Better Mondays - Chapter Two | Part Two
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Chapter Two | Part Two - Choose Wisely
Your success will be determined by your immediate supervisor.
There is no better predictor of your ultimate level of success than the quality of your relationship with your immediate supervisor. This includes not only the boss you’ll interact with on a daily basis but also those who work at the highest levels of management, some of which you may never personally meet until you begin moving up through promotion.
These decision-makers generally fall into three groups: Your direct supervisor, middle and upper management, and the owners (if the company is privately owned). These are the people in charge, and they will ultimately determine your future, regardless of the activities you perform on a day-to-day basis.
Does this mean your daily job performance isn’t essential to your career? No, it means your relationship with those in charge will have MORE to do with your success than your work accomplishments.
Don’t believe it? If you’ve been on the job for several years, you’ve no doubt questioned some of the promotions given to co-workers because you knew the recipients were either unqualified or undeserving. Even if the lack of qualifications wasn’t outright obvious, the circumstances surrounding the promotion were suspicious in merit. Conversely, how many dedicated employees can you name who did outstanding work, and yet were ignored, year after year?
If you’re just starting your corporate career and have little to no experience dealing with organizational hierarchy, I’ll assure you, the number on both sides of the fence—those who receive undeserved positions and those never recognized for outstanding work— is enough to justify the premise.
Examine the company’s senior management.
What kind of people are they? Conservative or innovative? Do they typically default to the status quo? Or do they readily adopt new technology, processes, and procedures?
If you can’t personally meet with members of senior management, this may require a few calculated assumptions based on what you learn from the environment, your future manager, and other employees with whom you’re able to speak. Start by researching each manager’s history. Compare their career paths. Did they start their working career with the company, or were they hired from a previous employer? If they came from another company, was it one within the same industry, or from an unrelated field? In their previous position, were they credited with reversing negative situations or profits? What kind of legacy did they leave?
Once you have a sense of what drives senior management, ask yourself this: How does your personal goals, objectives, work ethic, personality, education, and experience compare to the ten most influential managers in the company? The top ten in any company represent the “model” manager—the type of person the board of directors and owners count on to make consistent and acceptable decisions year after year.
If you find that your mindset is so different from the mentality of the most visible company managers that the idea of sitting down with them to chat about your future relationship with the company makes you uncomfortable, you need to look elsewhere.
To familiarize yourself with the company’s management style before accepting any job offer, use these four qualifying questions:
1. How successful are the previous new hires that started at the same entry position, after three, five, and ten years?
2. What does the company’s growth history look like over the last five, ten, and twenty-year periods?
3. What are the short and long-term priorities of senior management (for example, to maximize profit, aggressive expansion, conservative growth, or to sell the company)?
4. Before accepting the position, will you be granted permission to speak privately with any of the employees, especially those working at the same job offered to you? Although there will always be employees who can find something wrong with their employer or express dissatisfaction with their work situation, the consensus of those you talk to should confirm a positive relationship with the company.
Plan on doing at least as much research about the company as they will do about you. For example, interviewers ask for references because they want third-party verification that you’re honest, loyal, trustworthy, and have accomplished the achievements you’ve listed on your resume. For you to do the same is sensible and prudent.
If your preliminary examination is positive, ask the hiring manager if you could spend an hour in the office where you’ll be working. A potential employer should interpret your request as a positive sign. It says you’re interested in the job and you want to invest more time to make sure the future relationship between you and your employer will be a good one.
Bob Sutton, a Stanford Professor, organizational researcher, and best-selling author of The No Asshole Rule and Good Boss, Bad Boss, takes it even a step further. He advises his students to take a long and careful look at the people they’re going to be working with because the odds are overwhelmingly in favor of you becoming like them, instead of them becoming like you.
As you evaluate your potential co-workers, keep in mind that most will be on their best behavior, so it may be difficult to come to any hard and fast conclusions. Do your best to draw them out with questions that can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” How do their values, beliefs, and priorities compare with yours? Can you imagine yourself “fitting in” with the majority of your future work-mates? If not, there’s a good chance you’re going to be miserable, and it’s just a matter of time before you’re looking for a way out.
If your request to visit with company employees is refused, or you’re told you’ll see the working environment after you’re hired because it’s against “policy,” or your presence would be a disruption to the employees, it’s a red flag. Any company genuinely interested in hiring you should welcome an extensive evaluation of what they are offering. And that includes allowing you to engage in conversations with your future co-workers—or better yet, take several of them to lunch so you can chat outside the work environment.
