What are some important lessons from the corporate world?
Early in my career, I searched for articles online on lessons from the corporate world, hoping to get some survival tips.
The internet was filled with fluffy advice which were not necessarily effective such as “Work hard and put in the extra hours!”; “Show up early, be the last one to leave!” or “Go the extra mile! Be proactive!”.
Many of these well-meaning advice were not exactly useful for me. Instead, I learnt the most from my own experience.
When I first started out in the working world, I made many rookie mistakes and been through some unhappy times. Looking back, I feel quite ‘paiseh’ about them. I take comfort in Alain de Botton quote of “Anyone who isn’t embarrassed by who they were last year probably isn’t learning enough.”
I decided to compile some of my key learnings in this post which would apply to many work settings.
Table of Contents
1. Be careful about giving feedback and suggestions
In the early years of our career, many Millennials are often idealistic and want to make a big impact. Often, we would not hold ourselves back from giving feedback when we are asked. We may even proactively offer ideas on how to improve processes, make things more effective and efficient.
We like to think to ourselves “We are on the ground! We are the ones doing the work. We know better after all.”
Sometimes, organizations also appear to encourage this by proactively asking for it. Yet, in many instances, this is for show – to help you feel like you are in control and have a sense of ownership so that you will be more hardworking and give more to the organization.
Often, they may even have good intentions – to strive to be a more democratic and open minded leader.
Yet, people may not always be what they want to be. I have witnessed situations where superiors claim “I am the most open to feedback. I’d be the first person to admit I am wrong when I am!”. However, when another staff gave constructive feedback, the reaction was rather negative.
Ultimately, it depends on who you are giving the feedback to. The idealist in me would love to believe that all leaders are those who truly want to serve, nurture others and make a bigger impact to the organization.
However, there is also the second type who climbs the ranks for power, control, recognition, and ego. They do not necessarily put the organization first but their own pride. By offering feedback or giving it, you hurt the ego of the latter and putting yourself in bad books.
The next time you’re asked for feedback, think about who the person really is first and assess your risk. Would he or she be able to take honest feedback? Or, does he want you to validate whatever he is sharing?
However you choose to respond, make sure it is empathetic:
“I think it’s important how you pitch your feedback to your superiors also. If you know he/she’s not open to direct feedback, can phrase it in a way that doesn’t feel like the current situation is bad and needs to be improved. Give the superior the space to decide whether to implement it instead of making him feel obliged to do so. And never bring up feedback in a group meeting unless you’re very sure the recipient can accept one in public. Test the water in a one on one session first.”
Kow Wei Hao
2. Don’t underestimate the importance of managing up
In the first few years of my career, I totally underestimated the importance of managing upwards. I cared much more about my results and job scope.
I simply had no idea how a superior would impact how much you get paid, how rapidly you get promoted, and how much you enjoy your work.
As I shared previously, if a superior doesn’t like you, you can be meeting your KPIs every single month but they will still focus on your shortcomings.
However, if you have a good relationship, even if you do not meet your numbers, they will cover for you, find opportunities for you and focus on the positive aspects i.e. how you sacrificed personal time and sent an email at 10 pm.
Even if your boss has some serious shortcomings, it’s in your best interest, and it’s your responsibility, to make the relationship work.
The mistake I made was that I used to be focused on business development first. The reason being – I got bonuses when new contracts were won for my company. I prioritized my main job scope above what my superiors assigned to me. While those tasks were not urgent (objectively), it was definitely super urgent to them at that given point in time.
In prioritising my main job scope above their requests, I completely neglected my number 1 customer who pays 50 percent of my pay cheque – my superiors.
After learning this lesson, I made it a point to prfioritize every task assigned to me from upwards over my main job scope. Every morning when I check my email, I do not open them in order of who sent first but who it is from. Everything from upwards get opens first and completed first. Anything else can wait.
