7 things I learned working in corporate America

Published June 22, 2016   Posted in How to Think

While my time working a full-time job is slowly drawing to a close, I will never forget the lessons I learned meandering my way through the “grind”. The fact is corporate America was not what I had expected it to be coming out of college.

In some ways, it was better, but in others, not so much.

Seven things I learned working in corporate America

The hustle and bustle of downtown Boston, where work is being done?

The hustle and bustle of downtown Boston, where work is being done?

1. Showing up is half the battle – As a child, my dad preached to me how important just showing up for work truly is, and my experience has shown that he was absolutely right. The fact is in many areas of corporate America, it is not hard to look good. Showing up seems so simple. As a child, I took for granted that people who have jobs actually do them, but in reality, it’s not so simple. Believe it or not, just being there – with your butt in the chair contributing whatever you can along with your co-workers, is more than 50% of what makes up success in American industry. Yeah, the bar is set pretty low.

2. Emotions, not actions, speak louder than words – Keeping a cool head and open mind, especially during periods of stress, looming deadlines or conflict at the office, goes a long way to separating yourself from the rest of the pack. Emotional people rarely get what they want, and even if they do, it is often temporary and rarely results in respect. Your co-workers notice those who get emotional, and that is definitely not good attention. However, those who remain calm and think rationally are the foundation of progress within organizations, meticulously getting things done and influencing others to do the same. They are the role models.

3. You’ll meet some amazing people; learn from them – Over the course of my career, I have worked with some amazingly talented people, folks who could code me under the table, solve complex math quickly and accurately (the first time), design incredibly innovative solutions and answer almost any question – even questions that they did not truly have the answer to, with confidence. I soaked up as much as I could from these people. I observed how they acted, how they spoke, how their mind worked when pondering something complex. I asked them questions – lots of them. I indebted myself to their experience and influence within the organization. I’ve learned a ton this way.

4. You’ll see the people that you screw over later in life – It’s amazing how small our world really is. The truth is many of us will wind up engaging with people from our past in a later life – whether inside or outside of the office. It happens. It most likely WILL happen, and the bridges you burned 10 years ago with the assumption that you’ll “never see those bastards again” will come back to bite you squarely on your backside. Moral of the story? Never burn your bridges. Naturally, we won’t get along with everyone, but positivity goes a long way to maintaining a sense of calm and progress when you see those people later in life, and you never know when those same people might be able to provide the opportunity that you need down the road. Be as professional as possible with other people, all the time. I have never met a person who has ever regretted taking the high road.

5. Your network is far more important than your knowledge – The phrase “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is spot on accurate in corporate America, more than I could possibly describe in words. And now that I think about it, I have only worked for companies whom I was personally referred to by a respected member already within that organization. Yup, every time – to include my FIRST job straight out of college with the help of my dad. The opportunities you get through your network will likely far outweigh those directly from your knowledge or experience, or by applying for a job “cold” at another organization. Job referrals are more important than ever before.

The problem stems from the sheer number of candidates who want to work high-paying positions in respected organizations around the country. Most hiring managers at well-known organizations receive hundreds – and sometimes thousands, of job applications for each position. Even if you submitted a kick-ass resume, a hundred others probably submitted equally kick-ass resumes. What separates you from the rest? How does a hiring manager pick you over the flood of candidates with similar resumes? The answer is very often referrals!

6. Moving around helps to maintain and acquire skills – In 14-years working corporate America jobs, I’ve worked for five different organizations. Each company did things differently. I got exposed to different development processes, meeting schedules, work attitudes and company cultures. Of course, the work itself differed from place to place and my experience interacting with a variety of technologies and computer environments continued to expand nicely.

Moving around gave me a huge leg up in my career.

For example, a couple years ago I got to spearhead and implement a brand new IT helpdesk tracking system as the Director of IT at a not-for-profit in Tucson, along with assisting to put in place an “agile development process” for their development staff…but only because the organization I worked at before that already used the agile development process and exposed me to its inner workings and how the pieces fit together.

There are exceptions, but the more that people move around, the more exposed they become to new ways of doing business. I like to think that each organization makes us smarter and more equipped to tackle problems that might seem unique to some. Move around enough and you will likely see it all. In the end, no problem is all that unique anymore.

7. We aren’t all cut out for management positions – Like most of us who work in a traditional office, my goal coming out of college was to climb the ranks and become the boss. I started as a low-level programmer, then slowly took on more and more responsibilities until I became a technical lead, which means you’re the guy dishing out assignments and making sure that coding practices are followed and that the code being written isn’t just a pile of crap that barely compiles into something meaningful.