Keep in mind there are a few exceptions for being denied the chance to meet and mingle with future co-workers.
1. You’ll be replacing a current manager or another employee who is currently on the job, and the existing employee doesn’t know they’re on the way out.
2. The working environment is a high-security facility, and your presence could compromise the integrity of proprietary information or processes. (Yes, you can agree to sign a non-disclosure agreement, but if you end up going to work for a competitor, how long will what you learned remain a secret?)
If you run into either one of these roadblocks, ask if you can meet with at least two co-workers at a location away from the work-place. If a supervisor must be in attendance, and you get the feeling that he or she is preventing a candid and honest flow of conversation, ask the employees if they would mind an after-work phone call if you have future questions. Promise you won’t be a pest or ask for more than five minutes while on the phone. Yes, this is a bit unorthodox, but obtaining uncensored feedback from those who know the day-to-day drill is essential.
Eliminate any company that rules its employees with Draconian oversight. Based on the type of work being done, this can be a very subjective observation. But if your work-place visit makes you uncomfortable because of picky or overly-zealous rules concerning the use of cell phones, personal items in your workspace, email, dress codes, internet use, or the need for a doctor’s verification to take a sick day, ask yourself if that’s the kind of environment you want to work in. Rules designed to restrict distractions, inhibit physical movement, or promote conformity, are not only an indication of a poorly managed company; they reflect poorly on the people who work there. Are they such an unprofessional, rowdy bunch that restrictive rules are necessary?
Determine if the company is a good match for your income expectations. That goes for both now and in the future. As new engineering college graduates, my senior class constantly compared salaries offered by the largest employers. These included giants like GE, Westinghouse, Texas Instruments, Allied Chemical, and Motorola. In our minds, the starting salary was a default consideration. In other words, if a company was offering less than the minimum average threshold for graduate engineers, we gave them secondary consideration—or outright disqualified them. The starting annual salary was our first and highest priority in our evaluation of prospective employers.
And it was a perfect example of being short-sighted.
The better way to evaluate an offer of compensation? If your income goal after five-years of working is $200K, you should make sure the company under consideration has employees currently making that level of income who have the same capabilities, education, and experience you’ll possess five-years in the future. And just as important, you need the assurance there will be room for you when you’re ready to ascend to those levels of responsibility and compensation.
For example, if your research reveals the only employees making $200K are two vice-presidents, what events would have to occur to ensure you have access to one of those positions in five-years? Are those events realistic?
Keep your longer-term goals in mind. While a company may not meet your five-year expectations for income, there are still plenty of reasons to take the job—as long as those reasons directly apply to you. Maybe you’re looking for a stepping stone, a place to gain experience and obtain the credentials you need to move to another, more appropriate employer.
If the job can serve as a spring-board to bring you closer to where you eventually want to be, the annual starting salary is not your highest priority. However, if the company represents the very best employer in your chosen field or industry, and it’s where you want to spend as much of your career as possible—and yet, the salary doesn’t meet your expectations—you may need to re-evaluate the priority you’ve placed on income.
Determine what drives the company’s “big picture” reality. Look at its history. Has it purchased smaller entities and converted them into divisions after spinning off products and people deemed non-profitable? Has it made a practice of laying-off highly paid employees and replacing them with less costly new hires? If so, the company worships profit, and you and your future value to the company will be evaluated accordingly.
For example, if you’re an independent, balls-to-the-wall, take no prisoners, win at any cost, kind of guy or gal, and you go to work for a company whose highest values reflect conformity to the system, you’re going to be miserable. Conversely, if you enjoy structure, meeting procedural standards, and thrive in an atmosphere with a high level of organization, the same company could be the perfect fit.
Privately held versus public ownership . . . Does it make a difference? Never underestimate the importance of who owns the company. A privately-held firm will tend to favor family and close friends for coveted management positions—even when a non-family employee has shown themselves to be more capable. In many private—and typically smaller—companies, the most important factor for advancement is a blood-tie. It’s not unusual for the majority stockholder in a private company to also be the CEO. In this situation, there is often the common understanding that a favored son or daughter will be the guaranteed successor. So unless you plan on marrying the owner’s daughter or son, your advancement in a closely held company may be limited by a lack of kindship.
There is, however, one offsetting advantage offered by a private company that few larger companies can offer. In general, your ability and talents will be noticed sooner and more rapidly rewarded. Even if top management positions are limited to those with a family relationship, there’s usually less bureaucratic structure and fewer politics to deal with—to a point. So if a small private enterprise is at the top of your list, the benefits of rapid recognition and advancement might outweigh the limited access to a chief management position. Just keep in mind that while a divisional or regional manager’s job at a private company may be available to you in half the time (compared to a Fortune five-hundred), that may be as far as you’ll go. If a vice-presidency is what you want, and history indicates these jobs only go to family members, you’ll have to look elsewhere.
