10 Business Tips Everyone Should Know

Business tips everyone should know

The how-to guide of crucial business tips that you won’t learn in your MBA.

How many times have you inwardly seethed while a colleague glibly speaks up at a meeting, passing off your brilliant idea as her own? Or felt that inner alarm bell jangle when your boss spells out a plan that you know is doomed to failure?

They don’t teach you how to handle these everyday dilemmas in business school, but knowing how to field them smoothly might just save your bacon if the going gets rough. With the help of some advice from the experts, here are 10 tips that will help you finesse the challenges that might otherwise derail your progress from the bullpen to the corner office.


1. How to dine alone and not look like a loser

Eating alone is a daunting but necessary evil. Unless you’re a fan of room service, fast food or sports bars, sooner or later you’ll have to utter the four most pathetic words in the English language: “Table for one, please.” Until recent times, that meant being turned away at the door, shoved into a corner near the toilet, given a seat near a bunch of drunken guys or ignored by supercilious servers. Not anymore, says Stephan Cachard, restaurant director at Vancouver’s Blue Water Café. Today most establishments worth their salt – and your patronage – accommodate the needs of singletons. In Cachard’s restaurant, parties of one can sit at the bar and watch food plating underway in the kitchen or admire the dexterity of sushi chefs in the restaurant’s raw bar. “It gives people something to do; they don’t have to feel alone,” he says.

Not every business diner feels like company after a long day of meetings, he adds. “Some just want to get away from their hotel and enjoy great food. It makes sense to make single diners feel welcome and find them a table where they feel most comfortable.” Vancouver Sun food critic Mia Stainsby, who has sampled hundreds of local eateries over 14 years on the job, says it’s okay to read while eating, but make it a magazine. “A book somehow seems like bad manners, more uninterruptible when the server wants a word or when you should be noticing your food.” She gives the thumbs up to using a BlackBerry or writing in a notebook while dining, but nixes the use of a cellphone or laptop.

Stainsby, who will eat alone in casual restaurants but never in fine dining rooms, says Canadians are not like the French or Italians, foodies whose love of fine food supersedes being labelled a lonely loser. “This summer I was at the upscale L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Paris, sitting near a solo diner reading a magazine between courses looking totally at home. And that’s the point: you only look like a loser if you feel like one. Don’t, and you won’t. Nothing works better than confidence and owning your space.”


2. How to be memorable

While good looks, self-confidence and designer duds might turn heads – even get you a date – they aren’t enough to get you remembered. The best way to make a lasting impression with strangers at social and corporate events is to approach them with confidence, make eye contact, ask questions about their lives and work and listen carefully to what they have to say. “It sounds easy, but in reality, most people spend way too much time talking about themselves and their own achievements,” says Vancouver life coach Julia James. “It’s very rare to meet someone who shows a genuine interest and really listens ­– so when you do, it’s memorable.”

Make a special effort to approach people who are on their own, adds James; your sensitivity will be appreciated and your people skills will get you noticed. “If, during the conversation, you see an opportunity to help them in some way, be sure to follow up. Sending a card or email after the event will reinforce their first impression.”

No matter how good you are at your job, if you don’t stand out (in a positive way), you will probably remain in the same position for years, unnoticed and unappreciated. In today’s workplace, it’s all about personal branding, so learn what you’re good at, what you love to do and how to sell yourself. Maybe you’re a technology whiz; maybe you have good communication skills; maybe you’re good at coming up with great ideas. Discover your strengths and build on them with broader leadership training. Extracurricular commitment to your career won’t go unnoticed.


3. How to disagree with your boss

We tend to forget that bosses are under constant pressure from above and don’t need nabobs of negativity nattering from below. It doesn’t mean staying mindlessly upbeat when an important deadline is going to hell in a hand­basket. But Vancouver business coach Joni Mar recommends that before heading to the corner office to set the boss straight, you burn off the emotional edge by venting with someone outside the organization.

“See what your concern – and more importantly, tone of voice – sounds like to other people, then sleep on it,” Mar advises. “Sometimes you gain a different perspective.” If you still feel the need to speak up, she says, avoid voicing your difference of opinion in front of other people. Instead, tell your boss that you have some thoughts on the subject and that you would like to discuss them. When you finally get face time, show that you understand what she wants to achieve and assure her you just want to offer another option, which you believe is better for both the company and for her.

“It’s crucial to approach the boss in a respectful, non-confrontational way,” says Mar. “Remember, you will be navigating this hierarchical structure long after you have this disagreement. Avoid positioning yourself as being right and your boss being wrong: your goal is to present an alternative perspective. In all but the most extreme cases, your boss is purely seeking the best solution and will appreciate your openness and honesty.” If you get shot down without an explanation that makes sense, it might just be time to dust off your resumé.


