Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Tips to Survive in Corporate America

I've been in corporate America for a while now. I've learned from that experience. Although I wrote this with Black people in mind it really applies to anyone who works for other people. If you work for yourself, I salute you.

I want to share some tips on surviving in corporate America that I've learned either from my own adventures or observing those of other people. I'm not saying I do or have done all of these.

1) Always strive for excellence:  There's no reason you shouldn't be the best at your job. Ok, maybe there is a reason but you should certainly TRY to be the best. And if you fail try harder next time. This is especially important if you happen to be Black as likely there are more than a few people in your company who have negative stereotypes about your intelligence, your credentials, your work ethic and the quality of work that you produce. But Black or not, one of the best ways to keep your job and/or rise in the company is to have an unblemished reputation for quality work and for being able to pick up new assignments quickly. Bosses love subordinates that can take on difficult assignments with aplomb and make the bosses look good. This leads to the next point.

2) Never stop learning:  So you have a bachelor's degree or a master's degree (or two), or maybe a Ph.D, or a J.D or a M.B.A. or an M.D. or so on. Good for you. But what have you done to increase your knowledge lately? The knowledge base changes quickly. You need to keep up. This may involve on the job training or classes or it might mean online, night or weekend classes at a local community college. It might mean shadowing the local experts at your job until you learn everything they do. It might mean getting that extra degree. It could mean obtaining additional certifications in your field. It might mean getting involved in outside organizations set up for people in your field and attending conferences, writing papers or giving lectures. Maybe you should also learn your co-worker's job.

3) Always touch base with your boss: Generally speaking bosses don't like surprises. You need to let him or her regularly know the project status.  Although some bosses are more hands on (something I find greatly irritating) many are not. All they care about is hearing "Yes, the assignment was completed/deal was closed/etc" at the appropriate time. Don't ever mistake a boss' friendliness for him or her being a true friend. Their interest is in your production. Just because you may happen to share gender and race with your boss, don't think that you have leeway to let things slide. Your boss has to answer to supervisors just as you do.

4) Use Careful Communication: In terms of emails, instant messages, written documents, text messages, chances are that your company either views what you write or maintains an archive of what you wrote. Some companies use key-loggers.  And I'm not even going to get started about inappropriate internet usage. There are different rules at various companies but a good rule of thumb is that if you wrote it over their network, it's theirs. They can look at it if they want to do so. So if you really don't want HR reading the salacious IM's you and the curvy young lady from General Ledger send each other or if you realize that the partner probably wouldn't be amused by the scatological joke emails you and your buddy in Purchasing exchange, don't send those things in the first place. This also applies to work related email exchanges where people from different departments get snippy with each other over who's to blame for a mistake. As a department head told me once, "Shady, just pick up a phone and call him!! No need for the email chain". 

5) Don't be afraid to ask for or offer help: You don't know everything. So there will be occasions when you need help. There's nothing wrong with this. Everyone does it. Occasionally I have seen Black people that were scared to ask for help because they thought it might confirm some stereotype. Silly. You do what it takes to complete your assignment. Being helpful to others is also a good idea because it forces you to explain and teach something that you know. This can work to your advantage because not only will you get wider recognition as an expert but it also puts people in your debt. And one day, and that day may never come, you will be able to call upon them for assistance.

6) Avoid sensitive topics at work: If you work with adults, you won't be able to change their mind on much. Anyway that's not your job. Unless you're working for a politically, religiously or socially driven organization, you are probably  working with some people that hold views you would consider anathema on such topics as politics, race, gender, sexuality, religion, etc. Some of these people may even be your bosses. Although I do not advise that you ever submissively agree with their foolish ideas, neither do I think it wise to get involved in long drawn out debates with your boss about why the Afghanistan/Iraq Wars were poorly planned and probably illegal. Yes I did that once. Stupid.

7) Always have one eye on the exit: There may come a time when you have done everything you can do in your position. You may be bored. You may be eager to move up. You may be burned out. You may be overqualified for your job. You may have a boss that hates your guts. You may be discriminated against. You may work for an incompetent organization. You may be able to get your work done in 2 hours and spend the next 6-8 hours goofing off/surfing the net. Whatever the situation is, recognize it and take steps to address it. If you're not being challenged any more, perhaps a transfer is in order. Maybe you need to leave the company. Maybe you need a career change. Do not let your work ethic, skills and drive stagnate. If you remain in a bad position-one in which you're not happy or not growing you will come to hate yourself and hate the job. Your work will suffer and your bosses will notice.

8) You don't see everyone that sees you:  You have primary responsibility to your boss but there are several other people that will have influence (direct or otherwise) over your career. If you make the mistake (even unknowingly) of irritating one of your boss' peers, I can guarantee that your boss will hear about it from her. So watch yourself when you're at work. You are being evaluated by several other people whether you know it or not.

9) Connections count/Life is not fair: One of the hardest lessons that I had to learn was that education, experience and work ethic aren't the Alpha and Omega of getting hired or getting promoted. People hire people who look like them. This is a problem if you happen to be Black. But people also hire and promote their friends, their relatives, people who their friends, spouse or relatives vouch for, folks they worked with at other companies, old school acquaintances, people they want to sleep with or have slept with, their church members and so on. This is never going to change. So you can a) impotently rage against the machine, b) quit and start your own company, or c) learn how to network. Networking includes not only reaching out to groups of people you've helped in the past, but also includes many other opportunities. This could be attending the office holiday parties, volunteer outings and occasional off site meetings. It means regularly going to lunch with your buddies in other departments and joining internal company groups or external groups that are designed for people of like minds to exchange knowledge. Keep in touch with recruiters and people who do your job at other companies. By keeping plugged in, you will often get information about hirings and firings long before they are "official". And networking can often make the difference between a boss that wants to promote you b/c you have another boss asking her at their monthly lunch  "When is Shady going to get a shot?" vs. a boss that could not care less if you do the exact same job for the next two decades.

10) Research and Document: A company would be delighted to pay you $50K/yr for a job where the going rate is $80K and the boss' favorite is making $100K/yr. That's business. The method in which you guard against that, since you generally won't have access to everyone's pay records, resumes, academic transcripts and the like is to do extensive research to see exactly what the going rate is for a job and then ask for more.  Also you must document everything. One thing that incompetent or malicious bosses love to do is to give you poorly defined assignments to which THEIR name is not attached. You must guard against this by getting as much as possible in writing. Draw them out. And if you are ever in a situation in which discriminatory language is being used, well there's a reason voice activated recorders exist.

11) Avoid Personal Entanglements: I have seen a handful of people at work that were "hit by the thunderbolt", fell in love and married, I have also seen many more people that thought they fell in love but were actually motivated by different emotions. These dalliances generally didn't last. If you still have to work with the person who now hates your guts with the same intensity with which they used to "love" you, this can become a very unpleasant experience indeed. And if you are a man or you had some authority over this person, rest assured HR is being contacted. Don't ever fool yourself that your fellow workers didn't know what was going on. Everybody knew. You aren't that clever. Bottom line, unless it really IS "the thunderbolt", don't dip your pen in the company ink. It's a BAD BAD BAD idea.

12) Relax, it's just work: Never let work get and keep you down. Maintain a strong distinction between work and home. Work is something that you do to make money. Hopefully it is also something that you like doing and are good at doing. Either way don't bring negativity home.
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