THE INC. LIFE

Build a Strong Work Ethic: 3 Mantras for New Start-up Employees

And how the start-ups that hired them can get them there

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BY Lian Kyla Dyogi - 14 Jun 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Work ethic—everyone knows it’s important. Aside from its often talked about cousin Passion, work ethic is one variable you can control and improve to help you succeed in business. When asked how to spot employees with good work ethics, Daniel Khong head of marketing at TheLorry, says there are obvious and subtle behaviors.

“Obvious behaviors can be easily observed by anyone and can be as simple as dressing up appropriately and being on time. Secondly, there are ‘subtle’ behaviors, which are harder to observe, but can be a more significant ‘tells’. For example, looking away when someone types a password or deciding not to participate in gossip,” he says.

But when the millennial generation’s definition of work is much different from the first-to-arrive, last-to-leave concept of previous generations, how exactly does a young employee cultivate a good work ethic?

Despite the changing times, there isn’t a way to “hack” work ethic. There’s only doing. Here are three mantras to get you started:

1. I must be proactive

Proactive employee behavior manifests in different forms, including: “Their willingness/ability to (1) contribute more than their defined job scope; (2) resolve challenges rather than finding excuses; (3) confront conflicts rather than whispering at the back…and many more,” says Kelvin Leow, co-founder of Malaysia-based wedding and parenting e-commerce platform Nuren Group.

For Athena Antiporda, tasked with brand development at Filipino discount e-commerce site Deal Grocer, she figured proactivity was important early in her start-up journey. “I entered asking for a mentor and for the opportunity to learn. Immediately I was told that learning is something that you chase after yourself and not something served to you… Here, your learning curve has to be especially steep and you have to be resourceful in where to find answers to your questions,” she says.

That includes looking for various learning resources, whether from colleagues, workshops or independent research.

For those high-achieving go-getters, part of being proactive is also recognizing when you need help, says Antiporda: “I work in a team full of intelligent and driven people so having the humility to ask them is important and extremely helpful.”

2. I must own my responsibilities (and then some)

Working for a start-up, even for one whose mission aligns with yours, won’t always be fun. Eventually, the free-flowing snacks will lose their novelty and you’ll be faced with the realities of the daily grind.

When that happens, recognize the commitment and corresponding responsibilities you have, and stick with it—even when you make mistakes. “When employees don’t take ownership, their goals will not be aligned with the business and the relationship between the employer and employee will very likely fail,” says Khong.

Part of taking ownership is taking pride in the work that you do and seeing its inherent value. One mindset shift Ryan Jenkins suggests in this Inc. article is to “Consider your employer your #1 customer”. He writes, “Consider your work ethic as the product you are delivering. Will the customer be happy with their purchase? Will they be a repeat buyer? Will they recommend your services? Will they upgrade their purchases (aka give you a promotion)?”

However, it’s a two-way street between the employee and employer.

“When new joiners are given the opportunity and have the initiative to take ownership of the responsibilities given to them, it builds a very solid foundation for growth and mutual benefit,” says Khong.

3. I must contribute to a positive work culture

If you are the sum of the five people you spend your time with, then that most certainly includes your colleagues.

Whether you’re an employee or start-up founder, it’s important to realize that everyone has a part to play in cultivating a work culture where everyone is encouraged to give his or her best. This might be easier in start-ups with their “lower communication barriers,” as Khong puts it, possibly because founders are able to recruit “like-minded employees.”

“When you have a team of individuals with great chemistry and minimal office politics, it’s much easier to build a professional work culture.”

However, building culture gets more challenging as the company starts to scale. At least, it’s one of the top three challenges Leow shares they face in their start-up journey. It was easier, he says when they were a team of less than 20 and could see and talk to one another everyday.

“It gets challenging when we reach 30-50 people, whereby we can no longer interact with everyone on a regular basis. And that’s also when we build a more complete executive team and head of departments. I must say the whole team is still working really hard, but at times, no longer preciously aligned in direction and visions. Conflicts between people and teams start to happen. People issues are happening more frequently too. If not handled properly, these cumulative issues will eventually [hinder] company growth and team morale,” says Leow.

For founders and managers, Jenkins in another Inc. article suggests clearly communicating expected work ethics with employees, connect these values to the bigger vision, and demonstrate the right work ethic everyday.

Maybe work ethic is also a team effort after all. In any case, as a new member of the team, remember that your actions affect others and vice versa.