By Aaron McDaniel
Whoever ceases to be a student has never been a student — George Iles
The only source of knowledge is experience — Albert Einstein
I was three months into my first job out of college and I was facing the event that each year strikes fear into the hearts of employees across the country. It was time for my first performance review.
Whereas many people are scared of having to face their boss and get (often critical) feedback about how they do their jobs, I, on the other hand, was excited.
“I’m just not sure that you really ‘get it’ “
Even though I had only been in my position for a short time, I felt I really had a handle on what I was doing. I had made an effort not to bother my boss with a laundry list of silly questions.
Instead I relied on my peers and others in the office to teach me the systems I needed to use and the processes I needed to follow to fulfill my job responsibilities. I felt as though I was on the road to quickly mastering everything.
As I walked into her office I was expecting fireworks. I envisioned my boss talking about how all the work I had done was above and beyond what she expected. She would follow up by offering me a sizable raise, letting me know I was on the fast track to a promotion.
I sat down, and she began to go through my review. The first words that cut through the shuffling of chairs and paper were wildly different from what I expected: “Aaron, I’m just not sure that you really ‘get it,’” she stated, followed by a long pause. “You appear to be a sharp young person but I rarely receive any feedback or questions from you, so I am not sure you really even understand how to do your job.”
I was stunned. Her words still sting today.
In that moment, it become abundantly clear that despite all the time and effort I spent learning my job and working to impress my boss, I had committed one of the deadly sins that many of us commit when starting our careers: I failed to take the time to understand my boss. I didn’t make an effort to connect with her and learn how she preferred to communicate and be communicated to.
School doesn’t really prepare you for a career
My response to her statement, which escapes me because I am sure it was a mumbled mess of excuses, could not undo the damage I had done.
This was the first situation in my young career in which I realized beyond a shadow of a doubt that SCHOOL DOES NOT PREPARE YOU FOR YOUR CAREER.
There is no course offered in college that teaches you how to interact with an executive asking you to complete a project. There is no textbook that outlines the steps you need to take to build a strong reputation and earn a solid promotion.
Some of us come from backgrounds such that our family members didn’t teach us about the corporate world because they had no corporate experience themselves. Some clubs and extracurricular activities may have taught us applicable skills, but we have almost no reference points to know how to be successful in the workplace.
Corporate leaders realize that we are different from previous generations. They see Millennials (or “Gen Yers,” or whatever they want to call us), as more than just texting, tweeting, Facebooking young employees; as the future of their businesses. Because of this, corporations are finding ways to adapt for us. They are leveraging social media to recruit and are testing out new work models that appeal to our generation.
Figuring it out on our own
Corporate culture shifts are a great first step, but corporate planning only addresses half of the issue at hand. Many words have been associated with corporations, but the words agile and quick are not often among them. Change within companies takes time. Companies are not going to transform into familiar places for Millennials to grow and thrive.
What’s more notable is that a gigantic gap exists in the corporate world today. Corporate leaders are not dedicating enough time and resources to teach young professionals as individuals how to be successful in the current corporate world. Whereas many companies have comprehensive orientation conferences and assign mentors to new employees, most do not give each young professional the tools needed to understand how to maneuver complex corporate environments.
This leaves most of us with one option: to figure it out on our own.
It has been said that you never truly learn a lesson until you experience it yourself, but there is a better way. Enter The Young Professional’s Guide to the Working World. This book contains lessons (six years in the making) from my career. By successfully applying the advice you are about to read you will be ahead of your peers, no matter how many years of work experience you may already have.
Some of my false expectations about the working world
Because there aren’t any courses on how to build a successful career, it is important to understand what the corporate world is and what it is not. Here are some of the expectations I had entering the corporate world that were completely false:
- You will get a raise every year. When the economy is bad companies use excess cash for things like keeping the lights on and retaining customers.
- The higher your performance rating, the higher the raise. Politics are also part of the equation. You don’t always get what you think you deserve.
- If you are a top performer you will always get your way. More humbling stories to come.
- You are smarter than everyone else. Good companies tend to hire intelligent people, and as you make your way up the corporate ladder the people get smarter and savvier. Plus, these corporate leaders already have one more thing than we do: experience.
- You can behave at work just as you did at college. Many of us understand that this is false, but sometimes we make mistakes. (Think about company events that involve alcohol.)
- You will be rewarded for being loyal to your company. With such high pressure to meet quarterly earnings estimates and aggressive goals, corporations can make taking care of their people an afterthought. Dollars and cents trump people.
- All of your coworkers will like and support you. There will be people who won’t like you. It may be because you are better at your job than they are. It may be because of a rumor someone made up about you, or it may even be because they think you looked at them weird once. No matter how nice you are, it will happen.
Now that we’ve proved some of my grandiose visions (and maybe some of yours) wrong, let’s talk about some brutal truths about the working world that I learned the hard way.
6 things I wish I knew before I started my career
- Promotions don’t come around often. I had thought that as long as I was good at doing my job then I would be on the path to moving up to the next level. I also had this idea that it would happen fast. If you want to be CEO of a company, start your own. Or plan on taking 20-plus years to reach that level at a large corporation.
- Jumping around from company to company does not look good. Working for four different companies in your first five years of work experience is a bad thing. Many friends and colleagues have taught me this lesson. A diverse set of entry-level experiences can be good, but if you start to show yourself as someone who jumps from place to place it will seem as though either (a) you have no idea what you want to do in your career (which may be true, but you don’t need to let others know this), or (b) you lack resiliency and follow-through and therefore would not be a good hire.
- You often won’t have control of your own career. This one was hard to swallow. I have found that the way to move up within a company (especially a big one) is to say yes when the higher-ups tell you to take on a new position or move to a new place. If you say no two or more times, they will stop asking and will find someone else who will say yes (which could potentially stall your career).
- It’s not personal; it’s just business. People are important to companies, but the financial bottom line supersedes the individual.
- Your reputation alone won’t carry your career. Most of us have heard the phrase, What have you done for me lately? A strong reputation is an important thing to develop, but people often think of you according to your latest accomplishment or how well you did in your most recent role.
- Your boss cares more about his or her career than yours. I have been fortunate enough to work for some amazing bosses who have given me many opportunities and a great deal of exposure. At the same time, don’t forget that your bosses’ and their family’s wellbeing will always come before yours.
Despite the dreary picture, there is still hope
Although we don’t always have control over our careers, we can take ownership of our career path. We can seek mentors and work on being a constant learner (a mentor of mine calls this continually “sharpening your sword”). We can develop new skills and proactively seek challenging career opportunities that will stretch us to perform at a higher level.
You are already taking the first step in “sharpening your sword” by reading this book. A good second step is to leverage the peer mentorship and other resources available at YPEdge.com where you can interact with other young professionals and learn key advice from experts in the field.
Here’s why you should read on: SCHOOL DOES NOT PREPARE YOU FOR YOUR CAREER.
As you begin your career and start building a foundation to support the next 40 years of work you have two options:
- Take the time now to learn best practices and avoid common pitfalls, or,
- Learn the hard way by making your own mistakes.
By nature, we learn lessons through personal experience. Although this is one of the most effective ways to learn, I encourage you to learn from my mistakes and the mistakes of others instead.
Mistakes can be helpful, but also painful. I want each of you to be successful in your careers while keeping career-limiting mistakes to a minimum.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher from Young Professionals Guide to the WORKING WORLD, copyright 2013 Aaron McDaniel. Published by Career Press, Pompton Plains, NJ. 800-227-3371.
All rights reserved.