Wednesday Live: Ten things that make a difference in running your career

We were really lucky to have Terry Miller OBE talk about concrete and practical things that have made a difference in her varied and successful career, and the question was posed to our Wednesday Live audience about what has made a difference in their journey through work. Terry told us that overall, her success was borne out of realising what mattered most at the different stages in her life, not to mention making time to nurture outside interests will maintain drive and avoid burnout. She also provided some more detailed advice about keeping your career on track and forging one’s own path to success…

1. Don’t slam doors on your way out

Over the course of your professional life you are likely to have several jobs, particularly working as a freelance consultant, and will meet and work alongside many people. These people are your network, for good and bad. Ideally, your lasting impression is one that ensures they will recommend you and bear you in mind for future opportunities.

2. Maximise every encounter with physical and mental preparation

It’s vital that every time you meet or speak with someone you consider the impression you give – you may not get a second chance to remedy a less than ideal encounter.

  • Mental preparation – Anticipate what to expect. Reduce points to diagrams, read documents several times if necessary. Be concise and stick to what you know: if you don’t know something, say this early and don’t waffle.
  • Physical preparation – Choose outfits for important times as your ‘battle dress’ – comfortable, well-fitting clothes that you look good and feel confident in. Pay attention to your posture and avoid crossing your legs when seated as this folds the body in on itself. Practice a ‘superwoman’ power-pose and breathing exercises beforehand. Speak in a measured, non-rushed tone and be commanding – avoid upward inflection when making statements and you are less likely to be challenged.

3. Leadership is about managing people

No matter how brilliant you are no one ever does anything by themselves. The most important skill to learn is to surround yourself with excellent people.

  • Give constructive criticism – do so immediately, couch it in terms that this is something that can be fixed, deliver with emotion.
  • The art of really listening – Terry cited the virtue of MBWA (management by walking around). Boundaries are required for concentration and short but regular updates to ensure goals are met.
  • Be supportive under pressure – Terry said that at LOCOG they had a small soft chimp toy that was passed to those who were experiencing a bad day or difficult time as an act of team support and sympathy.

4. Position yourself for promotion

Act as if you are already there, this channels your focus and helps determine how people regard you. Terry described in the final two years before being made a partner at Goldman Sachs, how she decided to act as if she had already been appointed – not to mislead but to inform her conduct in meetings and running projects  as a partner would, with conviction and authority.

5. Take charge of your career

Think every six months about how your career is developing. People thrive if they take responsibility for their career, and drift if they expect others to do so.

6. Priorities – low-hanging fruit or tackling the hard stuff?

Terry’s personal approach is to tackle the hard topic by setting an initial hour limit to make it seem manageable.

7. The value of the early no and the sympathetic no

You need to be decisive about what you can do or not do. The longer you delay or leave your response open-ended, the more difficult it is to get out of, so an early no is vital.

The ‘sympathetic no’ is better received. Even if the answer is ‘I’m sorry I have to say no, I’ve looked at it from all angles,’ it has the benefit of being decisive and inclusive. It can be couple with a constructive end, e.g. ‘we can revisit this at another time or start from different position’.

8. The value of the second alternative

Put the option that works best  for you as a second choice when presenting options to others: ‘What would you prefer? We can either pick this up in two weeks or we can deal with it now?’ In Terry’s experience, this invariably works!

9. Be realistic about having it all

Terry discussed her own career trajectory and balancing her own life priorities as a parent as maintaining a slower longer position on the career ladder, but on her terms. Her outlook is that it is possible to have it all job, parenting or outside passions, but not all at the same time.

10. Take advantage of the unexpected and the challenge of the unknown

In 2005, Terry’s plan was to step out of partnership and focus on horse riding. However, she was invited to become the general counsel of LOCOG, the opportunity of a lifetime. This required her to accept a complete change of personal plans and go into many new areas.

Final thoughts – Mistakes and mentors

There were two particularly interesting questions from the audience: the first regarding mistakes – Terry said it was her experience that being honest and dealing with them directly is the best policy; this fosters trust and an ability to focus on solutions rather than a more unhelpful process of others finding out later.

The second related to Terry’s experience of mentoring. Ideally, this would be done by your manager, someone who wants you to perform at the best of your ability. However, she also said there was an important role of a ‘truth teller’ someone who could give more objective advice and this may be someone higher up the organisation.

Terry Miller OBE is an independent non-executive director of the British Olympic Association, a  director and trustee of the Invictus Games Foundation and a non-executive director of Goldman Sachs international bank, having previously worked as international general counsel. She was also general counsel for the London Organising of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) from 2006- 2013.