As a young professional, I will be the first to admit that adapting to the political and hierarchic corporate environment requires diligence, to say the least. Working as a server/bartender in college, I was accustomed to genuine human interaction, especially amongst coworkers. For one thing, there wasn’t much hierarchy. Even the managers would get behind the line and cook, walk food to tables, and help make drinks if necessary. We all worked towards the same goal. If we had a conflict, we would go back to the alley, curse each other out and then let it go. We may not have been the most “professional,” but at the end of the day, we knew where we stood with each other.
Then I joined corporate America…the real Hunger Games. In this type of environment, your success is defined by how fast and how high you climb the company ladder. Unfortunately, it is much like a game of snakes and ladders in that much of your success is dependent on external factors. Primarily, your success is dependent on other people who are already in positions of authority rather than your competence. Although we can’t control the actions or decisions of others, we can control our own behaviors in ways which can influence their perception. You must learn to play the game strategically. However, the real challenge is learning to be strategic while still keeping your core values intact.
Lucky for you, I have compiled a list of 10 tips on how to positively influence company leadership while also retaining a conscious. Some of these pointers I had to learn the hard way while others are simply values that I refuse to neglect. Nonetheless, they have taken me from entry level to working with upper management in a few short years. I have received a promotion nearly every year and have yet to lose my willful, spirited, can-do attitude that so often gets beaten out of you while drudging up the corporate ladder. So here we go…
- Exude Professionalism: Although one’s definition of “professional” may vary, one aspect remains pretty consistent across the board; for better or worse, your work attire and overall presentation has a huge influence on how your are perceived. This was tough for me to understand initially, and I know what you are thinking: “You mean to tell me that my clothes are more important than how hard I work, how intelligent I am, or what I have to bring to the table?” “How am I supposed to afford professional dress clothes on an entry level paycheck?” “Since when are 4 inch hoop earrings too big?!?!”
Okay, maybe those were just my thoughts, but if you too feel that it is absolutely ridiculous to spend hard earned money on stuffy clothes simply to impress others, or if you feel like your competence, intelligence, diligence, and hard work should be more important than the clothes you are wearing, you are absolutely correct. However the reality is, if everyone in leadership is wearing suits and blazers, you need to follow suit (no pun intended.) For this I have two words…bargain hunting. Hit up your neighborhood Ross, TJ Maxx, or even Macy’s clearance rack. Consider it an investment.
- Emanate Authenticity: Most people can sense when someone is being disingenuous, and once that perception is established, your credibility is shot. None of us are perfect, but it is incredibly important to “say what you mean, and mean what you say. Remain genuine and people will appreciate your candor. (That is unless you are a complete asshole. In that case, strive to be someone else. Even assholes don’t like assholes…)
- Proceed With Curiosity: Remember that anyone can learn how to perform a task, but the leader questions “why?” Once you understand why certain tasks are performed and how different components interact with each other, you gain the high level understanding required to solve problems or even anticipate them before they occur.
- Be Proactive and Take Initiative: Whenever appropriate, perform duties without being asked to. Once a problem arises, take ownership, investigate, and resolve the issue. If it is necessary to manage the problem up, you will have already done the necessary leg work. Speaking from experience, there is nothing more annoying that an employee that simply passes on every problem without ever trying to resolve it themselves.
- Stay On Top Of Your Game: You are always on stage. Every interaction presents the opportunity to either impress someone with your knowledge and kind demeanor, or make yourself look incompetent (or even worse… look like an asshole.) No matter whom you are interacting with, whether it is the security guard, the janitor, a colleague, a supervisor, or the CEO, your behavior always has the potential to bite you in the ass. The funny thing about big business is you never know who knows who.
Even more importantly, you should take pride in yourself, in your intelligence, and in your work. You should strive to be the best at whatever you do. Mediocrity is a waste of time, and in my opinion, it’s downright sinful.
As millennials, we are always accused of feeling entitled. Well my rebuttal to that is, we don’t “feel” entitled, we ARE in actuality entitled to a comfortable, collaborative, and compensating work environment. But not because we are just spoiled brats; rather because we are hardworking, intelligent, educated, morally advanced creatures who not only want to be successful but also want to live positive, meaningful, and impactful lives. We are constantly rewriting rules and redefining the world around us. I would argue that we kick major ass. (By the way, I hate to be wrong) Don’t let me down GenY! Be on point every time, all day, every day.
- Be Strategically Assertive: Learn to tailor your assertiveness to your audience. Some individuals can appreciate the eager and sometimes overzealous employee. Personally, I love the employee that asks all the questions, wants to solve all the problems, and wants it all done yesterday. Unfortunately, not all leaders feel the same. Some leaders feel threatened by overly assertive employees, some leaders are lazy, or sometimes leadership simply doesn’t have room on their plates for anything else.
Nonetheless, in order to advance your career, you have to establish an opportunity to shine and to show leadership that you are willing and capable of moving to the next level. Just be mindful in doing so. Observe the difference in personalities and know who to approach and at what time. When the perfect opportunity does present, nail it!
- Practice Patience: The “P” word…my least favorite of them all. For millennials, we tend to be so eager to climb the corporate ladder that we could care less about bureaucracy, seniority, or any of the like. We know that we are capable of rising to the challenges of new positions and we also know that these student loans aren’t going to pay themselves off, although we keep praying for a miracle.
I have had to learn that things take time. You may not get the first, or second, or even third promotion that you apply for. Most companies will not promote a newbie right out of the gate. You may have to prove yourself time and time again before you get selected for a new position. Just be patient. Whatever you do, do not become bitter. There have been periods of time where I was frustrated with decisions made by upper management, and I was simply going through the motions. However, I did my best to refrain from negativity. This only makes you and everyone around you miserable. How you react to these situations will indicate how well you manage adversity. Maintain a positive attitude and you may very well land the next promotion.
- Humble Yourself: In your professional experience, you will run into many egos along the way. Don’t be misled to believe that belittling, condescending, or even indifferent behavior is acceptable. This stands true no matter what position you hold. Although an authoritarian attitude has predominated corporate politics for years, this leadership style is no longer effective or tolerable. We all want to feel important and appreciated in our positions. Studies show that productivity increases when a collaborative leadership style is utilized. Stand at the head of this initiative and lead by example.
- Lend A Helping Hand: If at any point you are in the position to assist someone else, take it. This can be something as simple as holding an elevator, showing compassion to a distressed colleague, or making a recommendation. Oftentimes people are only willing to lend time or effort if they are receiving something in return. They fail to realize that what goes around comes around. Even a tiny contribution to the morale of the company can impact everyone positively.
- Remain True To Yourself: For some, these tips will come naturally. For others, they require a little more work. In order to thrive in the world of corporate politics, you will likely have to compromise some of your beliefs at some point in time. Learning to compromise is a good thing. However, don’t become so focused on success that you lose sight of who you are at heart. Although the Hunger Games comparison may be slightly over exaggerated, know that saboteurs are lurking and they come in all forms. The goal is to infiltrate and evoke change from within. Do not get lost and in turn lose yourself in the mission. If you feel all sensibility slipping away, abort mission and walk away…if necessary, run.
I wish I could post “10 Sure-Fire Ways To Corporate Success,” but that would be BS. Business politics are complicated and can change at the drop of a dime. Nonetheless, these tips have taken me far at a relatively fast speed. I am proud of the success I have gained. Therefore, it was bitter sweet to submit my letter of resignation to a company that has seen me grow from a bartender into a professional. Yet, in staying true to myself there are certain qualities in leadership that I simply cannot overlook. (What can I say, I’m stubborn as hell…) So onto law school I go. Stay tuned…