My first job was as a closer for my step-dad’s booth at woodworking trade-shows across the United States and Canada. I was eleven, all of 70lbs and it was totally overwhelming to deal with a line of adult customers, trying to calculate taxes. But there was nothing quite like getting $200 at the end of the long, exhausting weekend. From then until I was nineteen (I think), I would go on the road maybe once or twice a year with him.
My second job (not including the hot-dog stand summers in junior high and early highschool) was working at a small electronic components company in Orange County, where I learned a lot but was extremely unhappy. My third was working for the family’s business, for six and a half years.
The flexibility afforded by working for family allowed me to audition and pursue the arts. For a long time, even though I knew I couldn’t be at my parents’ company forever and was ready for new horizons, I balked at giving up that freedom to pursue something more…boring. My first experience of typical office life had been troubled, to say the least, and rife with micromanaging. Somehow, even as a functioning adult, I made the mistake of placing all offices under the experience of that one.
All this to say, I never thought I would live the 9 to 6 life and actually enjoy it. No way. Not me. Despite the fact that this is my current situation, the starving artist in me resists it at times.
Even so, I now find myself happily employed at a financial firm, where I am expected to be at my desk by 9a and leave at 6pm, if not on the dot then slightly later. I am surrounded by the kind of high-level decision makers that are depicted in movies as heartless and unavailable, who have short answers and very little time. When someone asks me to do something, I am expected to get to it and with vigor. So how is it that I am happier now than I was anywhere else?
Financial security is certainly a factor. The building is nice, the area is safe, the pay and benefits are great, the people are pleasant, there is little to no emotional drama and–bonus–they feed us! But that’s not why I am happy. Plenty of people have such jobs and complain incessantly.
The fact is, I love living among lions.
Those who make incomes other people often either dream about or judge, who make the kinds of decisions that shift industries, are not sitting on their hands all day, smoking cigars, drinking bourbon or spending their creative energy on how to keep the little guy down. From what I can tell, most of them aren’t old-money types and plenty came from non-Ivy League universities. Assuming these people had everything handed to them is a lazy interpretation and, frankly, excuses the rest of us from having to really look at why people do well. But that’s a topic for another blog.
Today, I want to talk about how to thrive among lions–people who will stop at nothing to get to their goals, who are shouldering more expectations than you could possibly imagine and that I am only now beginning to appreciate. Here are some pointers for those of you who are, who will or who want to deal with the lions of industry.
Let’s start with a little story.
It’s 8:30a and you’re in the elevator. You didn’t sleep very well, because your second child was up, sick. You’re thinking about a worrisome data point in the analysis of a potential business move; it could mean killing the whole project. You’ve sunk a lot of effort into it already, but cutting losses might still be the best idea. It’s not great news. It’s a tough decision. It will mean a lot of meetings and a lot of explaining. You’re on the fence.
Even though it’s not an immediate thought, the gravity of your decisions is the backdrop for every move you make as a business owner. The continued existence of this office and its equipment, the vendor contracts, the A/C, the pens in the cup holders at the printer station and your ability to employ people depend on you and your team making a series of good decisions that outweigh any inevitable mistakes. And that must be kept up for years.
The elevator doors open. You’re in the office, now, and decisions with big pricetags are rolling around in the back of your head. There is a very small group of people (five at most) who can help you or, at least, not hinder the decision making process.
Ashley, the new administrative assistant, simply isn’t one of them.
Keep it simple.
Hopefully, that generic little tale helps you see a bit more clearly what these lions have going on in their heads when they walk into the office. Avoid engaging them unless they engage you, not because you’re afraid of them, but because you have stepped outside your own perceived right to be noticed and understand that they carry the weight of your employment–among other things you do understand, like family crises and children.
Naturally, there will be times when you have to ask for clarification. It will feel like you are ripping a band-aid off their solitude, when you step into a private office. And, frankly, you are. But sometimes it must be done. These people are never not doing something; that’s what it means to be high output in a high output world. You will always be interrupting a thought process, analysis, email or speed walk to another department. But, if you must ask, do so as simply and clearly as possible.
Be grateful for every minute you get.
Every question a lion answers, every chance you get to be part of the bigger picture by picking their brain, even for a few minutes, is solid gold. Ten focused minutes with my boss can clarify weeks of confusion, on how aspects of the company operate and interconnect. Instead of begrudging them for not inVeSTinGggg in you (as I have at times), be wildly and verbally thankful every time they do. Okay, maybe don’t get wildly verbal about your thankfulness, but say thank you. It never hurts.
Be prepared for variations of “Not now.”
There will be times when you drum up the courage to ask a question, ask it simply and the target will say that now is not a good time. I would be lying if I said this didn’t sting. But if you can’t take a little spice, it’s possible you’re on the wrong planet. See this as an opportunity to thicken your skin and let go of things that really don’t matter. I promise you that skill is a big reason why that person got where they are.
I have never met so many people who can bounce back so quickly from awkwardness in my life, who don’t take things personally and who “totally didn’t notice” that weird thing you just said or did. It’s actually kind of nice, because I can generally assume that my fumbling goes unnoticed.
They aren’t ignoring you.
To ignore you intentionally, they would have to be thinking about you. They aren’t thinking about you. They are thinking about a decision that could determine whether the company will continue to exist.
They will say if they need something.