4. How to make the most out of cubicle life

If you toil in an “open environment,” as does 70 per cent of the Canadian workforce, you must perfect the art of peaceful coexistence. Six issues that frequently drive stressed-out cubby dwellers to mutiny are: too much perfume or body/foot odour (keep your shoes on if you aren’t sure), loud music, long, gossipy personal calls (make them in a meeting room), smelly food and braying into speakerphones. If this is you, know that someone ­– maybe everyone – is muttering about you under their breath. If there’s tension in cubicle land, your boss will know and may even step in, which is never a good thing for your career.

Life coach Julia James says we tend to feel trapped in an environment without natural light and privacy. “Don’t sit there for eight hours or eat at your desk,” she stresses. “Take short renewal breaks, up to five minutes at a time. Take a walk, kick back and listen to music (through an iPod or headphones), stretch, relax and focus on your breath or go on a mini-vacation in your imagination.” While it’s important to interact with colleagues, she notes, it’s poor form to interrupt their work, invade their space or hover over their computers. “By all means socialize, but do it in the lunch room or at the water cooler – that way you also get in a little exercise.”

If you’re new to cubby world, instead of rushing to personalize your space with potpourri, family photos, candy bowls, stuffed toys or those ugly things your kids made at preschool, focus first on important health and safety issues. Do you have adequate lighting, ergonomic furniture and appropriate technology? Comfortable employees are more productive, so don’t hesitate to ask for what you need; it gives you a professional edge.



5. How to find a protege

According to a Japanese proverb, to teach is to learn. Sharing what you know with others increases your self-awareness, says Karin Kirkpatrick, a director of the Centre for CEO Leadership at UBC’s Sauder School of Business. “It reinforces what you do that’s good and makes you realize what qualities you don’t want to pass on.

You become reflective and not so self-focused, which makes you a much better leader.” There are two routes to go when looking for a protege: offer yourself to an ­outside organization – such as Big Brothers, the Vancouver Board of Trade Leaders of Tomorrow program or the Minerva Foundation – or look a couple of levels down within your own organization. Younger, less experienced employees or newcomers to the firm will get the most benefit from mentoring. “Leaders concerned with succession planning should identify people who are always seeking more responsibility, are excited about what the company is doing and who want to put in the time – especially if they have both technical aptitude and strong communication skills,” says Kirkpatrick. “Avoid those who seem happy in their current role and seem to have no leadership aspirations.”

Before embarking on a mentoring relationship, decide if you want to meet on a formal or informal basis, or if it’s strictly leading by example. There has to be something in it for you, so it’s important to find a protege whom you like and with whom you’ll enjoy spending time.


6. How to be honest without being hurtful

Here’s a rule to live by: being honest does not mean saying what you want. Great leaders know the importance of developing a reputation for honesty, but they also know that tact trumps blunt insensitivity every time. Before blurting your opinion to a co-worker, consider your motive. Sometimes people simply use “being honest” as an excuse to take an ego shot. Be honest with yourself too. Consider if what you are saying is fair or right. If you’re just trying to shoot someone down, you’d be better off just biting your tongue.

Demonstrating empathy and considering other people’s feelings may take longer, says business coach Joni Mar, but it’s an essential skill that pays dividends in building healthy business and personal relationships. “If you are going to say something potentially hurtful, deliver it privately,” she advises. “While being direct is always better than beating around the bush, if you launch immediately into constructive feedback, the other person will inevitably shut down and wind up angry with you.” On the other hand, if you soften your message too much, he will know you are sugar-coating the issue and will be confused about the true message.

It helps to consider how you would want a hard truth communicated to you and what would make you more receptive, adds Mar. “Offer your honest feedback in a way that contributes to someone’s growth, demonstrating a genuine desire for their success. If you know someone wants a promotion but is clearly not meeting client expectations, frame your comments in a way that will help her make the necessary change and succeed.”


7. How to look great on three hours’ sleep

Showing well when you feel like hell is an essential skill for frequent fliers, late-night gamers, TV addicts, après-work barflies and occasional bingers. Whether you’ve rolled off a red-eye or spent a night on the tiles, Wendy Lisogar Cocchia, owner of the Vancouver-based Absolute Spa Group, recommends investing in a “goof-proof” self-tanner to give pallid, tired skin a “healthy” glow. Cocchia says aroma­therapy helps boost your mood, and recommends sniffing some sort of citrus oil, especially grapefruit, or applying a little citrus-based cologne before dragging yourself to the office. You can always mitigate telltale puffy eyes with steeped teabags or ­cucumber slices, but if the cupboard is bare, splash as much cold water on your face as you can stand and soak your eyes in eye drops. It might sting, but it’s probably worth it to achieve that faux wide-awake look.

