For the corporate newbies getting a crash course in adulting, I would like to offer some advice from my personal (albeit limited) experience. I’ve been able navigate this realm that we call the corporate world with only a few small scratches. After 2 years I am starting to get the hang of things, so I figured I would try to save you some bandaids if you’re just starting out. If you’re either in an internship or in your first big kid job, you might benefit from some of the things I’ve learned along the way.
1. Reach out if you’re confused.
There are no dumb questions when it involves the scope of your own responsibilities. It is better to ask and be clear about what people need from you, than remain quiet and be unprepared. It might be intimidating at first, but if you need to clarify which data file you need to pull, which manager you need information from, or what day your task needs to be completed, ask. I can’t stress this enough. You do not want to be in a conference call, have the VP call on you to talk about Project ABC (that you were supposed to be working on), only to realize that you did a task for Project XYZ instead. Bad look. Instead, send a polite email asking for clarification before that touch-base meeting on Thursday. Or, check your colleagues’ calendars and send a meeting request for 15 minutes, to take the time to clear things up in person if you run into a snag. Your communication efforts will be noticed and appreciated for keeping you and your team aligned.
2. Don’t make assumptions.
Closely related to the pro-tip above, assumption is how things spiral out of control. Often, projects and timelines have soft releases or ambiguous deadlines. What I have found is that this is not just normal, but inevitable. Don’t assume that the ball has stopped rolling just because you haven’t received an update. You are responsible to iron out those deadlines, and you are tasked to figure out how to perform in an often hazy space. I am still working on this myself, but have found that to-do lists and self-imposed deadlines (that look official on your calendar) are at least a great way to start (to trick yourself into getting things done). Assuming that someone else will give you a structured to-do list or a step-by-step guide will inevitably lead you down the wrong path. Re-route it by owning the work yourself.
3. Ask for feedback.
And ask for it often. When you have your weekly or bi-weekly meetings with your manager, make a note to get a pulse on your performance so far. This will enable you to course-correct if there is a development opportunity for you before you get that end-of-year evaluation. Instead of being blind-sided and losing out on your merit bonus, make sure you know where you can improve so that you have the time to make those changes. If you’re in a more collaborative setting (like a team workshop or sprint), ask if what you’ve contributed is working, or ask if there’s something you can do to help others. When you make the first move to ask how you’re doing or what else you can do, it opens up the door to a two-way street for valuable support (or even mentorship) in the long run.
4. Share updates, even if you aren’t asked to.
When I first started as a contract-to-hire, I made a weekly update of the tasks I completed, the projects I worked on, and a list of questions for the following week (if I had any). I sent it to my manager at the end of the week every Friday, even though it was never requested. When the time came to evaluate my full-time hiring, I was equipped with a backlog of value that I could add to the company. It was the living proof. Having the well-documented process of my contract work leveraged my case to be hired full time. Since my field is in UX and design, I made a PDF portfolio for internal use of the visual work and research that I did. It was sent up to leadership to be the visual evidence of my value to the company. If not a portfolio, I would encourage you to make a backlog of your completed tasks and projects and your role within them, to have handy come that end-of-year or promotion conversation.
5. Offer solutions with your criticisms.
Let’s say you’ve been asked to look over something, and you provided your honest feedback. The person whose work you critiqued might be a little miffed that you’re not a fan of the document/ file/ design/ narrative. Don’t get defensive in response to their defensiveness (woah, meta). Take the time to put yourself in their shoes, and respond courteously. Explain why you feel the way you do, and offer ways to fix the items that you disagree with. It will let them see that you care about their work/ the project, and it will give you both the opportunity to elevate the thing it is you’re both working on. This formula can be applied to other things in the professional world, too. Like if you don’t like a software/ system/ process that you have to work within, take the time to research a better solution. That way, you can wrap up the bulleted list of concerns you have with a nice way to optimize or change it. Again, your efforts will be noted.
6. Always take the high road.
Don’t engage in the cantankerous environment that is the “break-room”. Often there is a vicious hurricane of negative gossip that broods there. If you hear someone speak poorly about the way the ship is sailing, you can acknowledge how they feel, but also try to provide a silver lining. I know that you might feel the same way as Negative Nancy– TRUST ME, I know. But in a professional setting, positivity can go along way. In fact, it rubs off on people just like negativity does. So if you feel someone bringing you down, you can do 1 of 2 things. Either nod along and don’t add fuel to the fire (typically a good option if you don’t want to ruffle feathers, or if it’s 4:59pm); or you can say for example, “I hear you, but you know, this could also be a blessing in disguise”! It might feel forced at first, but I challenge you to see the up-side of things when everyone else in the cubicles around you need a little nudge to look up. You’ll feel better, too.
Don’t forget that you are not alone in this alien, corporate endeavor. Everyone starts out with a little imposter syndrome. After a while, you’ll come to realize that literally everyone is just doing the best he or she can. It’s just that some people have been in this world a little bit longer than you, and are more used to it. You’ll get there. Heck, I’m not even close to being wherever “there” is yet. I think it just means getting to a point of being confident in your confusion; the point where you accept yourself for the work you’re putting in and are at least being recognized for trying. So go forth new adults, we’re in this together!