Evidence is mounting that millennials are having genuine difficulty assimilating into the corporate world. If you’re butting heads with your boss, here are six essential tips for not acting your age.
Every generation of bosses has complained about those disrespectful young whippersnappers coming up through the ranks. But if you believe a mountain of recent reports—some anecdotal, some based on research—millennials truly do stand apart for their lack of awareness in the corporate environment. The New York Times recently labeled them “Generation Why Bother,” and the several career experts I’ve spoken with say that, as millennials find their way into the workforce, they keep hearing complaints that these younger workers seem incapable of adapting their behavior to their company’s culture.
Why? That’s a subject of fierce debate. According to some experts, millennials remain emotionally scarred by the seemingly random destruction they witnessed during the Great Recession. Others trace it to pee wee soccer: If everyone’s gonna get a trophy, what’s the point of a diving header? For its part, the Harvard Business Review blames the commencement address trope that you should “follow your passion,” which can lead to a big letdown when work turns out to be six parts grindstone and one part fun. Whatever the case, I remained skeptical. I mean, c’mon: They said the same thing about my generation. And my dad’s.
But then it happened.
A young man in my office made an error. This was an error that, had it not been caught and corrected, would have put a small dent in our brand credibility. But that’s OK, because we all make mistakes, and that’s why we have procedures in place to catch them. Here’s what’s not OK: When my colleague brought this error to the fellow’s attention, he responded with an email that read, in its entirety: “Ruh-roh!”
All right, my young friends: I think it’s time we had a friendly chat. No lectures— I’m going to assume you already know not to quote Scooby-Doo at work, especially when you screwed up and should be expressing remorse and explaining why it won’t happen again. Instead, I’m going to tell you a secret that your boss is keeping from you.
The secret is, there is one junior level employee in your office—let’s call him Kevin Durant. He’s a problem solver. He’s reliable. He sinks the layups all day long, and what ever constitutes a three-pointer in your business, he hits those, too. When your boss looks at you and the rest of the team, he wishes he had six Kevins. In your performance review, he wants to ask, “Why can’t you be more like Kevin?” In other words, if you want to slay the millennial stereotype, be a great enough performer to stand out on the court and a good enough team player to conform in the locker room.
Here’s the good news: Becoming office Kevin is a lot easier than becoming NBA power forward Kevin. And while you may not make the reported $19.9 million that Durant is pulling down this season, becoming office Kevin is the quickest path to pay hikes and promotions. So do you want to get ahead and become the guy your boss relies on in clutch situations? Drop the “Ruh-roh!” and follow these instructions.
Become a native
“You’d be stunned at how many times I get the phone call, ‘Why did I get in trouble?’” says Samuel Bacharach, director of Cornell’s Institute for Workplace Studies. He works with some of the university’s top graduates as they transition into their new jobs. When they talk to him, they can’t understand why they angered a superior. “But I did everything right,” they say.
The problem: They do everything right according to their definition of right. But they don’t respect the company’s culture, often coming on too strong and failing to collaborate. Bacharach sees a huge divide between the win-at-all-costs attitude drilled into high achievers in their school days and the need to be a team player once they join a company. And it’s not just the Ivy League hotshots. Any guy in the early years of his career needs to learn the cultural nuances of company and field. Note the tone of senior guys’ emails:
Do they nitpick about one seemingly insignificant detail? Find a way to solve the problem for them, and never make that mistake yourself.
Identify the norms, and err on the good side. Don’t be last into the office in the morning, and don’t be first out the door in the evening, even if you’ve “finished” your work. Is that superficial? For sure. If you don’t like it, go freelance.
Set a long-term goal of finding a mentor—a wise, generous, experienced senior colleague who will help you navigate your career. In the meantime, try this hack: Figure out who among your peers, or those slightly senior, is successful by the company’s standards. Then copy that guy. In some ways this is easier than trying to suss out company-wide norms, because your target is very specific.
I’m not suggesting obsequious behavior; don’t start wearing Hermès ties or rooting for Manchester United just because that’s how your boss rolls. Instead, focus on one guy and ask yourself what aspects of the business he’s knowledgeable about. What distinguishes his work? Whether he’s a stock trader who focuses on debt covenants or a lawyer who excels at business development, learn his strategy inside and out. What techniques does he use to close sales or guarantee that his work satisfies clients? You don’t need to use his exact words, but make sure you cover all the same bases. Figure out how success is defined at your company, and put yourself on a path to meeting that definition.
Write sentences, not msgs
Every expert I spoke with—and they ranged in age from 28 to 65—was adamant on this point. “The quickest way to lose credibility is through sloppy grammar,” says Roy Cohen, a career coach and author of The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide. “If you’re sloppy, it forces others at the organization to make up for what you’re not doing…Someone has to go in and do damage control.” Use spellcheck. If you have to, read your messages out loud.
Design your personal brand
You may not think of yourself as a brand, but others do. “It’s what people say about you when you’re not in the room,” says Kathryn Minshew, founder and CEO of career site The Muse (themuse.com). Are you seen as passionate and hardworking or someone who goes through the motions but doesn’t really care? You’re seen as something—it’s up to you to make sure that image is the one you want to convey.
While this is about image, it’s only superficial if you make it so. Guys who dress appropriately and work hard are known as hard workers. Guys who wear cargo shorts to the office and work hard are known as slobs. If your Facebook page looks like a scene from The Hangover or your Twitter reads like a Rush Limbaugh rant, then those aspects of your character will define you.
You don’t have to be perfect; just make sure your good qualities shine brighter than your bad ones. That way, when you drop the ball—and we all do at some point—the mistake will be quickly forgotten as a rare slip on the path to your next three-pointer.
For me, this is what separates the grown-ups from the mama’s boys. There are times when unforeseen obstacles will prevent you from completing the assignment. Shit happens. It’s the next step that will make or break your career.
When given a job to carry out, mediocre employees come back to their boss and say, “Sorry, we can’t do that.” Great employees come back, explain the problem, and offer intelligent ways around the obstacle—new ways to achieve the same, or similar, goal. These are the guys who get the key assignments, the jobs that the company can’t afford to be screwed up. These are the guys who make the boss look good. And they are rewarded accordingly.
Get your hands dirty
The commencement speaker at your college graduation probably advised you to “do what you love.” The Harvard Business Review noted that Google searches for “find your passion” skyrocketed in the 2000s. Sorry to break the news, but don’t expect to skip to work every day. Minshew notes that she’s had jobs she didn’t particularly like but is very glad she took. “I looked at what I could learn from it,” she says. It’s not always fun, but it is productive.
So, sure, keep your dreams alive, but, as Teddy Roosevelt recommended, keep your feet on the ground, too. There’s a lot to be said for competence and practical skills, and adding them to your tool belt boosts the odds of success when you decide to chase the dream. And those skills will pay the mortgage if you don’t.
Master these skills and you can quote Scooby-Doo whenever you want.