The first time you enter the workforce – the corporate kind – it’s the beginning of a huge learning curve. You swan in with your university degree and self-proclaimed “life experience” and can’t help but shake that excitedly expectant feeling that you’ll be the next Harvey Spector… But, as it turns out, a piece of stamped paper and volunteering in South East Asia for 5 minutes isn’t much help when it comes to navigating the do’s and don’ts of office life.
After nearly 9 years in the corporate world (gah!), here are the 10 lessons I think it’s good to learn early – whether you’re a university graduate or moving from professional services (law, accounting and consultancy firms) into the “real world”, there’s something universally applicable about most of these rules:
1. Humanise your manager
It’s easy to put the senior execs on a pedestal and consider them untouchable from the daily woes of us mere mortals. But, no matter what their title in the office, at the end of the day they are still mothers/fathers, brothers/ sisters, friends, gym members, grocery shoppers etc. They still get gastro and have to walk their dogs and have showers. Don’t let the suits and offices fool you.
2. Don’t keep score – be a giver
I recently read Give & Take by Adam Grant, who poses the challenge to be a “giver” in the office – not a taker or even a matcher. There’s an implied understanding of reciprocity when you do a colleague a favour or go above and beyond on a project or task. But Adam suggests that if you insist on a quid pro quo every time you help others, you will have a much narrower network to draw on in the future – and “you never know where somebody’s going to end up”.
3. Never be far from a pen and paper (or smartphone)
A particularly important one for new graduates. You never know when that trip to the photocopier will result in walk-by instructions from your boss – or that coffee catch up will leave you with a few to-do/action items. A napkin or the back of your hand should be a last resort.
4. Ask for forgiveness, rather than permission
My first boss once told me that “there are very few things that cannot be fixed – so just have a go”. Most workplaces value initiative and innovation and sometimes it’s necessary to dodge the red tape and politics to get things done. Timothy Ferris in the 4 Hour Work Week says that if the potential damage is moderate or in any way reversible, don’t give people the chance to say no.
5. Be diligent and thorough
It sounds like something your mother would tell you and it should really go without saying – but in the corporate world, the pace has been set at super fast and unfortunately that often means that standard and quality can be cut to make way for quantity and deadlines. In that environment, nothing stands out more than someone who is genuinely diligent and thorough – without being a road block. If you can nail that, you’re ahead of most.
6. Your personal and professional brand are the same thing
It took me a while to realise this one – I thought keeping my Facebook and LinkedIn profiles separate was all the brand management I needed. The modern consensus is that you can’t be one person online or at home and another in the office. Sure, there’s room for some mild adjustment – but the “real you” should be somewhere close together on that spectrum.
7. Be a leader, not (just) a manager
Unfortunately, most offices are filled with managers and very few leaders – possibly because everyone thinks that leading is a task reserved for the CEO. In my experience, the manager is the person shirking responsibility/ownership, claiming recognition/praise and micromanaging his/her team to within an inch of their lives. The Harvard Business Review nicely summarises the difference between managers and leaders as follows:
- Managers count value – Leaders create value.
- Managers create circles of power (i.e. reporting hierarchies) – Leaders create circles of influence (i.e. are naturally sought after advisors).
- Managers exert power and control – Leaders exert influence and inspiration.
Get the idea? It’s genuinely true that anyone can be a leader – regardless of title or position – so strive to demonstrate leadership qualities in every role you have.
8. Fail fast and early
Mistakes are A-OK and most employers are pretty understanding of the role mistakes play in the learning process. Every entrepreneur and successful business person will tell you that failing fast is a good (if not great thing) – the quicker you fail, the quicker you learn. Plus, mistakes are much more likely to be forgiven while you’re a relatively new employee – so use those first 12 months to fail fast and better each time.
9. If you’re the smartest person in the room, start planning an exit
As you climb the career ladder, it’s nice when you finally feel like you’re a slightly bigger fish in the pond. But, as nice as that feeling is, it should also be a reminder to look around the room and make sure that you are still learning and surrounded by a diverse range of skills, experience and expertise. If not, it might be time to find some fresh faces or a new room. You want to be challenged and growing professionally continuously throughout your career – not just the first 5, 10 or 15 years.
10. Don’t use emoticons at work
Finally, nothing looks more unprofessional than a 🙂 or excessive use of !!!!??? in an email to Jenny in Finance. It might be ok to chuck #corporatelyfe at the end of an Instagram post or “WTF” in a text to a friend, but keep the work comms on the professional side of friendly.
Do you have some wisdom to share? Would love to hear your comments.