What I learnt at my first job

My first job was at a large company as a UI/UX designer for three years. In my time there, I also ended up wearing many other hats, such as project and account management, and also had a chance to polish my front-end web development skills.

I would not say I have experienced it all, but here are some things I’ve learned about working in a large organisation.

1. Always Over-communicate

In a large organisation, things only move as smoothly as you choose to communicate. The bigger the company, the higher the likelihood of information dropping on its way to the top or the bottom. If you do not regularly update your peers or your supervisors on what’s going on, miscommunication can escalate and end up involving plenty of people.

As such, I’ve always make it a point to over-communicate. Keep everyone in your team informed of what’s happening with any given project. If your colleague finds out something, such as some bad thing happened with the project from a third-party (read: water cooler gossip from another department), instead of from you when you already knew, it’s definitely not a good thing.

One habit I regularly practise is, if I’m involved in a particular email conversation that I know my supervisor would want to be in the know of but has yet to be included in, I would not hesitate to include him as a ‘cc’ in subsequent threads. I would also casually highlight the situation to him whenever I walk pass his desk. Waiting till the conversations spirals elsewhere, and having to update your supervisor later on, could lead to unnecessary misunderstandings or worse still, backtracking if your supervisor decides to weigh in on decisions much later into the discussion.

The main moral of the story is: keep your supervisors updated on the statuses of your projects and reach out to them even before they reach out to you. When you are pro-active in communicating, it creates an environment of trust and awareness that would hopefully result in less micro-management from your supervisor.

The same goes for working alongside your peers. Over-communicating creates a much better environment than the suspicion and mistrust that can come from under-communicating. Which leads me to my next point…

2. Do it scared, but do it anyway

In our Asian/Singaporean office culture, we often respect authority and honour the “ranks” in our offices. Moreover, for us Singaporean males who have served our time in the army, we have the tendency to bring the memory of our National Service days into our non-military offices.

People stereotypically associate hierarchical, large companies with words like ‘inefficiency’ and ‘poor communication’. Generally speaking, they would not be wrong that these are common woes.

Many people have an inherent fear of saying too much to their supervisors, especially in bigger, traditional organisations with more hierarchy, because nobody wants to be seen as the ‘gei kiang’ (act smart) kid who draws too much unnecessary attention to himself and doesn’t know how to keep his mouth shut.

While there is definitely a place for respect and honour, I also believe in having some measure of chutzpah (audacity) to speak up, in wisdom and at an appropriate time and place.

Even when I’m afraid to talk about the elephant in the room, I’ll tell myself that even if I have to do it scared, I’ll do it anyway. If I am unable to speak up to my supervisor about how something could be done better, more efficiently or with greater welfare for the people without sacrificing on quality, then I am not worth hiring in the first place.

A wise man once said that when we work in a job, we’re hired to solve problems, not contribute to the problem. If your supervisor has to solve every problem himself, then why did he have to hire you? He might as well pay himself your pay and do everything on his own.

3. You can be both personal and professional

Everyone says that networking is very important to advancing one’s career. But how does good networking happen? It starts with building good personal relationships with your colleagues in the office.

First Round Review had a very good article about Radical Candor, on how managers can be great by caring personally and then challenging directly. The anecdote goes: People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care. After reading the article, I believe that a similar principle can be applied to everyone in the workplace too.

This is something I’m still learning and growing in everyday. More often than not, most people draw lines between their professional and social lives: Work is work, a colleague is a colleague, anything that happens in the office which does not value-add to my personal development is none of my business.

But what if we turned this concept on its head? In truth, we spend most of our day with people who are not family, and whom we have to endure plenty of if we cannot call them friends.

You don’t have to be BFFs with everyone, but when you have to spend that much time together, it’s always great to know that someone cares about you, is for you, and will fight alongside you. If that’s what you want for yourself in the workplace, then it’s also your challenge to be that for your colleagues too. Smile, make friends, buy coffee, write appreciative notes, ask about their family and personal life, and be genuinely interested in their replies.

Relational equity is earned in these candid moments, and this will go a long, long, way when you have to work with each other or disagree professionally later on. You’ll be surprised at how much more phenomenal your work can be when you’re part of a healthy team.

Of course, culture is not always the easiest to build, especially from the bottom up. But a friendly face, a grateful heart and a listening ear could make potentially toxic environments so much more tolerable and hopefully, enjoyable.

To end, surviving the politics of large organisations is not always a walk in the park, especially in your first job where you start so small at the very bottom. However, a good spirit, perseverance and boldness will carry you far in your career no matter where you are and where you go.

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