What is your gut telling you? When you think about working there, are you excited? Or are you wondering if there’s a better choice? If, after doing as much research as possible, and hopefully visiting the office or facility in which you’ll be working, you still have concerns—about your immediate boss, the potential for advancement, or the working hours or conditions—it’s time to take another look at the specifics.
First, determine if your concerns are really about the job, or if some aspect of the work jeopardizes a healthy life-work balance. For example, if weekend work is required and you’re not prepared to give up a half-day on Saturday, the company isn’t the problem, it’s your priorities. If your personal time is more important than your career, then any job that involves weekend work is going to generate the same concerns. If that’s the case, you’ll need to redefine which industries and type of work are a better “fit” for your personal priorities.
Just as important, if you’ve got “red flags” going up over the specific nature of the job or you feel uncomfortable with the expectations of management because their criteria for evaluation is too subjective, vague, or conflicts with your values and beliefs, you need to face the truth: The job isn’t right for you.
Don’t confuse immediate ego-gratification with long term opportunity. It’s one of the biggest mistakes you can make: Taking a job because it represents a prominent position with a prestigious firm, and yet, you know you’ll have to force yourself to tolerate the day-to-date work because it’s not what you really want to do.
Don’t let your ego make you miserable. If there’s even the slightest chance your choice of employer is driven by the need to impress or influence others, or to gain the respect and recognition of your friends or family, read the next paragraph very carefully.
Those who truly care about you will want you to choose a job that makes you happy. Others could give a rat’s ass about your success. Remember, the more success you achieve, the more your fair-weather friends will distance themselves from you. They will not want to be reminded of their own frustrating, mediocre existence. Make sure you really want the experience of what you’re going after and not just the IDEA of having it because of how you will impress or influence others around you.
Still struggling with the decision? Unsure where the problem lies? Ask yourself the following:
1. Why are you considering this particular job? Make sure you’re intentions are driven by a love of the work, participating in the daily grind, and feeling good about yourself and how you’ll be spending your time.
2. Are you ready to commit to the work? Good intentions won’t pay the bills. You may fully intend to give it everything you've got, but all those good intentions won’t matter one iota if you don’t have the motivation, stamina, and actions to get the work done.
3. Is this something you could do for the next two, five, ten, or even twenty years? No, it’s not meant to sound like a jail sentence, but spending that length of time working at the same company shouldn’t feel like one, either. Yes, you can always quit later if things “don’t work out,” but that approach usually means you haven’t done enough research or you’re not ready to fully commit.
I’ll finish this chapter with a note about change in general
Make sure you’re not misinterpreting the general anxiety you feel about a life-changing event—a new job or career shift—as a warning about a specific company or the circumstances of the workplace. It’s normal to experience some apprehension over starting a new job, especially if it involves moving to a different location. That kind of anxiety comes from anticipating the unknown effects of change, and in this case, it’s the normal resistance we feel when thinking about that uncomfortable period of adjustment while we learn where the bathroom is located, find the best place to eat lunch, and deal with the idiosyncrasies of new co-workers.
Do your best to separate your general feelings about relocating, leaving friends and family, and acclimating to a new routine or location, from the actual work and the company environment.
If you’re still unsure about your decision, but can’t turn the job down without wondering if you’re making a mistake, the only way you may ever know if the position is right for you is to accept it—conditionally. This means making an agreement with yourself to accept the offer and work for two or three months, then re-evaluate, using the same questions and vetting methods above. You may need as much as six months to make an accurate evaluation, but take the time and learn what you didn’t know before accepting the job.
For some, this approach may represent an ethical dilemma, but I assure you, the company is hiring you on the same basis. There are no guarantees, and any offer of employment is conditional on performance and adaptability. There’s no reason not to make that arrangement a two-way street. Just make sure to keep your side of the on-going evaluation confidential.
(Note: This suggestion comes with its own sets of risks, specifically of being labeled a “job hopper.” I’ll go into detail about what this means and how it can affect your career in a later chapter.)
Thanks for reading,
Roger A. Reid, Ph.D. is a certified NLP trainer with degrees in engineering and business. Roger is the author of Better Mondays and Speak Up, and host of Success Point 360 Podcast, offering tips and strategies for achieving higher levels of career success and personal fulfillment in the real world.
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