For young professionals, starting out in the workforce can be both exhilarating and intimidating. Coming from a world where success is outlined in a professor’s syllabus, many of us are eager to quickly learn what it takes to be successful in our new environment. What I soon learned working at a top professional services firm is that the few days of orientation and training provided barely touch the surface of what it really takes to succeed. Instead, I had to discover these lessons for myself.
In any environment, there are unwritten rules that govern how employees work and interact with one another. These rules can be unique to a particular organization’s culture, and learning these rules is critical to success. Unfortunately, too many of us enter the workforce without understanding what they are or that they even exist. Catalyst, an organization that studies women in corporate America, recently published research on how what we don’t know can hurt us in our careers.
As I reflect on my experiences as well as the advice I have received from mentors during my short tenure in corporate America, these are the unwritten rules that have I have learned:
- Be a strong performer
While not exactly unwritten, this is one rule that can’t be overemphasized. Nothing is more critical to your success than building a strong reputation. The strength of your network and the opportunities with which you are presented will depend on your reputation. You are more likely to find great mentors with a strong reputation. Therefore, producing good work is the bare minimum to surviving in a corporate environment.
- Observe everything
As young black women, we don’t typically have access to the strong informal networks that many of our peers have. Within these networks, unwritten rules are often communicated. While this may not always be available to us, the ability to observe your surroundings and adapt accordingly is important.
- Seek out regular feedback
Perception is everything. Do your best at all times to avoid a gap between the way you want others to perceive you and the way they actually perceive you. This can only be done by continuously seeking feedback. Knowing what your managers and team perceive to be your strengths and weaknesses allows for continuous growth. Continuous growth will ultimately take you to the next level.
- Step out of your comfort zone
In an environment where few people look like you and even fewer have had similar experiences as you, it is necessary to make the extra effort to form relationships with your colleagues. Some will develop naturally, while others will take more energy. Attend happy hours, take part in new activities, join different groups of people for lunch, and celebrate birthdays with your peers. Building relationships is not only the key to success, it will also make your experience at work more enjoyable.
- Control your career
Nobody will look out for your best interest more than you. Nobody can help you accomplish your goals better than you can. From the very start, establish short-term goals for each of your experiences that will help you reach your long-term goals. Communicate these goals to your managers and mentors then hold them accountable to any commitments they make. Most importantly, hold yourself accountable to the goals you have set.
- When in doubt, ask
Hopefully, during your time at your firm, you have built a strong relationship with at least one person who can give you “real talk”. Ideally, this person has been in your shoes before and is more than open to talking about sticky situations. Whenever you find yourself in doubt about anything – from how to respond to an email that upset you to how to deal with a manager that makes you feel uncomfortable – it is better to ask for advice than do something you regret later.
Learning the unwritten rules in a completely new environment can be frustrating for us as young professionals. When you don’t know what you don’t know, you are often forced to learn through trial and error. As young black women, it can even become discouraging because we often witness the consequences minorities face as result of this approach. Our trials and errors are generally less informed and quickly damage our reputations, often resulting in tarnished reputations and delayed career progression. Nonetheless, focusing on your performance, managing your reputation, and building relationships will carry you forward as you continue to learn the unwritten rules to success in your environment.