New Workplace Rules for Job Success

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Last Updated Jan 22, 2010 9:50 AM EST

In post-meltdown America, the business landscape has been turned upside down. Nothing's the same — and nothing's for sure. As companies scramble for a footing, they're reinventing themselves to become more flexible, more creative, and better connected. And that's exactly what you should be doing to move forward in the new American workplace. In this coming decade, initiative will be king and relationships will rule; your ability to adapt will mean the difference between career success and failure. Unfortunately, these rules for success won't be found in any employee handbook. You can get them right here:

1. You Write Your Own Job Description

If you’re looking for someone to tell you what your exact role is at work, forget it. You must carve it out on your own. That means being able to manage multiple projects and take on new roles — all without any instructions. “You have to have a tolerance for ambiguity,” says Patrick Wright, professor of Strategic Human Resources at Cornell University. If there is one mistake that will torpedo your career faster than Tiger Woods’s taste for pinup girls, it’s using the phrase: “That’s not my job.” Today, everything is your job. Make the decision to play all the parts, learn all the skills, and do whatever it takes to get things done.

How to adapt: Volunteer for new projects, join company-wide initiatives, and be willing to transfer departments or relocate. Ask for help from people who have different skills and styles than yours, and offer to help them, says executive coach Lauren Zander, chairman of The Handel Group in New York City. “Talk to people more — your managers, customers — and listen creatively for ideas about the future and how you can incorporate your special traits into the mix,” Zander says.

2. Networking Isn’t a Numbers Game

When your job requires you to do more with less — and what job doesn’t today? — you need your own support system. Having 400 LinkedIn connections is meaningless if you don’t also cultivate a tight network of trustworthy partners, both inside and outside your organization. This inner circle can help you generate ideas, solve problems, and do your job better in a way that casual contacts can’t. “Today you have to fully invest in people,” says Mike Thompson, chief executive of SVI, an organizational development firm in Springdale, Ark. “Go deep with a precious few.”

Even LinkedIn whiz Susanne Trimbath knows the limits of social networking. In addition to her more than 100 connections on LinkedIn, Trimbath, an economist who runs her own advisory business, has a brain trust of a dozen or so close contacts, most of whom she’s done business with. These are the people she counts on for reliable information, feedback on ideas, and any other help she might need. Maintaining a close business relationship is like nurturing a friendship, says Trimbath: Some face-to-face contact is required, but email is fine, too, for keeping the connection alive.

How to adapt: Come up with projects that you and your network of close contacts can work on together, and then come to the table with an agenda. “You want to take your relationship deeper, and provide real assistance to one another,” says executive coach Zander.

And don’t limit yourself to formal lunches. Invite one of your contacts to join a cause, or have the whole group over to your house. Offer help, do favors, share personal information, and voice your concerns. These relationships need to be open and genuine, not just convenient.

3. Facebook is No Longer Optional

You may think you don’t need to sign up for Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn to get ahead, but your boss likely doesn’t share that aversion to social media: A full 90 percent of some of the fastest-growing private companies in the country used at least one social media tool to reach customers in 2009, according to the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

For starters, tap these Web sites to raise your professional profile and forge valuable new relationships. When economist Trimbath was preparing for a November 2009 business trip to Hong Kong, she turned to LinkedIn to make connections in advance. First she joined a local banking and finance group to see what events were taking place during her visit. Then, after contacting the organizer of one event, she made plans to meet up in Hong Kong. (Checking the organizer’s online profile, Trimbath found her icebreaker: They’d both gone to school in California.) That led to a string of valuable introductions — an entrepreneur looking for financing for a project in China, a prominent financial analyst, the director of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong — as well as an invitation to go sailing at the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club.

As a business tool, social media can connect you with consumers, clients, colleagues, and other industry contacts. It can also transform how you do business. When Live Fish Direct, a 20-year-old breeder of tropical fish in Draper, Utah, had to rebuild after a devastating freeze at its farm in 2008, it adopted a new business model that incorporated social media. It launched a Web site to sell directly to consumers — then turned to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to get the word out. “We are now doing better than we have in the past 20 years,” says Jordan Cherrington, vice president of LiveFishDirect.com.

In this era, ignoring social networking skills will make you obsolete. “Small companies in particular are looking for diverse abilities,” says Dr. Carl Van Horn, director of the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University.

How to adapt: Set up accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn — and use these sites to raise your visibility within your industry by blogging, announcing achievements, recommending colleagues, or posting links to news reports that might interest your peers. (And avoid some of these common social networking mistakes.)

But don’t stop there. Check out how your competitors are using these sites and others like YouTube and company blogs to build their brands. Then put your knowledge to work. Present a plan to your boss detailing how you plan to grow your company’s social media presence in support of key company goals like customer engagement and retention.

4. It’s Time to Speak Up

As businesses retool to meet the demands of the new economy, the ride is going to be bumpy. If you want to hang on, you have to stand out. That means taking risks and accepting challenges you might have once backed away from. Most importantly, it means putting your ideas and opinions out there for everyone to see.

How to adapt: Be the first one to throw out a suggestion or solution. Before every meeting or business conversation, come up with three ideas to add to the discussion and vow to add your opinion to what others say. Become an idea generator. And when you hit a roadblock that prevents you from executing your boss’s plan, come up with a solution before taking the problem to her.

If you’re uncomfortable expressing yourself in public, Zander recommends taking a public speaking course, or even an improvisational class. “Assertiveness is not a God-given talent,” she says. “You can develop it.”

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  • Gail Belsky

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