No matter what organization you work for or what field you’re in, you will have colleagues and bosses who have developed techniques that aren’t found in any textbook. They have crafted their own methods and approaches for solving problems, cutting through red tape, and resolving conflicts. As a C student, you may not have done so well in problem-solving and conflict-resolution courses, but the real test is how well you absorb related lessons in the workplace.

Over time, I adopted this listening technique. When meeting with a potential client I would try to let them speak first rather than launch into a prepared presentation. This way, I could determine what they were really concerned about and what they really wanted from an agency. I would then adapt my presentation to these concerns, and it would help demonstrate that I was on their wavelength.

getting things done

When Eicoff became a division of Ogilvy, I paid attention to how Ogilvy executives got things done. I admired their professionalism and their ability to attract and keep top corporate clients, and I knew that if Eicoff was going to flourish as part of the Ogilvy network, I would have to learn how they conducted business and transfer some of their style and substance to the Eicoff culture. After years as a smaller, independent agency, the Eicoff philosophy was to shoot from the hip. This worked fine with entrepreneurial clients, but it became clear that this would not work during joint presentations with Ogilvy or with some of the more buttoned-down Fortune 500 clients we hoped to land. At first, trying to learn how they did business was a challenge. When they talked about “decks” (printed transcripts of a slide presentation), I had no idea what they were referring to. After observing and asking questions when necessary, though, I began to see the way they planned for a meeting, used a variety of sophisticated tools during presentations, and even why and when they took their clients to certain restaurants. Though some of their approach was not compatible with the Eicoff culture and I had no intention of changing Eicoff’s to our detriment, I was able to integrate certain methods into the Eicoff approach, especially when it came to working with large corporate clients.

When it comes to learning the tricks of the trade, though, Senator Howard Carroll has few peers. As I’ve emphasized, he figured out the world of politics—where there are even more tricks to learn than in business—by absorbing every lesson the late Mayor Daley imparted. One particular lesson came early on in his career when he was in law school with the mayor’s son (and now the current mayor of Chicago), who he refers to as Ritchie. Howie and Ritchie were partners in a law school moot court competition, and they were working extremely hard to win. Many times, they would study together at Mayor Daley’s home, and the mayor noticed that the many hours they were putting into this effort were taking away from the time they needed to put into their other courses. At one point the mayor took Howie aside and asked him to explain the legal issue that they were working on, a complex aviation case. Howie did so, and then the mayor asked, “How much time are you putting into it?”

“A lot,” Howie said.

“Are you graded on how you do?”

“No, it’s pass/fail.”

“Well, let me ask you this,” the mayor said. “Do you want to win the nationals? How much does it matter if you only do okay, but still pass?”

“That would be fine.”

“Maybe there are other things you might be spending your time on?”

In hindsight, Howie realized that the mayor had taught him two key lessons, which he later used in politics. First, he learned that while some things may seem more important than others in the heat of the moment, you have to step back and evaluate what your real priorities are. Years later, as an officeholder besieged with requests for his time and assistance, Howie realized how critical prioritizing was for success in politics. Second, and perhaps less obviously, he grasped that the mayor had led him to this first realization not by delivering a lecture or telling him what to do, but by asking questions and letting him discover the answers for himself. This indirect way of getting people to do the right thing has come in handy in politics.

how to get things done CEO training

The story, though, doesn’t end there. To Howie’s surprise, the mayor began talking with great knowledge about the legal ramifications of the case he and Ritchie were working on, and Howie asked, “With all due respect, Mr. Mayor, you haven’t practiced law for years. How would you know about this aviation issue?”

The mayor, with a twinkle in his eye, said, “United Airlines. O’Hare Airport. They are in Chicago.”

The third trick of the trade Howie gleaned was that you had better know about everything that takes place under your watch, and know it better than anyone might expect you to know it.

Finally, the day arrived and Howie and Ritchie were going to present in moot court. A judge, a professor, and a lawyer were going to hear their case, but heeding the mayor’s advice, they wanted to pass but lose. By losing they wouldn’t have to remain in the competition and do even more work in preparation for the next round. With the instinct of a born politician, Howie knew he had little influence over the professor’s vote, but he figured he might be able to do something with the lawyer and the judge. So before the moot court class began, he talked to each of them. First, he met with the judge and related his discussion with the mayor and how it might be best if they pass but lose. Next, he had a similar conversation with the lawyer, who surprised Howie by saying that their opponent in the moot court case was the lawyer’s cousin—and this cousin had already spoken to the lawyer and requested that they pass but lose. The lawyer added that his cousin’s aunt had also talked to him and insisted that her child lose.

Howie then said, “Well, I guess it’s a choice between family and career.”

Howie and Richie lost the competition by a 2 to 1 vote. Perhaps more important, though, Howie realized that in politics, it’s often who you know that counts more than what you know.

Norm Bobins, president and CEO of Chicago’s LaSalle Bank, has a much shorter story about learning the tricks of the trade, but one that’s equally apt. Early in his career, Norm worked at American National Bank, whose president at the time was Alan Stultz. A self-made man who started out as a messenger at the Federal Reserve and never went to college, Stultz emphasized to Norm that he should learn from life experiences, not just from the conventional wisdom of banking. At the time, a great deal of importance was placed on long-term planning. Stultz, though, told Norm, “Long-term planning is wonderful, but if you keep your eye on ninety days, you can’t go wrong.”

“He would focus on what we could do better right at this moment and always ask how are we doing now. It was a very good lesson to learn,” Norm says.

Whether you’re in banking, politics, law, business, or any profession, you need to master two levels of knowledge. The first may be taught in school and involves the processes and procedures, techniques and tools that are codified and found in books and professors’ lectures. The second type of knowledge is tacit; it exists in the minds of practitioners who have developed their particular know-how through years of experience. The only way you’re going to acquire this knowledge is by closely observing how these savvy individuals act in different situations.

The lesson is, don’t assume you know everything because you studied it in school or attended company training workshops. To learn the tricks of the trade, you have to watch the experts, see how they behave, and hope they will be generous and share their tactics with you.