Then, I got the opportunity to direct an entire IT department, as I’ve written about before. Management: It’s not for everybody, especially for those who actually get pushed into it, but that wasn’t the case for me. I wanted the job. I wanted to be the boss, and I quickly realized that management isn’t for me. The crap that managers deal with is ten times as frustrating as before. As a regular staff member, you need to impress a couple people to get promoted. But as a manager, the number of those people tends to increase, and they are at higher positions within the company, demanding more progress, more efficiency, more production.

And not only do senior managers need to be impressed, staff members demand attention. Conflict resolution. Priorities. Missed deadline. Employee A said something that hurt Employee B’s feelings. Employee C didn’t show up for work yesterday, which made Employee D late on her assignment.

In large part, managers are corporate babysitters, dealing with suit-wearing professions on one side and the petty problems of lower-level staff members on the other. If you are cut out for this type of work, bless you – because corporate America needs more good managers. But more times than not, I worked with managers who are only there for the money. They are overly stressed and hate their jobs – and not particularly good at what they do, either. Their heart isn’t in it because they want to be “The Boss“, not accept the responsibilities of management.

Sometimes, it’s better to just DO the work rather than MANAGE it.

What say you? Have you learned a thing or two about corporate America? What’s your #1 learning experience?

We track our net worth using Personal Capital


38 responses to “7 things I learned working in corporate America”

  1. I think you hit the nail on the head with this post, I agree with basically all 7. If I were to add an 8th lesson, for me anyway, it would be to not shy away from the hard work or a difficult task. That is often times where you learn the most. If you can help someone with a difficult task (like your boss), they will remember it and sing your praises. And on top of all that, completing a difficult task can be very rewarding and fulfilling and something you’ll look back on later in pride.

    Thanks for the post!

    • Steve says:

      It’s true, challenges often do teach us more than just going through the motions. I’ve learned a ton by doing just that – some good things, some bad things. I learned that working 50/hour weeks isn’t something that I never want to do again! 🙂

  2. LazyFIGuy says:

    I’ve worked in IT for 20 years (so far). Before that, I worked in public safety as a fireman/EMT.

    3 main things I’ve learned during this time:

    1. In IT, nothing is really a life-and-death situation. Trust me, I know. I’ve actually experienced them.
    2. No matter where you work, you’re expendable. Just another cog in the machine regardless of what you think.
    3. Management is definitely not for me.

    About 10 years ago, I began working at a very small company as the sole IT person; responsible for development, hardware support, networking, etc. I had to learn things I was previously ignorant about to help the company grow. My boss (the company owner) bestowed the title of CTO on me and all the responsibilities that came with it. I ended up hiring another developer. I managed contractors to come sort out our slap-dash network (that I inherited). I hired a network engineer to manager it and help us when the company relocated to a larger office space. I hired another developer (the network engineer’s husband).

    Little did I know that this new developer was bypassing me and going straight to my boss to brown-nose and talk smack about me. I found out when I came into the office and was shown the door by the new CTO (yeah, you guess it–the new developer). I was crushed and fuming. Of course, karma came around when the owner of the company was investigated by the FBI for embezzlement and had a heart attack (he lived, from what I understand). All of this brings me back to item #2 above.

    Now, I try to keep to the trenches where I can do heads-down programming until I can get off this treadmill. I’m tired of keeping up appearances and dancing the dance.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks for the comment, LazyFIGuy. I’m an IT person as well, and you’re right, nothing is really life or death, everybody is expendable and managing this crap is definitely not for everybody, including me. And that’s an incredible story about the “CTO” who kissed enough ass to get where he wanted – that kind of backstabbing was never my game, either. I just didn’t care enough to have an agenda. It was just never worth it to me.

      Thanks for the comment!

    • Stockbeard says:

      LazyFIGuy, I totally agree with your 3 points, in addition to the ones mentioned by Steve in his post. I think if you look at the overall picture, what Steve mentions in his intro summarizes “it perfectly: corporate America was not what I had expected it to be coming out of college.”

      There are lots of pros and cons when you work within a team in corporate 9-to-5, but those are not the pros and cons you’d expect when you’re out of college.

      And, yup, I’m not made for management either, and I can’t wait to get out. “Should have staid a programmer” is what I tell myself everyday for the past 2 years.

      • LazyFIGuy says:

        Stockbeard, since learning about FI/RE and starting on the path, I’ve grown cynical and apathetic with what I do for a living. It’s like putting on glasses that let me see through the facade of phoniness in the workplace (and society in general, where importance is placed on chasing status symbols instead of general happiness).

