I Wish I Had Known: Under Promise, Over Deliver

It seems like a pretty basic idea – set expectations low, and then blow them away. The WORST thing you can do as a new employee or addition to the team is set expectations high and come nowhere close to achieving them – and that seems to be what most new grads do. We love to set the goal high – we talk about everything we can do, everything we can accomplish; our vast skill set, our knowledge and our expertise.

Here is my perception of what most grads think: as a new grad, not only can I make your product in the factory (while making it 10,000% more efficient), I can then pilot the plane that will carry it to South America, install it on site (while I create some small talk in the native tongue – which I know!) and structure financing terms for this multi-million dollar deal I am about to close. Yeah right.

I Thought It Was All About Proving Myself Through Promises

Here’s the scene: you have just joined a new company, and you are sitting around the table at a Monday morning meeting. Each person is talking about what they are working on, where they need help, and what the major issues are. You want to prove yourself – now is the time to show the group that you have what it takes! You promise Jill you will help her rebuild the excel model she uses to project out demand for your product. You promise Matt that you will make 300 cold calls for him – after all, you’re a pro, and you did it while fundraising at University! Finally, you promise Jackie that you will do a research report for her on social media and its application to your business and field.

Friday rolls around, and guess what has happened? You have had a crazy week! Nothing is getting done – you have half built the excel model for Jill, called 30 people for Matt, and barely started the report for Jackie. By trying to do everything, you have effectively done nothing. In the corporate world, half efforts result in zero accomplishment. The results of an upset like this are disastrous: by doing a mediocre to terrible job on all three projects, you have hurt your reputation in the eyes of three of your peers. Additionally, they probably made commitments based off your commitments (i.e. now that Matt doesn’t have to make 300 calls, he agreed to a bunch of new client meetings which he will now also have to back out of) – and this really pisses people off.

When I had my first job, I thought it was all about proving yourself through taking on as much work as possible: layer it on, and if I don’t buckle, I’ve made it! I wanted to take every project and every assignment, and eventually it led to spreading myself too thin – you can’t be everywhere at once.

This is a common trait amoung new employees: they OVER promise, then UNDER deliver!

I Wish I Had Known the Key Is To Focus Fire

Here’s the scene (the right way): same people, same three projects. Here is what you should do. Let’s say most of your expertise in the past was in Social Media, so you should take on that project – and only that project. Take the Social Media assignment and run with it – give it everything you have, double check the entire assignment, and add in some extra info. Maybe not much is going on in your industry with social media at the moment, but what are other similar industries doing? Give more then you were asked for.

If by some fluke you are done with time to spare, now go back to one of the two from earlier. Only after you have cleared your plate should you go back for more: we have a tendency to bite off more than we can chew. Do the same thing: execute brilliantly on the second project, doing more than is required, and return it on time. Rinse and repeat if you really have time.

What has this accomplished? Three VERY important things:

  1. Sets realistic expectations: if you fire on all gears, work 23 hours a day for the first week, and barely manage to get the work done, you will have set an expectation level for others to gauge how much you are doing that is far above realistic. By getting the work done within the confines of manageable hours (I am not against putting in a bit of overtime!) you will set realistic expectations for how fast you can get work done. It is that it is much easier and more comfortable to raise the expectation bar as you go – get a little more done a little quicker, and slowly people will come to expect more. If you promise the world, and deliver nothing, people will then have to shift their expectations lower, which is not a pleasant exercise to be on the receiving end of (“Oh well, I guess Blair just isn’t as good as we thought”)
  2. Limit potential collateral damage: let’s say something comes up, you get sick, or you just can’t complete the project. Rather than having several people mad at you (and yes, even though they say it’s not your fault – it is, and they will be), you only have upset one person – that is controllable. If you had committed to all three projects, it could have gotten out of hand.
  3. Compound relationship strength: do a great job for one person at a time. When you do an excellent job for Jill, she will tell Matt, who will tell everyone else. Do a poor job, and the same still applies, it will just be negative! Also, by building up a strong rapport with a few key people, you will earn their trust – and with trust comes more interesting and important work (you might even get beyond data entry!)

If I Could Go Back

Firstly, I would not be afraid to have those hard conversations. If your boss is laying the workload on your, be upfront: say it’s too much (but don’t complain about having to stay an hour after work to finish it – I mean if its way too much). Having these conversations upfront is much easier than having the awkward, upsetting, hard conversations down the road.

Secondly, focus on building rapport with one person at a time. It’s hard to demonstrate value to everyone at once (especially if you are only there a total of 4 months!). Build rapport with one person at a time – ask them for projects and over deliver on them. By doing this, instead of having a handful of weak relationships, you will have one or two very strong ones.

Caveat: Don’t Over Deliver Too Much!

This might sound oxymoronic to my whole post, but be careful not to overstep the line when you over deliver on a project. The line you don’t want to cross is: “SO, you think you can do MY job?” If your boss asks for data, give those data – not conclusions. Over deliver by giving them more data then they asked for, but don’t start doing the conclusion part for them unless they ask. When you get a new dance partner, you don’t want to start off by stepping on their toes!


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