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  • Writer's pictureRich Haglund

How do you treat the sponges at work?

A fresh sponge soaks up everything: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

A new employee does, too.

So, what are your new employees soaking up?

  • What are they learning about what it's like to work for you? What are they learning about management from the way you treat them?

  • What are they learning about being part of an organization?

  • If they're new or relatively new professionals, what are they learning about what it means to be an employee?

Before you answer those questions, consider what you soaked up in your own work experience--starting with part-time jobs you may have had as a teenager and your first few "real" jobs. If you'd like help getting started, listen to the participants in this Table Group podcast, who used this sponge analogy and shared some of what they learned in their first few jobs.

Here are some of my reflections:

  • As a restaurant busboy, I learned that hard work was rewarded. Busboys were expected to get 10% of a waiter's tips from the shift. But, when I worked hard and made things easier for the waiters by the way I treated customers, the waiters were much more generous.

  • A year after finishing college, learned that a wise leader will recognize potential which may be a little hidden in a resume. Without any technology industry experience, I interviewed for an inside sales job at a technology company, The hiring manager chose another candidate. But the CEO called two days later asking if I"d be interested in an international sales and marketing role. He'd reviewed resumes of rejected finalists and saw I had some international experience and the aptitude to learn the business.

  • At the same company, I learned that a good manager recognizes team members' strengths and weaknesses, and knows how to use their strengths for the good of the individual and the organization. My manager saw that sales was not a strength (incentive bonuses don't work for everyone!). But he also knew I was good at writing marketing materials. So, rather than fire me from a job I wasn't excelling at, he offered me a different role that played to my strengths.

When sponges are full, they have to be wrung out. So, are there things you've had to unlearn from your work experience? Are there things some of your colleagues need to unlearn--for their own good and for the good of the organization? For example,

  • Does the organization value face time over actual productivity? Do people stay late to make a show of commitment, instead of managing their time to do the deep work required for real impact?

  • Does the organization have core values - expectations of behavior - but not enforce them? Or are they enforced selectively based on relationships or the perceived value of an employee who treats others poorly?

What can you do to help new employees soak up good practices? And how can you help them wring out some bad habits they may have acquired in previous roles? Here are two suggestions:

  • Look through each stage of the employee lifecycle, from recruiting to orientation to ongoing development and even exits. Consider what messages you send by what you actually do, not just what you say in marketing materials or internal communications.

  • Ask your team members what they're learning about being an individual contributor, about managing for results and retention, and about organizational health and effectiveness. Listen and take action. Then tell people what you've done and why.

We all influence new team members and young professionals. Let's be sure we're filling them with good things. Then, when we inevitably make and admit mistakes, they'll see that we're still learning. They'll be wiser than we were at the same time in our careers. And the teams and organizations they'll be part of and eventually lead will make a bigger impact for those they serve.

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