Some things can only be learned by entering the corporate world
Graduating college is such an important milestone for people when beginning their professional career, and yet college doesn’t necessarily prep you for what life can really be like in the corporate world. While leadership courses equip students with the necessary tools, it’s hard to know how to use them effectively in today’s working environment. On top of this, work culture dramatically shifts as professionals make their way up the corporate ladder and it’s hard to anticipate those shifts until they’ve already happened. Here are a few insights that may help aspiring and current leaders navigate the culture shock likely to be experienced as they progress in their career.
1. A Good leader isn’t always a “Jack of all Trades”.
Being good at a lot of things is a likely leadership hurdles after college. As newbies make their way into a lead or managerial position, it’s a challenge to shift the mind from being a worker bee to a leader. Most who experience this professional “climb” early are often deemed “go getters”, many of whom pride themselves on taking on new challenges, and being agile with their workload. Instincts may tell the person to take on challenging tasks, rather than delegate, but doing so fails to develop the team. People need opportunities to be challenged at work, otherwise it could stagnate employees and it shows a lack of trust. Effectively one of the hardest things to do, is to learn how to let go.
Finding areas for “safe failure,” is both a challenge and a responsibility of a leader. It means if a team member fails it doesn’t implode the project and will help the employee build new skills in a safe environment. This doesn’t imply that leaders shouldn’t be in the trenches with their teams, if anything it’s more valuable for them to stand alongside them.
2. Everyone communicates and learns differently.
There are many different personality types most of us learn about in college, likely the Myers Briggs standard, but experiencing these personalities first-hand in the workplace is a whole new challenge. Learning to educate and communicate with vastly different personalities can force leaders to shift tactics depending on the individual. It’s important to set up personal time to get to know each and every one on the team. This can be as easy as inviting a coworker to coffee to chat about work or life. Yet in remote work, it’s much more difficult to simulate those casual “water cooler” type conversations. Setting up one-on-one calls and providing a space that isn’t intimidating and centered around the employee is crucial. For some, it can be intimidating to “talk to the boss” yet it’s up to the employee and leader together to diffuse that fear. Personally, I use humor in an effort to remove tension, but leaders should lean into their strengths.
In today’s world, there’s a lot that can get complicated. Mental illness, depression, and burnout are all relevant hurdles that impact employees and leaders. Getting to know employees builds trust and helps leaders see problems before they start. There are also those who may leverage mental illness as a shield to protect poor work ethic, which is both extremely hard to identify and a sensitive issue. Some people are genuinely struggling, and others may fabricate a pretty tall tale to avoid work. This is why it’s so important to understand every team member, not only to help grow and evolve their own careers, but also to spot issues before they start.
3. Recognize there are no villains.
Objectively while working, it’s highly likely that a leader will run across a co-worker who may seem villainous. They could be aggressive and hostile, passive aggressive, condescending in emails, or just plain disrespectful. It may seem like they are vengeful, yet that’s rarely the case. What is more likely, is that they are under pressure unknown to anyone and they are managing it poorly. As hard as it is to admit and as creatures of emotion, many struggle to manage their emotions in productive ways. It’s equally difficult for leaders when they are presented with unprofessional behavior from co-workers; it becomes hard to respond in kind let alone recognize that it could be coming from external pressures the other person is experiencing. It takes a great deal of internal reflection and discipline to distance from reactionary thoughts to understand they aren’t just “evil.” Although there are a couple caveats to this…
Toxic people do exist
The term “toxic” is heavily used in today’s media, yet “toxic” can be extremely hard to define. Although this article from “The Greatist” does a fantastic job at breaking down what exactly is a “toxic personality” :
“One way to tell if you have a toxic person in your life: Every time you encounter or hang out with them, you feel exhausted, emotionally drained, and negative. There’s always something with this person.”
Toxic people are often dealing with their own forms of depression or mental illness and have a hard time with their own sense of self. They often (knowingly or unknowingly) manipulate others to help fill a void in their own self esteem. In this Greatist article, Irwin goes on to say:
“You know you are being manipulated when you begin doing, saying, or believing things that are serving them, as opposed to you. Healthy people encourage and empower you to be your best. Manipulators tell people that they know what’s best for you.”
Be sure to read more on toxicity; it’s rare but it does exist, especially in professional environments and can easily ensnare leaders if they’re not careful and aware of it.