        More recently, at work, I feel like a square peg trying to fit in a round hole.

        • bamfmoney says:

          I always felt like working in corporate was a lot like being in high school. You have your different groups (the jocks, the nerds, goths, the cool people etc.), and you’re just trying find where you fit in. One big look at me popularity contest (at least where I worked)

          I hated high school.

          They should have a course to really prepare you for corporate in college.

          • Steve says:

            It’s so true, BAMF! There are your little cliques and groups to contend with, even at the office. Like you, I hated high school. I mean, absolutely hated every minute of it. But then again, I don’t much care for school in general…

            I like that idea about a course to prepare you for corporate America. It should go right after a course that teaches basic personal finance! 🙂

  3. Showing up is half the battle! This is so true and I tell this to my kids about college (and my own students at the college where I teach!) I also think it is incredibly important to learn from others at work. I had some amazing mentors and peers at my school. Being a good listener was key to becoming the best teacher I could be. One thing I would add is that you can learn an awful lot from people you don’t like (or disagree with) in your workplace too! I quietly took in all I could about the person I didn’t want to become and that helped me grow tremendously! Agree about not all being cut out for management either. I was a teacher turned administrator and really disliked a lot of the “managerial” pieces I thought I would enjoy. I ended up really missing the classroom.

    • Steve says:

      Hey Vicki! I think you’re right that we can always learn from those around us…even if what we are learning is what NOT to do. I’ve observed a lot of those lessons myself. 😉

  4. Apathy Ends says:

    So true, especially on the management one. Our company used to push software engineers into management as a way to promote when they ran out of runway. Most of them were terrible managers and opted to return back to code and mentor vs have direct reports.

    I thought I wanted to go into management 2 years ago and have since decided it wasn’t for me, to many political games and I don’t have the patience to deal with new employees on a regular basis.

    • Steve says:

      Yup, it’s interesting that the best technical people in corporate America eventually get pushed into…*management*. I understand that companies want good managers, but a good technical person very often does NOT equate to a good manager. The skills required to perform those jobs well are vastly different. Management isn’t for everyone…definitely not for me, and it looks like you as well. 🙂

  5. Great list – I think you are right on point on them! One add that I would add to the last one “managers are corporate babysitters” is that at our best, being the boss is an amazing leadership opportunity that is unparalleled. To smartly organize a team of people against an new goal or market opportunity is a real rush. Ultimately to see people succeed as a team and move up into leadership roles themselves is very rewarding.

    • Steve says:

      I agree – there are definitely good things about management, especially when things go right. Knowing that you put together something that’s working wonders for an organization is definitely a good feeling – no doubt about that! 🙂

  6. At the end of the day everyone is replaceable, you just have to convince your employer that YOU are not. Great list Steve.

  7. Mr. PIE says:

    Great summary, Steve.

    Regarding #4, another way of putting it-

    You invariably need a lot of help from colleagues in a couple of different ways. On the way up and on the way down. On the way in and on the way out. Treat them with the same level of dignity, respect and courtesy at all times. As you say, it will bite you big time in the rear if you don’t.

    I also think mentorship is a huge factor in an individual’s success and happiness in the corporate world. To be able to seek guidance outside of your reporting structure can be a powerful way to share fears, hear an unbiased perspective on your challenges and solicit advice on important topics such as career path, dealing with change.

    I have also been lucky to have great managers, HR business leader support who above all else cared about me as a friend and as a professional colleague. I got tremendous support from all of these individuals over the course of my career – through good times and difficult times – and that support will be missed greatly when I call time on my career. Yeah, there is a lot I am going to miss in two years time….

    • Steve says:

      It’s true, you can’t do it all yourself, and it’s wonderful to work with folks who truly do care about you as much as they do the work being done. You definitely don’t get that everywhere you look in corporate America..unfortunately.

  8. It’s funny that you say management wasn’t for you. I’ve been a manager and I know what you mean. Mostly, you spend your days dealing with other people’s issues. And trying to keep all the different constituents happy.

    Which reminds me, in one of my roles, I was at a pretty high level reporting to the CFO. I had one individual reporting directly to me. He was senior to me in age and in experience. But he didn’t want my job. He had been a CFO at a smaller company and he didn’t want all the stress that came with the upper level jobs. He wanted a buffer in between him and senior management – that was me.

    At the time, I was young and didn’t really get that. But after spending 20 years in corporate roles, I now appreciate what he wanted. Sometimes it’s nice to be able to just do your job, and you cannot do that as a manager or an upper level executive.

