We have all been witness to a colleague or individual we supervise who appears to be "hard working," but never appears to accomplish very much. As I progressed through my career, this became a bone of contention for me.
First, I took careful steps to ensure I did not fall into this trap. Then, as my supervisory responsibilities grew, I set that avoidance as a primary goal for those I mentored. Anyone who ever worked for me experienced the "there's a difference between working hard and working smart" speech – some several times.
The speech always began the same way, "If a man digs a deep hole then turns around and fills in the same hole, has he worked hard"? Inevitably, I received a curious look along with the obvious answer, "Yes, he has." Then came my follow-up question, "But has he accomplished anything?" After giving it some quick thought, the consistent answer was, "No, I guess not." I would pause for a minute to let my analogy sink in, then I would provide the finish, "So there IS a difference between working hard and working smart."
So many people spend their entire careers demonstrating what they believe is a strong work ethic without ever taking a meaningful look at the efficacy of their efforts. They become frustrated as they feel their work is overlooked or undervalued. Promotional opportunities pass them by and they become stuck and embittered by the slights they perceive as blatant "office politics."
The truth of the matter is they have never learned the keys to being effective. When you step back and objectively analyze the most effective people you know, you find some common threads. Over the course of time I found what I believe are five keys to being effective:
1. Be Organized – that does not mean neat and tidy. Some people can have piles of paper on their desk, but know exactly where to find everything they need. Instead be organized in your approach. Know your responsibilities and approach all tasks with purpose and a defined plan of action. Be sure that plan matches the ultimate goal of the task and the organization.
2. Be Flexible – seems inconsistent after just telling you to be purposeful with a plan of action, but it is a necessary element. Think of military leaders and successful coaches. They all enter with a plan, but the most effective and successful leaders readily adapt that plan to changing circumstances. This may actually be the most critical element of being effective. Too many people get stubbornly lost in tasks and forget to look for new facts or changing circumstances that dictate a change in course is necessary.
3. Delegate – when possible be sure to delegate those tasks that can be competently done by others. Countless talented people fail when given complex tasks because they cannot "let go" and feel they must manage every minute detail of a task. They are soon overwhelmed by their micromanagement and collapse under the weight of what they have taken on personally.
4. Listen – this goes hand-in-hand with delegation. Be sure to listen to those at the lowest level closest to the task. When I had issues going on in the inmate housing units, I reached out to the housing officers, not the area lieutenants. Those closest to the situation clearly have the best understanding of the circumstances and often have direct, simple solutions to issues that look complex from afar.
5. Work Hard – you didn't think I was going to leave this out did you? Being effective also involves hard work, it is just that following the other tips makes what you are doing look easier.
I know what I have outlined appears to be simple, common sense approaches, but I found it remarkable how many people I encountered during my career failed to follow these basic principles. They leapt into tasks without a plan or organized thought, never looked up to see circumstances had changed, and could not delegate or take sound advice. They never understood why they were not more successful as they surely were working hard.
While not a guarantee for success, if you follow these tips, you will surely learn that there indeed is "a difference between working hard and working smart."
About the author: Charles E. Albino retired after 35 years of service to the New Jersey criminal justice system. He served as warden of the Southern State Correctional Facility in 2010. Charles began his career as a correctional officer and later became a parole officer and then senior parole officer. He was Senior Classification Officer in the Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center before becoming Executive Assistant at the Bayside State Prison. He spent the remaining ten years of his career in prison leadership positions.