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Keep your coffee order simple, and other practical workplace tips

Never leave a taxi (or Uber) without double-checking the whereabouts of your cellphone.

That may not be the most visionary leadership tip you have received. But it is highly practical – part of Menlo College President Richard Moran's common sense (and at times curmudgeonly) advice gathered in what he calls a "worker's manual," The Thing About Work. That specific tip comes from personal, painful experience. It happened to him when he left his mobile behind as he rushed to catch a plane and was stranded without it for a few days. "You can leave your luggage in the taxi and it's not as bad as leaving a cellphone," he notes in an interview.

You probably will now remember to double-check your cell's whereabouts in the future. Here's some other pungent advice to remember, gathered from observing himself and those around him:

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Avoid the DNF label: You don't want to have a "do not finish" reputation – starting things but not completing them. It can wreck your career.

Rethink responsiveness: His first boss told him that every phone call should be returned within 24 hours, every memo responded to by the next day and every piece of correspondence acknowledged and responded to in three business days. "Today, if you get a text you should probably respond in three minutes and an e-mail in a few hours," he says. So rethink responsiveness, because like DNF, being viewed as unresponsive will hurt you. He says the rules can vary in different locales and industries. Hawaii is not the same as New York, investment banking is perhaps faster than a not-for-profit.

Figure out the plan: People want to know three things at work: what's my job, how am I doing and how does my effort make us more successful? "It sounds really simple, but a lot of organizations can't answer those questions," he stresses.

Don't covet the low-hanging fruit: It's common in change efforts to hear the importance of first tackling the low-hanging fruit. But it's not true for actual fruit: The low-hanging fruit on his family's vineyard is the last to ripen as those at the top get more sun. And it's a misnomer at work as well, since the easy things have probably been done when the last consultants came in. Often, the first thing you should do is the difficult stuff.

Coffee is the new lunch: Lunch takes a long time and is a hassle. These days, set up coffee meetings. You can fit four or five in during a day (compared to one lunch) and all around you will be other people doing deals and other important business. But be careful what you order. He was at a Starbucks interviewing somebody who ordered such a complicated drink – it seemed to have 10 parts – that he wondered if she would be too high maintenance. In the end, he didn't hire her. Order simply – and with lunch freed, use the time to get real work done.

How late is late? Some people are routinely late, annoying other people. Again, it's not a reputation you want. He figures five-minutes late is reasonable but 15 minutes is pushing it. The coffee date who texted him to saying she was running a bit late and when he asked how long responded 45 minutes was just disrupting his day. (They rescheduled.)

Keep your dog at home: His college is in Silicon Valley, where students ride their bicycles to fabled workplaces such as Facebook. But he points thumbs down on the notion popular there of bringing dogs to work. It's alright for two guys in a garage starting a firm, but it doesn't scale when a company grows to a 100 people (and 100 dogs).

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Get fired at least once: He has been fired twice and recommends it. "Nothing makes you do a self-assessment like being fired," he declares. "Maybe you're fooling yourself about how good the job is or maybe you need a new career. We can get lazy on a job." Don't push to get fired, of course. But don't view it as totally negative should it happen.

Buy business cards: In a mobile era, people are jettisoning business cards. Bad idea, he feels, watching successful folks using them. "It's one of those old courtesy things that still works," he says.

And while you want to check for your cellphone before leaving your next cab, occasionally forgetting your computer at home is not a bad idea. When he did, he had a super-productive day, not getting sucked into social media or checking sports scores. "It can be liberating sometimes, not to have it in front of you," he says.

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About the Author
Management columnist

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. More


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