In Day 1 of my new life which has me as full-time CEO of Givkwik, I’m feeling a little introspective about the phase I’ve just ended.
If you include internships and summer jobs, I’ve spent 15 years in Corporate America, with a focus specifically on major financial institutions in New York City. I’ve worked for both the #1 bank in the country and the last AAA rated bank in the country (and as a summer intern, I’ve also worked in The White House). I’ve worked in Sales, Marketing, Customer Service, a little bit of Operations, and Product Management. I’ve called on long-standing Forbes 50 clients, as well as start-ups, non-profits and educational institutions. I’ve managed existing products, and built new products. I’ve written press releases, product briefs, and product demonstrations. I’ve developed business plans for projects ranging from $25K – $2 million, managed revenue portfolios of $2 million + and products with revenue of upwards of $.5 million. So I’m feeling a little confident about what I’m sharing here.
Along the way I’ve developed some simple rules for “success” in Corporate America. Here they are. I hope they bring you some insight and benefit. Like all rules, they’re made to be broken. So nothing here is gospel, and take them with a grain of sugar or salt. If they do help you though, please do let me know!
1. Always put it in writing.
Whether it’s a request for a promotion or simply a clarification of next steps. Be the employee who puts together a well crafted email that can serve to provide clarity as to the tasks at hand, as well as next steps. This is also even more important with respect to career development. Put your goals, expectations and concerns in writing and keep it documented. In that way, you’ll never have a he said/she dispute at bonus time, because you’ve left a paper trail.
2. You don’t get what you don’t ask for.
This rule should really be # 1. Make sure you formalize your requests in writing AND make sure you submit them! Don’t be afraid to ask for things, but also hone your skills of “the ask” and prepare against any objections in advance. Do everything in your power to make what you ask for a yes/no answer. In other words, don’t force someone to have to do their own homework in order to make a decision in your favor. Do the homework for them, “the more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war.” As you prepare your pitch document that requests something, illustrate both sides of the decision and the pros/cons of each. Lay it all out for the decision-maker to the degree that he/she truly believes there is no further need for discussion and it is simply a thumbs up or down vote. Otherwise, you are at the mercy of the decision-maker’s interest, commitment and schedule, and who knows then when the decision might be made? This rule also helps when you get to Rule #5, “Minimize surprises.”
3. Learn the rules so you know how to break them, properly.
There’s a ton of bureaucracy in Corporate America. Sometimes it feels like it’s one endless game of “Cover Your @$$,” and so within that, you have to learn that there are rules and there are ways around the rules. If you simply play to the rules, you’ll never get anything done. Learn the grey areas and learn to feel comfortable in those areas… My motto is “attack the grey area,” before that grey area becomes written in black and white (and set in stone) and then you’re at the mercy of someone else’s plan. If you fail to plan, you end up being part of someone else’s plan.
4. Become an expert in 2 things because one of them, inevitably, will become obsolete.
First there was paper, then there was the web, now there’s mobile, what’s next? Expertise is transitory and temporary. Be that person that is known for always striving to learn new things! This rule is especially true if you are a young employee or new to an environment. When I first started out in banking, my peers generally had 10, 20, even 30 years of experience. It astounded me that some folks had been working in the same company for longer than I had been alive. So in comparison, I could never achieve that experience. However, since the only thing constant is change, and business is a dynamic place, I’ve always looked out onto the horizon for “what’s new” for our business and sought to become an expert in that. With respect to the future of business, everyone’s on the same playing field, especially if it’s a new technology. When I first started in banking, the Internet and .com boom was in full effect. That was what I aligned myself with, so that even though I was only a few years removed from college, I knew and understood things from a technology perspective that a 25 year veteran of banking still struggled to grasp. In that case, then, I became the indispensable expert and the perception of my inexperience became moot.
5. Minimize surprises.
If you document, and document well and keep people in the loop all along the way, everyone wins. This goes for promotions and merit rewards as well. This rule contributed to my promotion to Vice President at JP Morgan Chase at the ripe age of 27 years old. I used it simply. When I first started as an Associate supporting a team of Senior Sales Officers in the Insurance and Healthcare industries, I realized my short-comings with respect to experience. So I went about interviewing my other 5 colleagues on my team, with the simple questions “knowing what you know now, what would you do if you were in my place and looking to learn as quickly as possible?” They, thankfully, were all generous with their answers and insights which I documented fully and converted into a proposed Development Plan which I then shared with our manager. I basically laid it out as such with my manager, “this is what I think I’ll need to do over the next year to justify getting promoted to Assistant Treasurer (the lowest level officer title in the Bank), do you agree?” He proceeded to review the document, actually suggested removing a couple of things and agreed. So, I then went about my business for the remainder of the year completing the plan that I created and voila, I was promoted to Assistant Treasurer by the end of the year. With that success, I simply repeated the formula two more times (from AT to Assistant Vice President, and then from AVP to Vice President). Each time worked pretty effectively.
6. Never underestimate the value of a well-written email sent at the opportune moment.
50 years ago, it was much easier to manage employees. Factory workers all had their work specifically defined, and output per worker was standardized. Managers knew how long it would take for you to do your specific task and so they could more easily manage expectations of your output. In this day and age of the “knowledge worker,” Corporate Americans are struggling to understand how long innovation takes. And so, there is flux as to those definitions. For the worker, who needs to find mental breaks in between his information deliverables, occasional disconnection is vital. All that being said, if you like to slack off, just pick your spots and re-connect with a well documented communique that can make it seem like you worked all weekend. Make it so well written that your manager is inclined to forward it and take the credit for himself. If you get there, then it doesn’t matter that you spent the past hour in the bathroom stall playing “Draw Something.”
7. Good technology makes bad process, worse faster.
There’s a saying, “if you are a hammer, everything else looks like a nail.” With increasing emphasis on technology and innovation in Corporate America, we’re often inclined to try to introduce new technology to “fix” old processes. While I’m all for innovation, what’s important though is to make sure you’re not simply adding an extra layer of complexity to an already damaged foundation. So, make sure that if the current operational process is manual, that the flashy new website or mobile app you’re building also includes a re-engineering of your operations process so that the entire flow provides value, not just the customer-facing piece. Be sure to get to the root of an issue rather than try to gloss it over with window dressing.
8. If it is between your career development and your boss’ ability to go home at a reasonable hour, realize he’ll pick the 5:01 train.
This rule is absolutely critical to managing your own professional development. You have to understand that no one particularly cares about your professional achievements but you. And just like you, your manager is just as preoccupied with his goals and his personal life. Do everything possible to reduce the processes associated with promoting you and advancing your career down to a simple yes/no answer. If you rely too much on your manager taking the extra steps to build the business case for promoting you, you’ll be waiting a long time. Take the extra step to write the business case for him/her and do so in a passive voice that allows your manager to “adopt” your write-up as his/her own if necessary. Many sales processes of any product or idea are based on “cultural decisions,” in that, more than one person makes the decision and the decision occurs in waves across many areas. When you’re looking for a promotion or an expanded role, realize that there are a lot of players involved in that decision: Your boss, your boss’ boss, your peers, HR and other administrative support. At any one point, the decision could be derailed for many reasons. You must realize this and address those areas directly and personally such that by the time your decision arrives on their desk along the timeline, it is also a simple yes/no decision for them, as well.
9. Figure out: “Just do it” versus “Get ‘er done”
My first job out of college was as an Associate at JP Morgan Chase. I was placed in a Development program that placed me in various rotations within their Global Payments and Treasury Services division. After I completed the rotations, I was placed as a junior Sales Associate supporting the Insurance and Healthcare industries. So my first real training as a professional was in Sales and Relationship Management. It was there that I learned this rule. In Sales, you’re expected to be a quarterback, who manages the team of individuals supporting the customer. It’s important not to get caught up in the daily execution of supporting a client, but to see the big picture and delegate as effectively as possible. Sometimes, however, relationship management also requires a rolling up of the sleeves and so that’s why it’s also important to know when that right time to get more involved is. Remember though, if you delegate you had better document as well. It’s important to keep track of what’s going in and who’s responsible. It’s all a delicate balance.
10. Expect to be promoted to the next level, only when you are doing next level work.
This last rule is probably the most challenging. Since we live in a merit based society, and we try to play by the rules of “no surprises,” this rule becomes a challenge. You think to yourself, “well, I’m doing VP level work, so they should promote me.” That’s almost accurate. Basically, you have to understand that most promotions to larger responsibilities aren’t based on a notion that you’ll grow into the role. Most of these successful promotions end up being somewhat anti-climactic, in the sense that if your promotion is justified, then its because you were pretty much doing the work already and the culture surrounding the decision has already acquiesced to this fact, so much so that it’s a fait acompli. So the real trick is to find your way into doing next level work and remind your colleagues and superiors of this fact as often as you can (without being overbearing), and have a little patience.
* * * *
So there you have it. My 10 rules for surviving and thriving in Corporate America. Of course different rules apply to different people, but I’m curious as to what your thoughts are on this topic. Feel free to leave me a note here. I do plan to come back and elaborate on some of these explanations, so stay tuned!