    • Steve says:

      I hear that, Financial Slacker! It’s funny how so many of us start out reaching for the stars, and as we get close, we realize that it’s just not what it’s cracked up to be. And I suppose it’s only natural (and GOOD!) for the younger generation to establish lofty goals. After all, that’s how we all keep improving…at least in theory. 🙂

  9. Kate says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with all of these!

    Along the lines of #2, I’ve found that your attitude is critical to success. I’ll admit that I’m not a star employee but I always have a great attitude and I’m always the first person to volunteer when extra help is needed (e.g. when a coworker is on maternity leave). It’s all about making your manager’s job easier, as well as your business partners’, and being pleasant in the process.

    • Steve says:

      Very well said, Kate – when you make your manager’s job easier, you definitely won’t be in his spotlight when it comes to, umm, thinning the herd. And yeah, it’s always nice to work with people who are easy-going and helpful. 🙂

  10. Debt Hater says:

    It seems that #1 and #5 really are so true. It many larger organizations that would rather reprimand someone who is not showing up consistently instead of someone that is doing poor work, visibility and face time being equally as important.

    I’ve also noticed that most of the interviews I’ve landed were through personal connections or from smaller companies or more streamlined HR systems. The giant HR systems seem to never really work for me. Right now I’m working on improving point #6 😉

    • Steve says:

      It’s funny how those referral-based interviews happen, isn’t it? I never realized, either, until I actually thought about it. It is tough to put into words just how important referrals are – as you’ve noticed! 🙂

  11. That’s a great and insightful list of lessons, Steve! I love that you acknowledge the many positives — it’s not like working is ALL bad, even though many of us would rather not be doing it. 😉 I think of #7 and its flipside — that some people are better suited to managing than to doing the work. I encounter young employees pretty regularly who struggle with some of the minutia of entry level work, but think, “That kid really has potential once they reach the management ranks.” Of course, you have to put in your time and learn the lessons that you can only learn by working up diligently through the levels — and yes, you even need to master those annoying, detail-oriented tasks — but some people really are just cut out to be managers more than doers.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks ONL – it’s true, working isn’t *all* bad, and I definitely agree that some people are better suited for management than others. It’s just strange that “management” seems to be what everybody strives for, at least indirectly, in corporate America. It signals “success” or something, but not everyone is an effective manager, and it affects the organization in profound ways.

      On the bright side, it’s easy to pick those of us who ARE gifted managers. 🙂

  12. #1 learning from having worked in corporate North America: don’t kid yourself…you are expendable. The moment you’re not needed anymore, there’s no loyalty, even for those who poured their hearts and souls for their staff, coworkers and the overlords. That means we should never stay in a job that we don’t like because we’re looking forward to the pension or because we depend on the money. Golden handcuffs hurt.

    • Steve says:

      I couldn’t agree more, Free to Pursue. All of us are expendable, no question about it. Take care of yourself first because, well, your company will always do the same with it.

  13. The most annoying thing for me is how important are office politics in the workplace. You can get any promotion, regardless of results, if you are good at office politics.

    • Steve says:

      Unfortunately, you’re right. Getting ahead these days is as much about “playing the game” as it is being good at what you do. Some places are worse than others, of course, but I think every business has this conflict at play, at least to some degree.

  14. ESI says:

    I would add that luck plays a role in career success.

    I hate that this is so as it’s something you can’t control, but I’ve benefited from good luck as well as been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    Overall, if you do the right things it seems to work in your favor more than against you.

    • Steve says:

      It is true that there are some things that happen that we just can’t control – both good and bad. But yes, I also agree that when you work smart and do a good job, your chances of good significantly outweigh the bad.

  15. Steven says:

    So I’m going to read this in just one moment, but I certainly wanted to share that I have a post in my draft that is “How did I end up working in Corporate America”, I think mine is going in the wtf am I doing here category:) Can’t wait to read!

  16. NZ Muse says:

    I’m at the age/stage where my peers are starting to become managers and I honestly cannot think of anything worse! Can’t lie, I get the stab of envy, but I know I wouldn’t want to manage people.

    • Steve says:

      It’s only natural to be a little envious, even if only about the promotion, not necessarily the job. But yeah, a lot of the time, it’s easier to just do the work than to manage it.

  17. This is a very timely article. I’ve been having issues with my team recently. It’d be so easy just to snap one day and say what everyone else is already thinking. But I’ve only got ten weeks left on the team and a big pivot coming up in my career, so I don’t want to jeopardize that. My nose will be clean as a whistle 🙂

    • Steve says:

      Sounds like a good plan to me, Gwen. Only got a couple months left, so leave on a high note. You never know if you’ll run into those people again. 🙂

Leave a Reply