I was having lunch with a client last week, and we were talking about our college years. We discussed how great it would be to go back in time with the knowledge we now possess. Don't get me wrong; neither one of us thinks we have it all figured out. We're only in our mid-30s.
However, as we see our 20-something counterparts (employees, contractors, vendors) navigate corporate hierarchies and seek out career development opportunities, it's clear they often make the same mistakes that my client and I made.
Often, these mistakes come about because they're missing some foundational rules for how companies work and businesses operate. When a critical event happens that impacts your career, some of this wisdom can seem like common sense (especially in hindsight) Yet, as is often the case with common sense, it seems to be rather uncommon when you'd most expect it in the workplace.
So, while I don't have a social psychology degree (MS in communications is as close as it gets), I did manage to navigate my 20s by making plenty of mistakes and several stops at different kinds of companies. Experience —in its raw and and messy form — is my qualification here.
Here are three unofficial career rules for your 20s:
1. Your manager is your world.
Ask any HR executive to talk to you about engagement and retention, and he or she will likely reference a quotation that mentions employees join companies and leave managers. The problem is, no one ever seems to tell recent college grads this. The only reason I became a believer of this idea is because I worked with several hundred HR executives in my late 20s. I heard the idea repeated on a daily basis.
So, how should 20-somethings interpret this rule? The idea here is to make your career decisions through this lens, starting with your decision to join a company. Don't join a company simply because it's doing cool things or because you're getting a good salary.
Join a company because you'll be working for an intelligent and motivating manager. Make sure you get to interview with that manager, and be weary of a hiring process that never lets you meet your manager. Even if you get the job, you could be in store for a horrible surprise.
Also, make sure you have an intimate understanding of what your manager cares about. Do not speculate. Do not read between the lines. Ask, and get a response. Your manager's response should define your mission at the company.
Don't get distracted by what your colleagues want. While it's important to play nice with others, your job is not to make your teammates happy or to make folks in other departments happy. Your job is to make your manager happy.
2. Listen more.
This rule applies to all age groups. However, I believe it's important to get into good habits on this front early on, or you will never recover. The bottom line is, most of us think we are good listeners. We'll constantly say phrases like,"I heard you," or "I see what you mean," as if they truly qualify that we're listening.
Make listening about relentless curiosity. Seek to understand as much information as possible about the issues that matter. Make it your goal to leave every conversation with more questions you want answers to. You should be insatiable on this front.
The reality is, when you learn about all angles of an issue, you're able to truly problem solve and contribute in a meaningful matter. Anyone, educated or not, can speculate on how to solve a problem. Very few people ask enough questions to decipher what the right solution is to a problem.
3. Don't make it about you.
There's a lot of articles about Millennials being selfish and entitled. Let's be honest: I think we're all a little selfish and entitled. The reality is, Millennials are likely more vocal about it.
The problem with making the work place about you is that you'll quickly be labeled as "not a team player." People end up interpreting your vocalization as disregard for the company and for the goals that are in front of everyone. Don't get me wrong; I know you don't think it's all about you. However, that's just the way it comes off.
The reality is, this all goes back to the first rule. Your manager is your world. If you find a manager who motivates you and and becomes your advocate, you'll never have to worry about yourself again. He or she will work to get you promoted, will work to get you the resources you need and will care about your well-being. Trust me, some of my favorite managers over the years have always proactively thought about my well-being without me having to bring it up.
I'm not singling out Millennials. These rules do apply to everyone. I've seen people in their 40s who don't seem to have a grasp of them. Unfortunately, I've also seen those same people endure the consequences of not applying the principles behind these rules.
Ultimately, our careers are characterized by constant change and growth opportunities. There's no certainty, especially when it comes to today's volatile corporate environment. However, if we can all bring back our focus to the things that matter most at work, then we can all succeed collectively.