A Note to My Nephew
by Roger Reid
I have a nephew who reminds me of myself—the me from thirty years ago . . . aggressive, wanting to excel, battling the other “bright boys” also competing on the fast track, hoping to score a cushy corner office on the tenth floor of the corporate office.
I have no idea if he’ll read this. And if he does, if he’ll recognize the similarities—where I’ve come from and where he’s likely headed. I hope he’ll see the commonalities, and understand how quickly they can become consequences.
For the last several years, he’s been following the path laid out for him. The same path that has lured generations of young men and women before him, hoping it leads them to the mother lode.
But just in case it doesn’t—just in case the promises made by supervisors and managers don’t come to pass, or budget restrictions, company politics, and buy-outs suddenly derail his timeline for advancement—I’d like to offer a few suggestions:
- Temper your enthusiasm for your job with the understanding that you’re following a plan made by someone else, and other people’s plans can change in the blink of an eye. There’s always the possibility you could be caught in the crossfire and end up another casualty of downsizing, or corporate culture-shift, or mid-management reduction. It can happen with very little warning, so . .
- Be prepared. Not only with six months of living expenses and an updated resume, but with a heightened state of awareness, to recognize the warning signs, to act before the first salvo hits, to give yourself the advantage of time when you’re forced to make an alternative career move.
- Always make a positive impression. How others perceive you is often more important than what you accomplish. Much of your success in a corporate environment will depend not only on what you actually do, but what your superiors think of you. The corporation is one of those places where knowing the location of your boss’s favorite restaurant, his drink of choice, and his preference in sports teams can have as much impact on your performance review as your actual achievements.
- Realize that every successful career requires a commitment—from both sides. Bringing everything you have to a business relationship is great, but it must be a two-way street. If it’s one-sided for too long, trust and loyalty become contaminated with doubt and suspicion. The commitment you make to your job is always conditional, with the unspoken contingency that the other side will also live up to their promises. In this case, the company wants your loyalty, dedication, and a level of consistent performance that meets or exceeds their expectations. In turn, they offer compensation and the potential for a rewarding future. Make sure neither of you ends up shortchanged.
- Understand there will be days when you’ll feel you’ve been taken advantage of, unappreciated for your work, or flat-out snubbed in favor of the next guy. The key is to know if the situation is really true, or if you’re misinterpreting the circumstances with short term vision. When working for any large company, longevity results from successful compromises. During your career, you’ll be asked to do things that seem silly, wasteful, unnecessary, or downright stupid. You may even be used as a scapegoat, and then expected to respond with a professional, “company-first” attitude. Working for an employer means you’re pursuing their goals and objections. Sometimes they’ll mesh with your own. Many times, they won’t. But you do it anyway, because the company compensates you for it, and in the long term, you’re counting on the rewards outweighing the sacrifice. Whatever you do, avoid the temptation to complain, lash out at co-workers, or storm out of the office. Remember, tomorrow could be your day. But if you respond with an emotional outburst, I can guarantee it won’t be.
- Remember, your every move is being watched. You are always being judged and evaluated. “Is this guy a company man? Is he worth keeping? Should we consider him for promotion?” These are the questions management is constantly asking—about you. Make sure the answers reflect a constant stream of yes’s. And that’s true even if you don’t plan on staying with the company long term.
- Value your job as one of your most important assets. In spite of the popular trend toward entrepreneurship, there is nothing “wrong” with being an employee. Many employees are intelligent—even brilliant—hard-working individuals who are happiest when working on a specific task or project. Often doing their best work when it’s defined in terms of a goal or preferred outcome, they appreciate the organizational discipline a large company can offer. As an employee, there’s no divisional budgets to balance, no corporate taxes to pay or profit margins to worry about, unless it falls under the specifics of your job responsibility.
- If you see yourself on the other side of the parking lot, belonging to that group of competitive, politically-savvy fast-trackers who covet a vice-presidency, access to the company jet, and their picture in the annual report, then be ready to do whatever your company asks of you, because as a “company man,” your life must be decidedly unbalanced, with your first priority squarely focused on the needs of your employer. You will need to prove your worth with unquestioning loyalty while secretly managing your ambition with the sobering reality that you walk a tight-rope of accountability, requiring you to meet the subjective needs of the company’s most powerful and influential—any one of whom will not hesitate to replace you if you fall short of their expectations.
I’m going to keep a good thought and hope my nephew reads this. Maybe it will motivate him to ask a question or two, and then determine what’s true for him. If by chance it raises a few caution flags, I hope it leaves him better prepared to navigate around the confusing and often destructive detours in life that wastes our time and often leaves us feeling bitter and full of regret—especially as we get older. If nothing else, I hope he realizes his career—regardless of where or how he spends it—is only one aspect of his life. Granted, it’s an important one, but no more so than time spent with family or taking care of his health.
Most of all, I hope he enjoys the journey.