If you’re pushing 30 and still a night owl, regular sleep deprivation is already affecting your appearance, performance and reputation. People do notice, and that includes the boss. Researchers at Detroit’s Henry Ford Hospital say men are ­especially at risk. Staying energized at work, they stress, means sticking to a sensible schedule. If running is your thing, do it between 5 and 7 p.m.; it will raise your body temperature, enhancing your chances of deep, refreshing sleep. Eat dinner at least three hours before bedtime and skip the nightcap. Afternoon caffeine is a bad idea; a cup of coffee at 4 p.m. lingers in the bloodstream well past bedtime. Drink moderately and don’t smoke; nicotine disrupts sleep.

When it comes to mitigating wear and tear in the air, jet-set execs know it’s all about wrinkle-proof fabrics, getting their Zs (use noise-cancelling headphones), swilling water and banishing booze, the great dehydrator. Whatever your strategy to dodge jet lag, be sure to build in enough recuperation time. It takes 24 hours to fully recover from each time zone you cross, so if you’re crossing multiple time zones, try to schedule your most important meeting a day or two after hitting the ground.


8. How to complain without looking like a whiner

Complaining at work is occasionally okay, as long as you have a genuine grievance. But before you utter a negative word, especially about the boss, be clear about what you want to achieve, says business coach Joni Mar. If you aren’t sure you have a valid point, discuss your concern with a trusted confidant or coach. If the answer is yes and your intention is to effect positive change, reword your complaint into a request, suggest viable solutions and go to your boss or someone in the organization with the power to act.

“When you embark on this process, it’s important to remember that a request is not a demand,” notes Mar. “When you ask for something, the other person has the right to say yes or no, or negotiate. Unfortunately, we can’t always get what we want when we want it. That’s not how the world works. So approach your meeting seeking a yes but knowing your bottom line.”

Sometimes venting privately about the company or the state of your project can feel therapeutic; it helps you shrug off a negative feeling and move on.

But chronic complainers are toxic to an organization, says Mar. They’re challenging to manage, tax workplace morale, draw others into their negative vortex and hamper productivity. “Perpetual whiners are not looking for a solution: they want to continue feeling victimized and powerless. They become just that by driving others away and eventually get stalled on their own career path.”


9. How to fight for your great idea

You’ve come up with an innovative plan to boost annual sales. Brimming with enthusiasm, you pitch the idea to your boss and are dumbfounded when she doesn’t share your excitement. If you’re a corporate newcomer just bursting with schemes to change the status quo, do some serious self-examination before putting your proposal on the table, says Doris Bentley, principal and founder of Centrepoint Career Management Ltd., a Vancouver-based talent-management consulting firm.

Is your idea really all that good? Does it show that you’ve taken the time and effort to understand the business realities and your corporate culture? And does management have the time and resources to invest in your new initiative?

Learning how to sell an idea using influence rather than force is an essential skill for anyone anxious to move up, but Bentley says it takes a degree of insight and self-awareness that many young people haven’t yet developed.

“Before you can successfully sell yourself or your ideas, it’s important to know how others see you, so ask for feedback on your approach,” she explains. “Are you well prepared or simply overconfident? It can make a huge difference to the outcome.”

If you decide to proceed, do your research; be clear what’s in it for you, the team and the organization; understand potential obstacles; and know exactly what resources and funding might be available to move your great idea forward.

When meeting with a decision-maker, Bentley suggests presenting two or three compelling reasons why your proposal should fly. “If your audience pushes back on the first one, it allows you to circle back into one of your other reasons to answer their concerns or add more data to your case. If they don’t immediately agree, don’t give up; let the idea sit and revisit it at another time.”


10. How to swear appropriately

It seemed like vindication for the pottymouthed when a study published last fall in the Leadership and Organization Development Journal concluded that swearing encouraged teamwork and made work more bearable. Welcomed in some circles, trashed in others, the study said “taboo language” helps develop solidarity and allows people to blow off steam. However, researchers did not give foul-mouthed Gordon Ramsay-types carte blanche to drop the F-bomb. Overuse has consequences, they stressed, adding that employees should never swear in front of customers or senior staff.

Professor Fiona McQuarrie, who teachesbusiness administration at the University College of the Fraser Valley, cautions that while you might feel comfortable with “relaxed” language standards at home, carrying verbal carelessness into the workplace can be a big mistake. “Frequent swearing still has a bit of a class connotation and can tar you with that trailer-park image,” she observes. “It could hinder your progression.”

While self-expression is a good thing, it’s more important to understand your corporate culture and where you fit in the scheme of things. Is cursing frowned upon? How does the boss communicate? Does she use swear words for emphasis or abuse? How does that make her people feel? What do your co-workers think about foul language? And the really big question: what does it say about you, your communication skills and your grasp of the English language?

“Even if swearing makes you feel comfortable, you probably work with people of different ages and different cultures who might have a real problem with it,” reflects McQuarrie. “Instead of encouraging teamwork, it might actually be discriminatory or make people feel excluded, which is bad for the entire organization. In the end, only you can decide what’s appropriate.”