With egos, sometimes there’s no “winning”
Some people are purely ego driven and are blinded by it. In these instances, it’s hard to get to a logical point in the discussion and it often feels like an argument for argument’s sake. For these types of personalities, leaders really have to know what hill to die on and understand that they’re going to have to make a concession somewhere in order to further the dialogue. Not that they need to actively stroke the other person’s ego but letting them feel as though they have a win in the discussion (as painful as that can be) is typically the easiest path to a resolution. It’s not fun, but it becomes a form of negotiation where hopefully the conversation will land in a place that’s fruitful.
The sooner leaders recognize the other person as a person instead of a villain, the conversations will become easier to understand and manage.
4. Taking the highroad is no fun and never fair.
When conflicts arise at work, it’s hard to not want to be petty. We all know we want to take the high road, yet it’s a quiet one. Humble leaders may not make as much “noise” as someone else, often taking low blows and not retaliating, and rarely do those types of leaders receive any recognition. That’s not to say leaders shouldn’t be taking the high road in disagreements but recognize that sometimes it’s just a thankless job. The difficulty here is that the highroad could be misinterpreted to be the submissive road, and it’s equally difficult to hold one’s ground in a way that isn’t combative.
One rule of thumb to consider when taking the highroad is to try and remove as much emotion as possible from communication when the other person is being particularly combative. Never respond immediately, write multiple drafts of a response, try to filter out any sort of negative tone, and be as forthcoming as possible. This is extremely difficult to do, but if you don’t, the highroad just becomes a freeway for others to drive over you. The silver lining here is to leverage these recommendations to sustain one’s own sense of self-worth. It’s reflective of the age-old argument that one shouldn’t stoop to another person’s level in a disagreement, and one can only hope that his or her reaction gets recognized somehow (and if it doesn’t, be okay with that outcome).
5. Don’t become a work martyr!
In an article “5 Signs that you’re a work Martyr,” the writer discusses how work can consume one’s life and even one’s identity. Working from home and having remote team members in different time zones can make a leader feel like she or he always needs to be available. It’s hard to not feel neglectful when unavailable, yet leaders have to take a step back and mentally give themselves working and non-working hours. Granted there are certain calls one simply should not miss, but leaders also need to get more comfortable knowing that the world will still turn, and work will still get done without them “always on.”
6. Letting people go sucks! Unless you’re heartless …
One area that’s not often discussed is how difficult it is to let people go. There’s a lot of preconceived notions surrounding being a manager and having the ability to “fire people,” and unless someone has some sort of major dislike for the other person, it’s incredibly stressful to do. Firing someone affects someone’s livelihood, and even if a leader has disagreements with that person, it’s still a hard decision to make and act to perform. While a delicate situation, a leader must conduct their due diligence and be confident in their decision, assuring themselves the right call is being made.
Regardless of how stressful firing someone can be, HR documentation is extremely important in this situation. It’s always good practice to send email summaries of verbal meetings, to make sure conversations are documented. Likewise, if you’re having a disciplinary meeting, it’s equally important to not only send a recap, but also invite the other person to weigh in. This way accurate records are kept, and it’s not just a one-sided record of what transpired. Letting people go is one of the most emotionally draining and stressful responsibilities a manager has to do so ensuring one’s mental and emotional states are “in check” is key while being conscientious of his or her own moral compass and sense of integrity in the process.
7. People will start to treat you differently …
Ever seen someone to try to schmooze their boss at a company party or social gathering? This is something many people are guilty of in the beginning of their career. Well, having the shoe on the other foot is not much fun. A few drinks happen and suddenly it’s a really good idea to ask for a raise, but it’s incredibly awkward for both parties. As titles change over the years, people may treat leaders differently for better or worse. Behaviors like fake laughter at jokes, how some people suck up to managers versus mingling with peers, etc. Leaders realize that their presence at an event can feel anything but casual.
For employees, always try to keep it as normal as possible. It’s fine to talk work but try to realize the other person at an after-work function may just want to let off some steam or decompress. For managers, always be humble and keep it casual. If approached on career advancement, raises, or just a topic that is uncomfortable, be clear that this isn’t the proper forum for the discussion, and advise that conversation can occur on the following workday. This will likely cause some awkwardness, but whose fault is that really?
