What are the biggest lessons you have learned in the corporate world? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.
Here are ten pieces of advice from twenty years of experience working on projects that range from the cool (Xbox, Magic: The Gathering), to the big (Windows 10), to the little known (FLY Pentop Computer, Ziac anti-hypertension medication):
- Think big but work small. The teams that I've worked around that changed the world inevitably have been small and focused... or, in larger companies, were a collection of smaller strike teams working in concert together. Amazon has a "2 pizza" team rule which is a good rule of thumb: keep teams to around 6-7 people (about what 2 pizzas could feed), give them tight goals and set them loose. It's as true in a big technology company as it is in a smaller entertainment firm. Inevitably, if you let projects become too matrixed or teams too large, the energy of the organization drains to internal coordination and in-fighting as opposed to innovation and responding to customers. Small and nimble usually beats big and slow.
- Mission matters. Be clear about what your company or project is about. The best products have, as Clayton Christensen wrote, "jobs to be done" and are hyper focused on being the best in the business at satisfying their role. When I was at P&G we were taught about the functional and the emotional benefits of a product that composed its "brand equity." It's the same concept. Is your company seeking to create joy with fans through terrific sci-fi games? Are you about building friendships and relationships through amazing social networking tools? Get crisp on your mission and don't forget a mission should serve both the functional and emotional needs of your customers and fans.
- Everyone should have a stake. Every team, every individual in a company should have a role in achieving the mission of the firm. I recall a great story about consultants meeting a janitor at a Toyota plant in Japan. The TLDR is not only did the janitor understand his role (cleaning the shop floor at the car factory), he understood how his efforts led to Toyota's mission of manufacturing the highest quality cars in the world. It might sound corny but understanding your stake in a big company's mission transforms your job into something bigger, particularly if that mission is meaningful to you (see #10).
- Relationships are key. Relationships are the grist of the organizational mill. The smartest guy or gal in the room is nothing if people don't trust them or want to work with them. Google's Project Aristotle did one of the best jobs I've seen in quantifying the importance of relationships. Google's researchers found that teams are the most effective when they have a combination of respect for each others' opinions and create an atmosphere where everyone is fearless in contributing their ideas. Sure, sometimes the hyper connected person who is good at politics seems to get ahead and that can be grating. But in a universe of large numbers, working collaboratively and in the best interests of the whole tends to drive the best outcomes both for the individuals and the larger team.
- Your biggest limitation is often knowledge of yourself. Changing yourself is hard and made even harder by our own biology: our brains like to maintain the status quo. I always chuckle when I hear the phrase "feedback is a gift" because it sure can feel like a punch in the gut. But change is as necessary to grow and get ahead in a company as it is in everyday life. The people who tend to really excel are those that recognize evolution is a constant. They understand they have a true center but even the best of us can learn new tricks and tackle our own limitations. Speaking for myself, I really liked a lot about who I was at twenty-two. That person met and married the girl of my dreams and formed relationships with some of my closest friends. But he needed to change a lot to become a good father, a better friend, a more equitable life partner and a surer leader... and more often than not that change came by facing hard truths. Don't be afraid of them, embrace them.
- What got you here probably won't get you there. In a similar vein, recognize the work habits that made you successful as a junior individual contributor are likely not going to be what gets you ahead as an entry level manager, a director, or an exec. The general trajectory is going from working harder to working smarter to working through others. The bag of tricks you need to be effective is more complicated and nuanced at each step and usually takes people a transition period to get used to the gear shift.
- The higher you go, the less you matter. This might seem counter-intuitive. Lots of people want the big title that gets to make the big calls. CNBC and Forbes are filled with executive profiles about great leaders who turned around a business or made a bold market-turning decision. And sure that happens... but I think these types of headlines often miss a critical point. Great leadership is only possible with great teams. And it's the teams who get the work done. Great leaders have an important role to play. They hire great people. They act as a role model of a healthy culture. And they shower those great people with the resources, questions and support they need to do great things. If you do these things right, the "big calls" are typically pretty easy (because the people surrounding you have been making great decisions on their own) and turn-arounds, while sometimes necessary despite the best team's efforts, are fewer and farther in between.
- Don't confuse activity with results. This one is pretty easy. People and teams who focus on KPIs that are core to the mission of the business drive bigger impact, have higher satisfaction and tend to get ahead faster. Sometimes activity is necessary to support other parts of the firm, but always strive to understand how your job contributes to results.
- Short cuts rarely work. They are super tempting but they rarely pan out and inevitably cause complications down the road. Short cuts that pass the buck or push a problem to another team are especially bad. If you are relying on short cuts frequently it might be time for a team or self-assessment. Do I have the resources to get the job done? Do I care about the job? Am I getting recognized for doing the right things? Unfortunately, depending on what kind of team or company you work with, the answers to these questions can be daunting... but they are always necessary to confront.
- Work on things that matter. This is the most important. A lot of people say work on things that make you happy or that bring you passion. I've certainly been lucky to do so (I've been playing one form or another of Wizards of the Coast games since I was 10 years old!). I'd make the advice even broader. Work on things you think matter, that make an impact, that change at least a little corner of the world for the better. At 10, I had barely read a book, I had a lot of imagination but no way to direct it, I was pretty smart but unable to focus. It affected my ability to make friends, to succeed in school and to find a passion. And then I discovered this game called Dungeons & Dragons. Suddenly a whole new genre opened up to me. I devoured books, I designed my own games, I built my own toys. Playing something as simple as a pen and paper game helped to change the course of my life. Now, I go into work everyday loving what we make. But more than that, I go in everyday recognizing there are thousands, maybe even millions of little kids just like I was in 1983 when I first discovered D&D. My hope is I can make an impact on a few of them similar to what the game did to me so many years ago. And that is personally very satisfying. If you can find a job, a company, a product or a project that you not only like but at your core think matters, it makes all the difference. Even in great jobs there will be tough days, weeks, even months. But doing something that matters can be the lighthouse that always guides you to shore.
I recognize this might not be advice for everyone. I've spent my life working at larger companies with lots of resources and that's not in every person's wheelhouse. But hopefully at least 2 or 3 resonate and help. Thanks for reading!
This question originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. More questions: