I had the occasion recently to talk with a young woman who had just started a new job. The money was great and the commute was ideal but she wasn’t happy. She wasn’t busy enough. Her new manager was literally a new manager and didn’t know how to manage. The other women in the small department were set in their ways, resistant to the digital tools that had recently been introduced (with which she was familiar and loved) and just friendly enough to keep them from being described as rude.
As we talked, she described the slights and bad communication she had endured in the past month and I could only hear all the opportunities that would allow her to flex her leadership muscles. Her healthy confidence didn’t extend quite that far; after all, she had been there only a month.
I get that. It’s only the hindsight of experience that let’s me get excited about what she can accomplish if she goes about it the right way. Her limited experience shows her a road ahead of never quite knowing what’s going on because her manager forgot to tell her and always feeling apart from the group.
I know she’ll do well. But our conversation triggered me to think about what I would suggest she – and all young people in the nascent part of their careers – think about, learned from working for managers who didn’t appreciate me, in positions from which I came home each night either crying, screaming or ready to drink. When I finally learned to stop complaining and instead focus on how to get ahead, I started seeing those awful managers as opportunities, thinking to myself “If X could be promoted to be a manager, there is no reason I can’t go far here because I know I can do that job now!” After that I never left a job without getting a bigger title and making more money in the next position and I never left a boss who wasn’t very sorry to see me go.
All employees – not just new ones – should focus on three areas: managing themselves, their manager and their team (or the larger organization). But the suggestions below are very much directed to a new employee:
- I’m a leader NOT a follower! The transition from follower to leader is a tough one, particularly before you get the title. In fact, many young women are reticent to assert their leadership when it hasn’t been officially conferred. Before you leave the house in the morning remind yourself that this is an opportunity to learn how to lead and real leadership is influence!
- Get real feedback. This is one of the hardest things to do and nearly impossible at a new job. Past performance appraisals often bear no relationship to real feedback. Can you call your last supervisor and ask for her suggestions on what you could do differently? How about past co-workers? Find someone who will be honest and take it. Do not get defensive. Do not get your feelings hurt.
- Your mantra is Positive Influence! This is important enough that it bears repeating: real leadership is about influencing a team, a department or an organization to move in a particular direction. Of course you want to get recognized for all you do and contribute to the team but you’ll feel even better about what you do if you know you’ve made a real difference in how the team functions.
Manage Your Manager
- Make your manager look good. This is incredibly difficult to embrace if you work for an idiot but it is a cardinal rule in corporate life. So many people I coach complain that their manager “steals” their ideas or doesn’t give them credit and so they’ve declared war. It doesn’t work that way. Suck it up. Ask yourself what you can do to make your manager’s job easier.
- Find your own project, preferably one that makes or saves the company money. Come to your manager with an idea you’d like to explore and why it makes sense for the company. Bonus points if it also takes a problem off her desk. You must get her permission to proceed. Keep her up to speed on your progress (and keep a written trail of what you’re doing). Do not let this project get in the way of your day job. Document the impact. Share the credit.
- Never say “In my old job we used to …” Do not make direct comparisons in which the new team, and the manager, fall short in comparison. But, if you think you have a better way of doing something, suggest it to your manager privately, explain why you think it will make the department more efficient, more productive (e.g., make her look better) and estimate the impact in dollars. Suggest a concrete test of your suggestion for a finite amount of time or with a few staff members to look at the results. Don’t get discouraged if your suggestion is ignored. Keep coming up with ideas.
Manage Your Team and the Organization
- Channel Elle in “Legally Blonde.” No matter how badly the other students treated her, she was cheerful, friendly and did NOT treat them badly in return. By the end of the movie, everyone looked up to her!
- Keep reaching out. Find out personal things about each person. Learn how this company celebrates birthdays or work anniversaries. Take part. Keep trying. Learn all the assistants’ names and use them.
- Learn from everyone. Ask each person what he or she wished they had known in their first few months on the job. Write it down. Organize an orientation approach for your team so the next newbie has it easier.
- Remember Positive Influence! It goes without saying you must never gossip or complain about the manager or other members of the team.
These lists are not exhaustive but they should get you thinking about how to take charge of your own career within an organization and how to plan your bloodless coup that will take you to the next level.
“Opportunity does not knock, it presents itself when you beat down the door.” – Kyle Chandler