Sunday, August 28, 2016

Lessons from a former job

I recently bumped into an ex-co-worker. We shall call the company we worked at X. I was with another woman who had also worked at X -- one of the few I keep in touch with.

The guy we bumped into had left before me. Once in a while I indirectly hear of him from non-X related friends, but hadn't actually seen him in ages. I didn't even know he was still in town. After we chatted a little I realized that he didn't know that I had also left X, so I mentioned it to him and also pointed out that I hardly keep in touch with the crew at X anymore. He said, "me too!"

The thing is, X was an environment where people ate, slept, breathed work. It is the kind of place that prides itself for hiring "insecure overachievers". It was more than a job - it was a cult. Work took up 80% of people's waking lives, and for the remaining 20%, employees moved together in herds between a select few restaurants, pubs and events. I remember thinking it was nice at first. That people would send out mass emails welcoming anybody in their 'class' (i.e. level) -- the company even maintained a well updated email-list for us.

After I left, I invited the woman who used to sit next to me to a lecture I had heard of in town -- I thought it would be particularly interesting for her husband who I knew worked in a related field. Next thing I know, half my ex-coworkers were at the same lecture because she'd passed on the invitation. I was a bit taken aback -- I realized that if I wanted to exit the cult, I had to excommunicate even those I'd have preferred to stay in touch with.

So back to this guy we bumped into, he proceeded to take my phone number promising to give me information in the tech space in town (I am yet to hear from him, but it's only been a day). I thought it was amusing, given that we'd just both pledged we don't keep track of the X crew. Later I mentioned the irony to the friend I was with and she said, "Yeah, it's almost like a litmus test: I didn't like everybody who I met there even if I was part of the heard. Now that I have left, a good indicator that I will like ex-X coworkers is if after they leave the break away from the cult. And this is an observation based on who I seem to keep as friends, not a requirement."

I left X with mixed emotions. I had really wanted the job and worked very hard to get it. It was my #1 choice employer. During interview prep I remember people passing by me during my free time -- I always took the same chair/table in a courtyard -- and joking I must be glued to that spot. I prepped for every potential question I could get my hands on for 3 weeks. When I finally entered the interview room, I was like an interview robot. They would ask these random industry specific questions, and if you gave a good enough 1st answer, you'd know things were going well if they kept asking "what else? what else? what else?" I had ample ideas.

So it was a disappointment when it didn't turn out to be inspirational as a job. Within my first year I had created a file called "How not to manage", where I took notes of things I didn't want to become based on what I was seeing around me. I was sure that I was surrounded by intelligent people, but I couldn't understand why individuals or the organization behaved/operated as it did.

After I left that job, I once told a friend that something about the organization felt like fraud. She halted my thought process there and asked, if I felt that it was a sham, then what does that say about my time there? Good question. What exactly did I learn during my time at X?

There are many lessons I learned which are probably noted under that "how not to manage" file I used to keep. I haven't read that file since I left, but I should. I will.

Today I want to write (or start writing) about some of the positive things I learned at X. There were some, and they were insightful. At the moment, they're not grand enough for me  think in hindsight that the job should have been my #1 choice, but they're powerful lessons nonetheless:

  1. Communication for impact: The content of your message is nothing if you don't sculpt how to communicate it well. A well communicated BS answer can be much more effective than a badly communicated brilliant answer. If your audience doesn't "get it", remember: it's always your fault. 
  2. Socializing ideas: Your ideas are nothing if they can't get acceptance with the right stakeholders. 
  3. Cultivating promoters: You are nothing if you don't have people to who like you, and speak for you. People confuse competency and being liked, or that the former should beget the latter. They don't necessarily correlate. In mid/higher career, never compromise on being liked. Competency can be leveraged. (This probably explains why so many people get mystified when they find that their boss is an idiot - turns out competency is not the leading requirement.)
  4. Responsibility is not given, it's taken: My favorite quote from a guy I worked under on my first project. I learned the others through observation/experience -- this one landed on my lap and turned on a light bulb on my views & expectations. 
  5. "What's the 'so what?'": If a slide, activity, meeting doesn't have a compelling answer to the 'so what?' test, it should be considered for exclusion. Coincidentally, consulting itself fails the 'so what?' litmus test as a career choice, especially at the MD, Partner, Partern-1 levels. 

That's all I can think of for now. I will have to come back and update if I think of more. 

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