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The Lessons We Never Learnt in School!

Does the workplace sometimes feel like a jungle? Take ownership for your own education today.

Our education is supposed to teach us what we need to know so that we can go out into our careers and excel as professionals. We are taught theories and principles; and build a knowledge base that is the foundation of what we expect to implement as experts, advisors or leaders in our workplaces. We enter the world of work thinking we are ready to apply our learnings. And then we discover that sometimes theory and practice are starkly different.

Of course, our education is fundamental to our skills and competences required for the workplace, and I am in no way devaluing education, but it is a fact that we are barely prepared for the harsh realities that we sometimes face at work. Business degrees utilize business cases that give the students a sneak peek into the running of organisations, and the peaks and troughs that come with managing enterprises. Universities are also, more and more, driving critical thinking, consulting skills and case analyses that help form some level of understanding for difficult organizational issues. Beyond this though, many of us were/ are not prepared for some of the challenges that we find in our jobs.

One of the basic skills that we struggle with once we hit the work ground is time management. You would think that we should be better at this as school requires that we manage time for sports, exams, lectures, leisure activities, etc. In many ways though, our commitment to deliver at school is driven by set timelines e.g. an impending examination that forces you to study and prepare for it. At work, there are many activities that you must juggle and still be expected to deliver within agreed timelines. As we navigate our careers, marriage, kids and school also come along and managing our schedules becomes even more difficult. Indeed, the fallacy of achieving perfect work-life balance becomes even more glaring. So, we find that prioritizing, negotiation and leveraging technology to manage our time are critical elements of how we survive.

Closely associated to this is the fact that we never really learn how to run meetings. Considering that meetings take up a chunk of time at work, you would think that this is one of the areas we should learn to do well before we enter the workplace. While in general, meetings are a critical way by which organisations share information and engender a shared vision, it is also estimated that employees spend as much as 50% of their time in meetings, and that 47% of that time is wasted. Depending on the nature of work and culture of the organisation, some of this time is spent on preparing for meetings, collecting information (that sometimes is not even used), waiting for participants who are late, listening to verbose contributors, spending long hours talking about issues that could be resolved in a shorter time or going around in circles – debating issues without arriving at a useful conclusion … you name it! It is no surprise therefore that honing your skills for effectively running meetings would serve you well in the workplace.

Perhaps one of the most challenging things at work is dealing with difficult people. Now, ‘difficult’ is a nebulous description but it is incredibly surprising how work and our effectiveness or enjoyment of it can be affected by those around us. This may range from co-workers who inadvertently derail your progress through poor decision making, lack of consultation, ineffective workstyles or mistakes; to outright bullies or nay sayers who deliberately sabotage your efforts. Learning how to navigate over, around or just pushing through such obstacles becomes critical for achieving your goals or your survival in the jungle. I paint a dire picture, but it is true that some workplaces have toxic cultures that make work almost daunting. This is even made worse if you end up working under such people and, as bizarre as this may seem, there is such a thing as corporate psychopaths. This is a whole topic on its own … suffice it to say that you need to build some mental and communication ‘muscle’ to deal with difficult people – they are rampant. Sadly, many organisations are not intentional about building a healthy culture and so many of them end up with noble goals but unhealthy work environments that create a ‘survival for the fittest’ debilitating culture. Yes, again, I paint a dire picture – there are some organisations that are good at engendering healthy behaviours and cultures. You would be well placed if you end up working with a healthy organisation but if not, hone your skills to deal with difficult people.

This then naturally leads to talk about managing conflict. Workplaces are essentially the people we work with – the buildings or furniture are not the what we experience at work – it is the people. Yes, the physical environment matters but it is the people that influence our deep experiences – positive or negative. Conflict naturally arises among people – differences in opinion, unmet expectations, crises or unexpected difficulties – all this and more sometimes create difficult situations that we need to learn to handle, diffuse or navigate. How good are you at managing conflict? You may have had a chance to learn about and talk through conflict in school but if you haven’t, take some time to learn more – it will go a long way to serve you as a professional. You will be dealing with conflict and you need to be able to effectively handle it.

Lastly, let’s talk about preparedness for interviews. The level to which entrants in the workplace are ill-prepared for interviewing is sometimes mindboggling. I have sat in innumerable interviews where it was obvious that the people just lack basic interviewing skills. For something that is as straightforward as this, you would think that schools should by now be running workshops on interviewing as part of their pre-graduation programs. So, do yourself a favour, learn more about how to present yourself, talk about yourself and put your best foot forward with an interview panel. This is your door into a job, so you want to know how to skillfully push that door open and land yourself that job.

There is so much more we can talk about here. My encouragement to you is: research, read, seek information about what would prepare you as a professional. If you are already working, create a thirst for new knowledge and skills in those areas that will make you a well-rounded professional. I think that the workplace is one of the best tests for how far you can rise, grow and achieve your full potential. Grab that opportunity and be the best that you were meant to be. Do drop a comment and let me know what areas you want us to talk about more. Always rooting for you!

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