8. It’s still a boy’s club.
As uncomfortable as this statement is, it tends to be pretty accurate. While some leaders may have not been exposed to more stereotypical “bro” environments like joining a fraternity or being part of a larger sports team, and yet this is an accurate analogy to describe the atmosphere at some leadership outings. Even with everything in the news, one may not think that leaders would experience it at work, yet when they do, it’s a troubling moment and something that’s incredibly conflicting for many. As a white male sitting at a dinner with other white males who are making potentially inappropriate comments, it’s hard to not feel like part of the problem.
How does one toe the line of being an ally, and not jeopardizing their position at work? It comes down to choosing what hills to die on. In scenarios where the attractiveness of a coworker is being discussed, interject how good they are at what they do. This response shines light into the inappropriate nature of the discussion and usually shuts it down pretty quick. You should also take what opportunities you can to advocate for strong female and male co-workers in these settings and encourage their involvement in meetings and events in the future. There’s a fine line between just looking like a social advocate and being complicit in this situation.
It may be difficult to not feel reactive towards statements that are made but keeping a cool head and being a positive voice in these settings is often the best move. Beyond that, if one feels as though he or she in an unchanging and toxic situation at their job, acknowledgement that participation at persistent toxic culture, may prompt a shift in career.
9. It’s okay not to know, and better to know that you don’t!
Through today’s educational culture and instant access to “Google University”, leaders can harbor a great deal of fear that they will be “found out”, that they are not an expert on everything. As leaders grow in their career, it’s likely that they’ll start to manage a team with vastly different skills outside of their area of expertise. There’s always the feeling that those in management, are experts in their individual fields. Yet being an expert in a particular field, doesn’t make anyone a good leader and most leaders aren’t experts in all of the skill sets they manage. When running a small team, it’s more likely that leaders can roll up their sleeves and get into the trenches, the minute details on all projects. But as you start to embrace more responsibilities, leaders have to learn to be more comfortable with not being a subject matter expert in every element that falls under their department. Sometimes, it’s incredibly stressful.
It is important to understand is that it’s fine if leaders are not an expert in everything. Leaders are designed to hire and support experts on their teams. It’s time to stop perpetuating the notion that everyone at the C-suite level are experts of everything that’s underneath them. Servant leadership gets exponentially more important as professionals work their way up the chain. Leaders should hire the experts, get to know them, and support them as best they can to keep their teams effective. While it’s okay to not be an expert, leaders are learners too just as they are trustworthy colleagues who don’t micromanage.
While leaders can’t be experts at everything, knowing this can easily lead to Imposter Syndrome. It’s hard to not feel undeserving to be in a leadership position, worried that the circumstance of status is somehow something “stumbled upon”, happenstance if you will. Worse, leaders who have any degree of Imposter Syndrome will be worried that everyone will find out they “don’t belong.” Especially if they compare themselves to the experts they hire. This sense of unease will ever go away, but leaders can only attempt to make working life easier for their team, and support them in their accomplishments. That said, Imposter Syndrome likely keeps leaders humble and that may not be a bad thing after all.
10. Sometimes leaders should jump.
After a while in a leadership position, it is easy to get comfortable. Leaders find themselves getting into a rhythm, being an expert at all the processes, and their brain can go on autopilot to get the job done. Sometimes they don’t realize that they’ve stopped being challenged and it feels good. Yet, leaders may only discover later that they’ve been stagnating—and their team has been affected. While skills may get rooted in archaic processes, leaders can start to lose the drive they once had and before they know it, the status quo becomes pretty appealing. And while change is scary, the learning and growth that comes from any failure is often the most educational and impactful. Not that professionals should always change careers, but they should always be looking ahead and not getting stuck in the past or too comfy in current positions.
If current circumstances are not offering leaders opportunities to evolve, they can still use that stability to evolve their personal life as well. Taking a leap of faith through different phases of a career path can lead to positive outcomes. Focus on the here and now, what we have immediate control over, and don’t sweat the mountain ahead. Every peak, in its entirety, seems daunting and yet each are just a collection of steps and leaders can control their own pace. Sometimes the most difficult thing is to take the first step, but leaders need to remind themselves that they walk every day.
Written by: Wes Knee, BOSS Contributor
Wes Knee’s decade-long professional background is best described as artistic. And that’s exactly what he brings to the leadership table, seamlessly managing both marketing and creative departments to bring forth a compelling visual and written brand identity that sets the company apart. In this role, Mr. Knee enjoys distilling the complex world of cybersecurity into digestible messages apt for anyone to comprehend, helping audiences navigate the world of cyber with a greater degree of confidence.
Visit his blog, Wes Plays, where he discusses games, business, and more.