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The Art of War and Your Reputation at Work

The Football Match

Whenever I watch football on the TV, I always feel sorry for the referee, linesmen, and other supporting roles. The footballers get all the glory and praise when they score a goal or make a save, but when the match officials perform well they nearly always

get ignored. That is, until they make a mistake.

Nobody remembers or celebrates the 99 times the referee made the right decision. We only focus on the errors.

The 90s Computer Company

This unfair environment happens all the time in life, and it is especially prevalent at work. Back in the late 90s, I worked for a company that sold pre-assembled PCs, which we then customised according to the customer's requirements. The company was made up of two areas - the salespeople who sat upstairs in the executive offices, talking to prospective customers on the phone. And the warehouse workers who unloaded the lorries stacked the boxes and got the computers ready for delivery to the customers. We all knew our status in the company.

The salespeople brought in the money and helped to drive the business forward. Whilst the people who worked in the warehouse (like myself) got on with the job of packing and sending the computers. The warehouse staff were generally left alone...until we made a mistake, such as forgetting to include the antivirus CD ROM with the order or packing the wrong colour mouse. It didn't matter that you had sent 50 boxes that day with everything packed exactly as requested.

The one mistake would get focused on and you'd end up spending the rest of the day feeling dejected and despondent.

If errors occur, people need to know so they don't make the same mistake twice. But it's a difficult pill to swallow when your previous month had been completely totally fault-free, and the only time you get noticed is when you make a minor error.

The Refuse Centre

This problem at work happens everywhere. When I recently visited my local refuse centre they had a sign that said:

"250 days since the last accident"

The people in charge must have realised that they only get noticed when something goes wrong, and nobody cares when things are running smoothly (and accident-free!). So by showing everyone that it was a really long time ago since the last accident (by putting up the sign) they are able to demonstrate that they're doing their jobs well (although I wonder what happens when they do have an accident. Do they put up a sign that reads "0 days since the last accident")!?

The Art of War

This inequality between prestigious, results-driven roles and the less visible roles is not a new phenomenon. It was whilst listening to a BBC World Service documentary about Sun Tzu's The Art of War that I realised managing reputation at work was something that even one of the world's greatest leaders had to deal with over 2,000 years ago.

Sun Tzu, the author of The Art of War, understood that great Generals and great armies get no credit. In fact, often the better a leader is, the less recognition he gets. A truly great General would either out-manoeuvre his enemy so that nobody could attack. Or if they did attack, he defeats them so easily and overwhelmingly that everyone thinks his opponents must be weak and cowardly. Either way, the outcome is not seen as a triumph because of the General's skills, but rather as a result of his enemy's incompetence.

I realised managing reputation at work was something that even one of the world's greatest leaders had to deal with over 2,000 years ago.

If you're in a role that is measured on specific results, then all you have to do is carry out your job as well as possible, and the results should speak for themselves. However, if you are in a position where the better you do your job, the less you are noticed, then you may want to take a few ideas from The Art of War.

The Social Proof

There are some historians that think The Art of War was not written as a reference for other Generals to learn from, but it was in fact written as a way to show their rulers how skillful the Generals were. Writing a book may seem a bit too much effort just to prove you're good at your job. But luckily there are things you can do that don't take so much work.

Social media is the perfect place to showcase your skills. And it shouldn't take up too much of your time. If you genuinely have interesting ideas and experiences you want to share with other people, posting opinions on LinkedIn or Twitter should be an easy process. It is also a great place to find like-minded people you can collaborate with.

And of course, you don't have to limit yourself to social media, you could extend into writing a blog, or even submitting an article to a relevant industry publication.

In the armed forces, medals are a way to reward people for good work, but also as a way to show your skills and experiences.

It would be a bit strange for medals to be handed out in the business world, but there are other ways you can receive your version of a business medal.

Some time ago I was at work walking around the office where I worked when I came across a large group of people standing round the CEO and his PA. Naturally, I stopped to find out what was going on, and when I listened in, I found out the CEO was giving a speech congratulating his PA on being awarded PA of the Year. Although I had never met his PA before, I now knew that she was not only immensely skillful, but the best PA in the UK. Had she not won this award, I probably would never have known how good she really was.

Getting an award such as PA of the Year or Best IT Manager will really elevate your status, and you'll be seen as the go-to person in your field. It is the equivalent of getting a medal.

There are lots of other ways you can gain some "medals". Qualifications are a great way to establish your credentials and they are often partially or fully funded by your company. It could be something as extensive as an MBA, or perhaps an industry qualification. Anything that sets you apart from others will help to show your skills and capabilities.

Other Ideas

Once you have realised that there is a need to be more proactive in communicating the quality and value you bring to an organisation, you will find lots of different ways to do it. A few further examples could be:

Become part of an industry organisation - most types of jobs have at least one organisation you could join. This gives you a chance to get involved in extra-curricular activities, meet like-minded people, and after a few years, you could find yourself in a position of authority such as Chairperson or Secretary.

Podcasts - there are plenty of podcasts that are in need of guests. It is surprisingly easy to get invited on if you have something interesting to say. Podcasts have a global reach so you never know who will listen to you.

Recommendations - personal endorsements are a simple way to receive social proof of your expertise. They are very easy to get, particularly on platforms such as LinkedIn. And once you receive a recommendation you can use it on your CV, website, emails etc. Recommendations are very versatile and are a great way to elevate your presence.

The Conclusion

In conclusion, work is one of the most important parts of most people’s lives. It is where we spend the majority of our time and have the most interaction with others. It is also the place where we most want to stand apart, and demonstrate our value to those around us. In some roles, it's easy to show the benefit we bring to a company. But in many roles, this is not something that is easy to convey. If you want to improve your reputation as an expert in their field, you should consider using some of the techniques from The Art of War and channeling your inner Sun Tzu.

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