Many of our proteges and mentors were good students at school and university. This is natural given Protagion’s professional focus, and we’re incredibly proud of our members’ foundational achievements, from good grades to degrees from prestigious institutions to their professional qualifications and beyond.
In Playing Big*, ‘good student’ Tara Mohr discusses her experiences of “...the deeper learning, the lessons slowly absorbed, day by day, from the culture of school itself” and asks:
Like us, she noticed that, in some ways, the skills we learn and behaviours we practice at school and university – those we originally thought were the ingredients for accomplishment – don’t serve us that well in the working world. As Tara puts it: “Blazing a bright trail in [our] careers – moving from ‘good worker bee’ to ‘mover and shaker’ - requires an entirely different set of muscles, skills, and ways of being than the ones [we] honed at school.” While our academic training and conditioning can lead to success at midlevels in our organisations, it does not necessarily translate into success as senior leaders, trailblazers or pioneering innovators.
Read more to explore three approaches which led to success in our studies but which don’t serve us as well in the world of work: advance preparation, adapting to authority, and assuming that good work will speak for itself. These are not universally applicable as all schools and university environments are different, and there will be other examples too, so please share your thoughts with us below the full article.
1) Preparation vs Improvisation
The model for success at school is largely based on preparation: studying in preparation for each test, working hard on an essay, assignment or project in order to get a good mark when you submit it, and doing the reading in preparation for the upcoming class discussion. Barring infrequent surprise tests, the implicit paradigm is that students will always have the opportunity to prepare in advance.
Our careers, in contrast, are rarely so generous – we are regularly expected to improvise, especially as we become more and more senior. Thinking on our feet and reacting in the moment is incredibly important, and we are asked unexpected and complex questions we don’t have the answers to in advance. Unanticipated challenges arise that we couldn’t have prepared for, and we must trust our ability to meet them.
This has been (and continues to be) a stress for me… partly because of my structured personality, and partly because I believe I perform better when I’ve set aside time to plan and prepare. I hate last-minute panic introduced by others, and being put on the spot to wing it still makes me uncomfortable – unless I’ve envisaged the possibility in advance (!). Eleventh hour cancellations and impromptu speeches...
If serious preparation becomes our default mode or habit, we can waste time overpreparing and also shy away from challenges that require improvisation. Instead, we need to learn to acknowledge uncertainty and ask the right questions in the face of it so that others can help us navigate the unknown.
Understanding and then adapting to what each authority figure desires can also be helpful in our careers e.g. gauging what our boss wants and giving it to them. Yet, Tara argues, “if we want to make a distinctive impact on our communities or organisations and make positive change, we need a different set of skills. We need to effectively challenge authority, not just adapt to it. We need to influence authority figures, not just please them.”
Another issue is that each piece of schoolwork is evaluated by a single authority figure, the person who teaches that class, so we learn what they want and do our best to provide it. At work, however, it’s not only our boss whose opinion matters, especially as we become more senior. There is a wide range of opinions on our work and a number of potential allies to align ourselves with. We need to build skills to discern which decision-makers to actively approach, develop relationships with and influence versus which to treat more passively.
An anecdote about this ‘single evaluator’ issue from my own school days: When a new teacher joined our school partway through the year, our official class English teacher asked him to mark an exam-conditions essay we’d written. I’d started mine with one topic in mind but switched midstream and then run out of time to rewrite it to better align it. While deep down I knew that my attempt wasn’t up to my usual standard, I was still surprised at how much the class gradings changed versus when the official teacher marked us previously. For example, the new teacher downgraded our best student because his essay was “too much of a list” - unfairly in my opinion. Our essays had been assessed by someone looking for different things to what we’d learnt to provide, and because he wasn’t aware of our previous work, we didn’t benefit from any halo effect either. An example of how differently something subjective can be perceived by different people!
3) Doing good work and making it visible
School, university and professional exams reinforce the idea that good work is enough because doing well in those contexts does not require self-promotion. Instead, doing quality work (including under exam conditions) and handing it in for assessment are what’s required. Sometimes we need to raise our hands and actively contribute in class, but we definitely don’t need to trumpet our academic achievements explicitly or advocate for ourselves in order to do well.
When we arrive in the workplace though, we’re very much unpractised at making our accomplishments visible to others. Keeping our heads down is not enough. We can (incorrectly) assume that work is a meritocratic environment where our work will speak for itself and someone will reward us... When our output doesn’t bring us recognition, it can be because it isn’t sufficiently and regularly visible to those spotting talent or deciding on promotions or raises.
Instead, we need to become proficient at talking about our achievements with pride, and showing our work to others. Three ways to think about promoting our work so that it feels less egotistical, less look-at-me, less uncomfortable, less detrimental to others, and more aligned with our personal values are:
Any other ‘good student’ behaviours you feel can be disadvantages in the modern workplace? How should we counteract these ingrained ways in order to become movers and shakers?
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