3. Value alignment with your superiors is super important
It is not enough to just prioritize tasks from them. You also need to understand your superiors – what they want; their needs; personality traits and most importantly, what their values are.
If your boss values people who sacrifice personal time for work, schedule some emails at 10PM. If your boss values neatness, always keep your desk as clean as possible. You get the drift.
It is after all super hard to work with someone who has different values. Say, you believe in tiering customers according to how much they pay the company and potential value. However, he or she believes all customers deserve equal time and attention – then, that is a clear conflict in values.
The tricky thing about aligning values is that sometimes people do not say what they mean; do not even know their own values or keep changing their values.
To deal with situations like these, we must never believe anything people say or take it at face value. Instead, we need to observe their actions and make a judgement based on that.
People will always have their blindspots.For instance, I’ve seen people say “I am a very fair and just person!” but then exhibited blatant favourtism or have inapprioriate relationships in the office.
Or, claim “Everyone in my team is equally important!” but mysteriously pay Employee A $1000 per month more than Employee B despite both of them having the same qualifications and KPI.
The rule I live by is – Every time someone tells me something about themselves, I nod my head but then proceed to make my own judgement based on my observations.
4. If you want to get a pay raise, don’t blindly do more work or make sacrifices
Thanks to all the articles that I read about “Work hard and go the extra mile! Do more than your job scope”, I blindly followed the advice and wasted a lot of effort and time.
What happened to me when I asked for a raise? I was told:
“You earn $X per month, it is very good for someone your age already!…So what if you went the extra mile? Everyone here in this office does many things outside of their job scope.”
Then the hard truth hit me – I should not have blindly done so many extra things and overload myself, hoping that someone will see it, appreciate it and reward me.
All that led to was burn out, resentment because I was not getting recognition and not getting the salary I wanted.
Instead, I should have first asked what would be the specific things needed for a raise; establish a clear plan so I know exactly what I need to do to improve my case and get the agreement down in writing.
I feel that as Singaporeans entering the private sector, sometimes we need to let go of this idea of fairness and meritocracy. We grow up in a structured environment where things are in black and white.
Yet, expecting things to be like that in the workplace will not suit us. It puts us at a massive disadvantage.
5. In Singapore, personal branding needs to be done differently
A lot of articles we read talk about the importance of personal branding; standing out and putting yourself out there. In my view, some of this advice works if you are in a western country or if your peers are mostly from there.
I’ve observed a new hire once who was extremely proactive, enthusiastic and extroverted. He also promoted himself via LinkedIn. To the Americans, he was viewed positively.
Yet, many people in his team were Singaporeans. The same set of behaviours were viewed as “trying too hard”; “not being a team player”; “competitive and trying to 抢风头 and outshine others.”
Based on my own experience, I feel that Singapore is an Asian country after all and values conformity, not outshining too much and keeping a lower profile.
So, if many of your peers are from there, it is best to adjust accordingly rather than blindly follow those articles written by western folks. Personal branding need to adapt to different cultures. It can, and should, look different in Asia than it does in the United States.
If you’re lost on the best balance to strike, observe the people who get promoted in your company and industry. If it is those who are more subtle about promoting themselves, then it is best to adopt the same behaviour they exhibit, methods and extent which they put themselves out there.
In this post, I have summarized my main learnings in the past few years. I bet this list will grow longer this year and over the next few years as I make more mistakes and learn more lessons.
One book which has really helped me to Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t which is written by Jeffrey Pfeffer, Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University. In his book, he shared how to take advantage of social networks, build a reputation, and overcome setbacks. If I read this a lot earlier, I feel that I would have avoided a lot of mistakes I made in my younger years. You can purchase this book on Amazon here.
Adapting to the corporate world has indeed been tiring and a steep learning curve! I am still learning all the time and also constantly challenging myself to proactively know more people, meet them and learn as much as I can. I really admire people who are able to manage internally and upwards really well. If you have any good suggestions to share, please do so. 🙂
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