How My Early Failure Taught Me About Recognizing And Meeting The Standards Of Others
For those who know me, I believe they would associate the words quality, excellence, and high standards to me and my company. At least, I hope they would. But early in my career, that wasn’t the case. In fact, I barely had an awareness of these words or applied them to the work I produced. But fortunately, I was able to learn their fundamental importance to achieving greater success from my early experience with a top executive.
It occurred during my MBA summer internship with Johnson & Johnson in Taipei, while working for their Taiwan marketing director, named Angela Chang. Angela was someone who was highly respected within both the company and the consumer products marketing community in Taiwan. She was smart, quick, and had a very clear idea of what she wanted. Her standards were the highest of anyone that I had ever worked with before.
Actually, before the internship, I saw myself as a reasonably capable person who met deadlines on time and who delivered good work. At least, there was little indication from others that I was doing anything particularly wrong or poorly during my first six years as a design engineer. I wouldn’t call my performance back then spectacular, but it was good enough to get me promoted alongside my peers every two years or so. However, my somewhat secure sense of my professional competency would change dramatically with my first regular exposure to a world-class senior manager, like Angela.
My main task that summer was to analyze the market research data for a new shampoo product that the company had just launched. Angela believed that the product could perform better than it had to date and that the market research could tell her how to make that happen. During my third week, she asked me to prepare an overhead presentation for her of my findings (this was in the pre-PowerPoint days) to be delivered to the advertising agency handling the product. As an MBA from a top U.S. program, she assumed that I was fully capable of taking care of this straightforward task.
I spent the following week preparing the overheads. On the day of the presentation, we took a taxi together to the ad agency. Having been extremely busy and unable to review my work until that moment, she asked me to pass her the folder of overheads, which she began to look through. Within seconds, her face turned deadly serious. “Why is the text on this page so crowded,” she asked me directly. “Why are you using so many different font sizes? Why aren’t you using bullet points to highlight these key findings?”
To put it mildly, she was not at all happy with my organization and presentation of the information. To her, it was too wordy, too confusing, and too difficult to catch the main points. Over the next five minutes, with a marker in hand, she shortened, modified, and rearranged the contents of the overheads before my eyes. When she finished, sure enough, the presentation was much clearer and sharper. The speed and clarity in which she organized everything was stunning to me. In those five minutes, she had produced something that was ten times better than what had taken me days to do.
Needless to say, I was devastated to have spectacularly under-performed for a person that I really wanted to impress. But in looking back, that incident was the turning point in my becoming much more aware of the standard and quality of work that I was producing. Afterwards, I began taking notice of and collecting good examples of reports, proposals, presentations, and even memos. I started paying particular attention to how to best organize and deliver information. Most importantly, whenever I was about to complete an assignment, I would ask myself, “Can this work be considered excellent,” or “What would make this better?”
I also started paying greater attention to not just what I thought about my work, but to what the person who I was doing the work for might think about it. Whatever the task, I would try to determine what that person’s expectation for the result was, and then try to meet or exceed it. If I couldn’t identify it, then I would just imagine what Angela’s expectation for the delivery might be.
From that experience with Angela Chang, I was determined to never again hand something to someone else that I did not feel could be viewed as high quality work. I learned that having a strong awareness of the standards and expectations of those around you is essential if you want to impress others. I never wanted another person to point out to me again that the work I was producing was not good enough. For your own career, that’s not the way you want to find out that you should be doing something much better than how you are doing it. By that time, it can be quite a costly lesson for both you and your company.