about the “Waiting For” list, to keep track of follow ups you are waiting for from others. I track a lot of my “Waiting For’s by starring certain emails in my Sent Messages. The people I work with know that I’ll follow up on my requests to them, which encourages them to revert to me sooner rather than later.
- Play nice and be nice. Early in your career, you typically advance based on technical skills. But very rapidly, your ability to work cooperatively with people inside and outside the firm are a big driver of your advance.
- Think differently. Bring one idea to the table each month that would help your company or team achieve its goals and objectives for the year. Thoroughly think through the steps you will take to execute on that goal, and which stakeholders need to be involved at certain points. Even if only two ideas receive positive feedback and a go-ahead, highlighting your ability and history of disrupting the status quo is helpful when promotion discussions come around.