Beyond The Apprentice: What Young Employees Really Need to Know to Succeed in the Business World
By Alexandra Levit
When I landed a job in a top public relations firm after my college graduation, I thought the toughest part of my entry into Corporate America was over. I dumped my extra resumes in a recycling bin and eagerly awaited a paycheck that would scarcely cover my rent. I looked forward to worldly business trips, stimulating office brainstorms and hanging out with my co-workers every Friday at happy hour.
A few years later, I had never made it to a happy hour gathering because on Friday nights I was passed out on the couch. I held an entry-level position for sixteen months while people with half my intelligence and work ethic lapped me. My resume listed four positions in three years because I was always on the lookout for a better opportunity that would bring the ever-elusive job satisfaction.
Eventually, I considered joining the large numbers of my friends who were leaving the corporate world in favor of business or law school. The idea of going back to school is tempting, and why not? We're comfortable with the concept of school. We know how the story goes. If you work hard, you get good grades, and everyone is happy.
The business world, as millions see on NBC's The Apprentice every week, is another animal entirely. Politically motivated and fraught with nonsensical change, Corporate America is not a natural fit for ambitious graduates who leave school expecting results from a logical combination of education and effort. Suddenly, the tenets of success we were taught since kindergarten don't apply, for getting ahead in the business world may have nothing to do with intelligence or exceeding a set of defined expectations.
Today's employees technically have more occupational choices than previous generations, but since the turbulent economy has limited our options, we face escalating uncertainty about our careers. More employees seeking counseling than ever before, and job jumping due to stress and dissatisfaction has become the norm. Here are six tips to help you win at the business world's game:
- Develop a marketable corporate person: Think of yourself as a publicist with the task of promoting you. Learn to capitalize on your skills, succinctly assert your achievements and project a corporate persona – or your most mature, professional and competent face.
- Establish profitable relationships: Business networking is a valuable tool to gain information, increase your visibility in your field and make connections that will help you move forward in your career. Seek out new contacts and potential mentors whom you like and admire and whose interests you share. On the home front, don't expect your boss to figure out what you're all about. Determine her priorities, find out what she wants from you and brainstorm ways to surpass her expectations.
- Master transferable skills like goal setting, effective communication and time management: You might not know exactly what you want to do with your life, but transferable skills will serve you well no matter what future path you decide to pursue. Make your time count now by working with your boss to set specific, reasonable and attainable goals for your present position will help you advance to the next level.
- Stay motivated despite trying circumstances: There's no doubt that the business world can be frustrating, but remember that you can choose your response to your environment. If you make a conscious decision to begin each day with a positive outlook, negative conditions at work can't take that away from you. Aim to increase your self-awareness so you can better understand your emotional hot buttons.
- Get people to cooperate: Always keep in mind that other people don't care what you want – they want to know what's in it for them. By approaching negotiations with an attitude that allows both parties to win, you'll be more effective at eliciting cooperation and ultimately getting what you want.
- Be proactive about your career growth: Approach your performance review strategically by soliciting feedback on your progress, identifying new goals and growth opportunities and hammering out a long-term promotion plan. When asking your boss for a raise, be prepared with a list of contributions that have positively impacted the bottom line.
When you're struggling to survive in a corporate job, it might be an achievement just to make it through the day. But if at any point you feel like taking these steps is not worth the effort, just consider how much time you are likely to spend in the business world. Assuming you work from age 22 to age 65 for 235 days a year, you'll be on someone else's clock for about 80,000 hours, or one tenth of your life. Isn't it only fair that you do everything you can to create a rewarding job experience?
Alexandra Levit worked for a Fortune 500 software company and an international public relations firm before starting Inspiration @Work, an independent marketing communications business. She's the author of They Don't Teach Corporate in College: A Twenty-Something's Guide to the Business World (Career Press 2004;http://www.corporateincollege.com).