11 things I learned working in corporate America
At 34 years old, my time working a full-time job in corporate America is slowly drawing to a close, and I will never forget what it has taught me.
To keep this blog ad-free, this post may contain affiliate links and/or paid placement. Click here to read our full disclosure.
While my time working a full-time job officially ended in 2016, 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. (There’s a reason I worked this hard to retire from full time employment 30 years ahead of the norm and ahead of what the government retirement programs stipulate.)
Whether you’re exploring the idea of joining the corporate world or have found yourself mid-way through your twenties or thirties down a career path that feels less about your dreams and more about a bigger entity, it’s always a good idea to take a step back and examine the situation.
What exactly does “corporate America” mean?
Corporate America gets its name from the mainstream, usually high profile corporations that are behind much of the United States’ economy. The definition, however, is looser than just the Fortune 500, 1000, or 5000 and more accurately includes all businesses—public or private—that exist and operate for a profit.
Yes, even startup employees are working for “the man.”
Having a corporate job means you work for someone other than yourself. It means that your income is based on your performance in the context of a company’s performance. Typically, this is as an employee although some independent contractors or even LLCs might fall into corporate territory.
Most corporate jobs are considered “white collar” and require or highly prefer a college degree with exceptions for sales and customer service. Once you move up the corporate ladder, many big businesses require advanced degrees which they’ll sometimes even sponsor—now, there’s a perk to the system!
How do you survive corporate America?
The idea of “surviving” a full-time job is a popular one. So popular it’s even a highly revered part of pop culture as seen in cult classic movies such as Office Space and TV shows such as The Office that paint a picture of bleak bureaucracy and almost existential dread.
In reality, working in was way easier than I thought, but also much tougher in very specific ways, and I never could have anticipated that after graduating from college and working my first job.
Here's what I learned and what I wish I knew before I received my first paycheck (or really before I signed my first W-2.
11 lessons for how to work in corporate America
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 someone successful in a corporate setting here in the 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 minds 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 later in 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. Take the time to understand the value you provide
Being a “cog in a wheel” sounds terribly mundane but one way to spice it up is to think about what your role translates to in terms of business value. Whether that be a concrete number—how much a company makes or can even charge for your hourly rate—or how much you’re able to save or earn a company in terms of sales or avoiding losses.
The numbers game puts you in a position to understand how a leader might look at you and allows you to make recommendations or requests that are more likely to get approved.
This is critical when it comes to negotiation and not leaving what you deserve as far as salary or benefits on the table. It never hurts to ask for what you want as long as you know in the end that the business itself isn’t going to lose out.
8. Sell yourself, sell your ideas, but don’t sell out
No matter what you do for work, it pays to be skilled at sales—literally. If you want to get the job that gets you paid, you have to sell yourself, your skills, and why your experience makes you the best for the job in the interview process. From that point on, after landing the job, you will continue to have to sell team members—not just managers—on either your work or on the ideas you have that you’d like to work on. This doesn’t end on the other side of your career, but it does get easier the longer you work at it.
Sales gets a bad rap from the idea of pushy sales people out there forcing products down our throats. In reality, the beautiful thing about sales in work and life is that it really can and should be a mutual process. It’s important to remember that finding a common ground that satisfies everyone is the goal and anything less means someone is losing—not a good sign for any long term success.
9. Intuition shouldn’t be ignored
Everything—even corporate jobs—is driven by or built around humans. This is important to remember, especially now with the way AI promises to automate so much of the grunt work out there. Your original thinking and intuition is and will always be worth something and the greatest thing that working at a company will allot is having the resources an individual could rarely afford. Whether that be teams or tools, those resources are put into action based on the ideas and thoughts of talented workers.
Speaking up when your gut feels one way or another is important and should be encouraged (if it’s not there may be a problem—or it could be in the delivery). Ultimately, feelings come up for a reason and the hardest reasons to pinpoint are usually rooted in the human element of it all.
Yes, even in IT. (Honestly, especially in IT!)
10. Your work is not your self-worth
The 40-hour workweek known as the norm in corporate America can consume upwards of a third of your life (unless you take matters into your own hands) so, it’s only natural to start to build an identity tied to the life you lead at work. However, it’s this tendency that gives corporate America the reputation it has as a soul-crushing living hell.
All of which is to say, your job can and should be an extension of you and your skills. What you do at work should be an important, meaningful part of your life. But it should not be the only thing that brings you a sense of meaning, purpose, or self-esteem. Not only is this form of outward acceptance extremely unhealthy for all other parts of your life but it is a fast-track to extreme burnout. And burnout leads people to do some crazy things.
Again, it’s natural to have a bad or good day at work bleed into your evening at home but when you find your overall emotional state depends on your work performance, it’s time to do some reflection and remember that your life isn’t defined by your job title, responsibilities or income.
11. 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?