If there’s one thing these individuals don’t have a problem with, it’s clarifying what they need. Until they have something for you, don’t follow them worriedly with your eyes. Get busy on learning a new skill (like Excel, for the love of all that’s good), go through the company’s marketing materials, read up on your industry. Seriously. They’ll tell you when they need something.
Engage them on their level.
Instead of being distraught about someone not investing in your career, as odd as it sounds, start investing in theirs. Instead of expecting someone to constantly leave their realm of thought to engage you at your level, enrich your own mind so you can engage them on topics they think and care about. Seek to understand the larger vision, their part in it and how you can help.
So far, I have read/listened to two books, several articles and am enrolled in two courses, to make myself more helpful within my company.
Don’t take things personally.
This requires releasing your right to take offense. The fact is, you haven’t earned the right to be thought or worried about yet. In my experience, places where you immediately matter in a positive way can very easily become toxic in the opposite direction. Undue attention too early has been, in my experience, a sign of micromanaging.
It is perfectly normal for you to not matter on a professional level in a new work environment. This does not mean you don’t matter as a person, but it’s not anyone else’s job to convince you of this fact. Sorry. And I say this as someone who tends to be over-sensitive. While it’s not comfortable for me and a part of me often hungers for validation, my adult brain knows that it is not my bosses’ or coworkers’ jobs to assure me–of anything. It’s normal not to get special treatment. Everything worth anything takes time.
Someone doesn’t say thank you to an email? Who cares. Your intra-company instant message goes unnoticed? Boohoo. They probably read it though the notification and didn’t see the need to open it. Someone’s tone was a little isn’t-it-obvious? Shrug. No answer to a question you asked an hour ago? Time to ask the next person who might have thirty seconds.
Don’t freak. Just go about being your awesome, resourceful, intelligent self. They gave you the job after all. Results will follow.
Don’t be offended if meetings are rescheduled.
And rescheduled again. This goes along with my previous point, but speaks more to understanding priorities. As much as they’d like to discuss the details of that tertiary filing project they gave you, when it comes to shifting priorities, that one is definitely going to the bottom of the list.
Take initiative when they assume you can do it.
If they give you a project you barely understand the edges of yet vaguely recognize, it means that they think they’ve given you at least most of the tools to complete it. When things have been explained once or twice, and an opportunity to demonstrate the skill arises, trust that person’s trust in you. Be bolstered by their faith!! Give it a hearty, solid attempt. Usually, a search through Google, the computer docs, my own notes, recent emails or the company’s contacts fills in any gaps.
And, honestly, those are the most satisfying projects. Because I really fought for it. Asking for help isn’t bad, but there are few things more depressing than asking a question you could have found in two minutes. And realizing that after wasting precious minutes with the high level decision maker. Don’t ask until you have exhausted your options or you are on a time-table. Then ask. And ask it clearly.
Read every email that comes through.
You may find yourself on department-wide emails. First of all, that’s a great thing. Secondly, assume that the information is for you and that someone wants you to know what’s going on, on a broader level. Many times, soaking you with a firehose is a busy person’s way of saying, “You may be doing this soon. I’d like you to study this process. Please, be prepared with email templates and a general understanding of where this fits into the bigger picture.”
More than a handful of times, I’ve been able to place seemingly unrelated concepts, names or next-steps that I wouldn’t have, if I didn’t spend half an hour or more reading through emails I barely understand. Your brain is magnificent–a master of forging connections and synthesizing information. Continue to expose it and you will have a eureka moment.
Attend every (Zoom) meeting you can.
The fact is, while a lot of crappy things have happened because of quarantine, one of the good things is that you will probably get the chance to sit in on meetings that would have been closed door if we weren’t all staring at our computer screens. Even the worst of situations presents an opportunity. Getting copied on a Zoom invite is an invitation and you can’t tell me otherwise.
So if an invite to a meeting you don’t understand pops up, accept it and put it on your calendar. Then mute yourself and attend it.
At worst, someone will instant message you and say you shouldn’t be in the meeting. Then you just sign off and no harm done. But they will see that you take opportunities when they come, that you’re interested in every aspect of the business (their life’s work) and that you are doing your best.
Seriously, it’s the definition of a win-win.
Spend time organizing your inbox.
If your company uses Outlook, hallelujah. That is a tool of mythic proportions. Use the “Categorizing” color tabs. If something about “Marketing” comes up, you can easily search that category and every email you’ve flagged as “Marketing” will show up. It’s literally saved me from asking dumb questions so many times. And when someone was looking over my shoulder, asking about that-one-email. Get real familiar with your inbox, babes.
Gosh, I hope it’s Outlook.
When in doubt, print single-sided.
These people care about the environment, but you’re not doing the forest any favors if something just has to be reprinted, because you did double-sided and the bleed-through of a good pen is unacceptable for official documents.
Saying you need to step out after four hours of solid work should not be a problem. If it is for your employer, better to find out now. Taking walks reminds everyone that you need fresh air and sun!
And those are my tips for thriving amongst lions of industry! There will be awkward moments. There will be moments where you put your head in your hands. There will be moments of epic confusion and error on new projects. They aren’t expecting perfection, just genuine effort and an appreciation for the work itself.
As Don Miguel Ruiz suggests in his excellent book The Four Agreements: Let your words be impeccable. Don’t take things personally. Don’t make assumptions. And always do your best.
Everything else follows.