Having recently celebrated my 15th year of employment with a Fortune 500 company, I came to the stark realization that I had spent my entire career in the ubiquitous “corporate world”. Large corporations with thousands of employees have their own distinctive environment, culture and atmosphere. And after spending 15 years of my life in just such an environment and culture, I have learned some unique lessons. Some the easy way. Others in a more painful way. So given this career milestone, I thought it fitting to record some of the lessons I have learned over the years. These lessons are not universal across all employment situations. But hopefully there is enough wisdom in these experiences to provide insight (and maybe warning) to those that find themselves in similar situations.
1. Continuously put yourself in a position to win
One of the biggest lies of the corporate world is that that you can make your own luck. But that is not the case – you cannot control timing. All you can do is prepare, prepare and prepare. And then, if and when a situation finally arrives for you to perform, you will be ready to excel. Now let’s be clear – that time may never actually come. There is no dishonor in that and that is not a reflection on your skills. But if you fail to prepare and that time to perform time DOES come, you will fall flat. That is what you want to avoid. And trust me, don’t try to scenario-out and speculate if a situation is “the big one”. On two separate occasions, the most innocent, throw-away projects that were assigned to me turned into the biggest wins. Many times you just can’t tell, so prepare for all of them.
2. Don’t burn bridges
“Take this job and shove it” is great for movies…and that’s where it should stay. People have long memories and I have witnessed people leave for jobs and try to come back, but fail because of the relationships that were damaged. I have seen people lose opportunities because of comments made after an interview when they thought no one was listening. To this day, I have my mental list of people that have burned bridges with me and those memories are hard to forget. So act professional at all times. And if you still insist on burning brides, make sure you are comfortable risking never returning to that situation again. Ever.
3. There really are bad people who will try to hurt you and your career…
Immoral. Unethical. Even illegal. I have seen it all. In a fallen world, sin will occur because every business, government, group and situation is comprised of flawed people. No one is immune. Some people act in these ways and just hurt themselves. Others will attempt to get you to join them. And then there is the group that will truly try to destroy you. Be prepared and plan for how you will response to all three. Because in the heat of the situation, your initial response may surprise you.
4. …but there are also a few good people that will try to help you
Do you best to find your circle of trust – this is your inner circle of advisers that will speak truth TO you. If you surround yourself with sycophants who only tell you what you want to hear, they will turn out to be frauds and will fail you at some point guaranteed. However, an inner circle that speaks truth is invaluable. And if possible, find a worthy mentor. A more-experienced, wiser (does NOT have to be necessarily older) person that is willing to answer questions and provide guidance. But as you ask questions, have a limited, specific plan of action. The more low maintenance the time commitment you make it, the better. Always be time sensitive and always be specific. And NEVER try to manipulate the situation – if you attempt that, see lesson #2.
5. Always, always, always develop new skills and improve yourself
I have witnessed so many people fail at this for reasons that I still cannot comprehend. If you are ever offered a training opportunity or are being encouraged to develop a new skill, take on a new project/task or pursue more education, always try to do it (if you are able). It is the easiest two-pronged attack plan: internally, it shows that you are engaged, interested in development and have initiative to grow. And to the external world, it makes you more marketable and valuable. It is one of the few win-win situations you will encounter in the corporate world.
6. Ears open, eyes open, mouth shut
Confession #1 – stole this saying from a former major-league baseball player who was attending his 1st All-Star Game and asked about his experience. But the wisdom is universal. Listen, observe and repeat. If necessary, talk. You will learn more things than you can imagine and you will prevent yourself from looking foolish as well. You will grow into “your voice” – just make sure the one you grow into has credibility.
7. You will make mistakes, even MAJOR ones. But the key is what you learn and how you respond
Yes, you should try to never make mistakes. And yes, you should try to never make the same mistake twice. But as you are building your career, what you learn from those mistakes and how you respond to those mistakes will make all the difference. Humility will serve you better than anger. Introspection will be a better guide than self-denial or blame-shifting. It won’t minimize the pain and, at times, the embarrassment of a situation, but it will give a direct path toward your ultimate goal: growth and maturity.
8. Decide early how you want to respond to injustice
The hardest lesson to plan for is how you intend on responding to injustice. That includes injustice against you and injustice against others. It could be discrimination, harassment, bullying, an illegal activity, and ethical breach or dozens of other possible examples. And this goes beyond just the formal steps that should be undertaken given your corporate code of conduct. This involves the ultimate question: what are you willing to sacrifice in your response to an injustice? A relationship? Your reputation? That next raise or promotion? Your entire employment and means of support for your family? A case study in an employment law class is one thing – being confronted with actual real-life choice with tangible consequences is another. Prepare yourself so that you don’t respond in haste and set off a course of events contrary to what you intended.
9. Prioritize your worry/caring
Confession #2 – stole this one directly from one of my bosses over the years. And at first, it sounds a bit mean-spirited. But once you break it down, it actually makes sense. This doesn’t mean that you don’t worry about your job or performance or care about people. It’s just the acknowledgement of the fact that you will have the option to worry or care about a LOT of things – the key is focus on the important ones and ignore the silly stuff. It’s all about priorities. Remember that inner circle of trusted friends…that’s a good place to start. And remember the intangibles like integrity, faith, reputation – the ones that are almost impossible to repair if allowed to be damaged.
So after 15 years, that’s my list. But let me be perfectly clear about two items. First, the only reason I have a list is that I have failed many, many times and it has been through my own errors and trials that I have been able to finally see how I should have acted. To this day, I have regrets regarding situations where I should have been a better employee, a better friend, a more positive influence to my colleagues. And secondly, I am still learning. Each day brings a new opportunity to apply lessons from the past or establish new lessons for the future. I am grateful for the experiences God has given me to provide for my family and provide value to my employer. Onward to the next 15…or so.