I’m frequently asked by people in corporate America what steps they could be taking to make their experience inside the paperwork jungle a little bit easier to get through each day. Some of my clients aren’t actually looking for a way out, they are looking for ways to make their mark, enjoy their day, and use some creativity in a job that may not be looking for that skill. Below is an awesome Employee Survival Guide by Bodo Albrecht, a business owner in New Jersey. I met Bodo virtually about a year ago on Seth Godin’s site, Triiibes. I also met him in person in January when we all went to Seth’s book launch for Linchpin. Bodo shares his experiences in the corporate environment and gives you straight up advice, no sugar coating here. So, if you’re looking for ways to stop ripping your hair out at work, keep reading.
Without further ado, the “Employee Survival Guide”
By Bodo Albrecht
Keeping your job in a large corporation is an art. Not many people are masters of this art although there are various approaches to surviving the seemingly random ups and downs a company is exposed to. Up front: I knew I’d never make it so I started my own business. I did, however, study a large number of people I met, people “in transition” with a fresh experience of what didn’t work, and people who seemed to have a lifetime job guarantee for mysterious reasons. Here is what I learned:
The essence of corporations is predictability. Shareholders don’t like surprises, and this kind of thinking is passed on to the board of directors to the directors, managers and so on. Companies are expected to perform according to their five-year budgets or slightly better, and that’s it.
As a result, entrepreneurs are unwanted by corporations. Entrepreneurs are risk takers, they are the unicorns in a balloon factory (check out “Tribes” by Seth Godin for the full story), they fail every once and so often. In Sales and Marketing, your boss may tell you “I want to you act as an entrepreneur.” – Trust me, he doesn’t mean it.
Following this line of thought further, there is little reward for actually achieving anything. I remember complaining about my salary when I was about 28 years old, to which my boss said: “how much do you think you will earn when you turn 40?” – maintaining uniform pay schemes is the goal, not rewarding success in growing your business.
Instead, there is great risk at failing. Corporations are rather unforgiving when it comes to that. Since the economy is never quite as good as the so-called analysts would like it to be there is an ever growing pressure on top management to produce five year budgets that will please their shareholders more than the competition’s. The result is often over-promising, which is then passed down to mid-level executives, the folks who actually make things work. Now everyone is under pressure and, like in the Savannah, the game is: don’t be the single (note: NOT the slowest) antelope. The single antelope is the biggest risk taker, the one moving away from the heard more than others, the one that has a higher risk of getting eaten by the lion. By staying in the heard and knowing how to play the game of “staying alive” performance of the individual is not so crucial anymore. Check out this book to learn why.
If that’s what defines you, and it took me 20 years to find out, then accept the thought that sooner or later it will be your turn. And be prepared.
There are, however, reasons why working in a large cooperation can be fun and fulfilling. A couple of my friends work in large companies, and they don’t have trouble liking the face in the mirror each morning because they have found ways of adopting to their environment. Here are the key elements I discovered, in the order of importance:
1. Don’t bitch. Understand that the company will never make it 100% right for you. They may put you in economy class on overseas flights, they may ask for a contribution towards your company car, they may count the windows of your office. What matters is if the big picture still works for you. Do you still like your job? Does it provide for you and your family? Are you being treated with dignity AND respect, as a human being? If the answer is “yes” then suck it up, don’t complain about the downsides in the wrong places. It will give you a stigma of being difficult to work with. It separates you from the herd.
2. Don’t overpromise. If you are good at playing with the internal systems even hold things back and push them into the next fiscal year if you have to. That’s easier said then done. I have seen sales managers being pushed in a corner by phrases like: “you don’t want us to shut your business down, right?” This is perhaps the ONLY time when sticking out your neck will work in your favor. The only acceptable answer is: “Perhaps stopping is what we should be doing, and here is my plan to make things better”. I have seen this scheme work in 4 out of 5 cases and the mechanism is simple to understand:
a. You are being asked to overpromise because your boss already overpromised to somebody else. He has more to lose than you do.
b. By not playing the game you are handing the responsibility over to your boss. Rather than being on the menu at year end your boss now has to make decisions himself. And most bosses don’t like to decide because of the risks involved (see above).
c. Refusing to play along is NOT an entrepreneurial decision in this case. Organizations don’t like radical changes (have I said that before?), so they are quite accustomed to restructuring here and there at a moderate level. In fact, moderate change is seen as a good thing because it may be seen as entrepreneurial activity. So all of a sudden you have become part of something new rather than being part of an unsustainable problem.
3. Set your priorities right. It hurts me to type that but: if you have a choice to meet your bosses’ deadline on supplying a document OR to call a customer back then you MUST deliver the document. You are marketing yourself every day, you are being judged by the visibility of your actions more than anything else, and you must make it your top priority. I realize this last bullet in particular is controversial. Check out this blog for more details on my reasoning.
The difficulty these days is that “good” companies are rather hard to come by. In the USA in particular mergers and acquisitions have lead to very significant changes in management style over night. Developing relationships coherently becomes increasingly difficult when people are dealing with new managers every two years, plus rules and working conditions overall may change very quickly, for the better or the worse. On the upside, if you don’t particularly like your boss you can rely on him/her to leave soon which will give you a fresh start. In fact, the constant reshuffling on a higher level can work as your job protection because no one has the time to look at the details (=you). Which is why the folks making the decisions in these environments ALWAYS need a parachute – if you are one of them check if it is operational.
What you can not afford is ignoring those changes; you need to watch them and, like a surfer, make sure you stay in the surf. I hope this collection of experiences will serve you as an instruction manual.