Read an Excerpt
Chapter Five: A Whole New World
How to avoid office alien-nation
Useful Terms: What We Mean When We Say...
Culture What you'll find if you put the office petri dish under a microscope
Alien That would be you
Ego Ecosystem The fragile world in which you live Monday to Friday, nine to five
When you first started your job, the nice people in human resources, or some reasonable facsimile thereof, gave you a whole stack of glamorous paperwork associated with your fantastic new life: health insurance forms for when you get sick, worker's comp forms for when you get maimed, 401(k) forms for when you get decrepit, and the designation-of-death-beneficiaries form for when it all finally kills you.
In that hefty orientation packet there was an innocuous-looking, nondescript piece of paper that you had to sign swearing that you are not an alien. And sign you must, or you would never see the light of pay. But you lied. You are an alien.
You are a complete alien in a whole new world until you fully understand the culture of your office and figure out how to assimilate to your new environment. If you are truly to succeed at work, your mission, Ms. Alien, is to figure out how to stand out while you are fitting in.
Our mission is to tell you how to do just that.
Mastering the Microcosmic
In the petri dish of office life, it's all about culture. Of course, with the dawning of the New Economy, people, most notably MBAs and insecure, twenty-eight-year-old CEOs, use "office culture" as a code phrase meaning anything from "We're child-friendly" to "We're basically children wanna see our ping-pong table and Coke machine?"
Yup, "corporate culture" is a big, fat, vague buzzterm that everyone and their HR department throw around all the time, but The Girls Who Call Us usually ignore its vital relevance to themselves. Attention, dear reader: all that corporate culture crap that might seem like nothing more than marketing hype to you should be the primary factor that determines how you behave in the office.
Corporate culture is not just what a company says about its environment. It's the Ego Ecosystem of your day-to-day reality. The truth is, when it comes to Officepoliticus, you gotta sweat some of the small stuff we're talking microscopic. In those first few jobs, we each spent an embarrassing amount of time as National Enquirer-worthy two-headed aliens that no one would take quite seriously due to a series of incidental cultural insensitivities on our part.
For example, when J started a new job in a super-duper corporate setting, she showed up that first week toting a five-foot floor lamp through the lobby because she hates that nasty overhead lighting. Coworkers stared in Alfred Hitchcock horror as she passed: clearly, the lighting was good enough for them, but this broad, this new girl? "Nooooo, she's too gooood for fluorescent."
An innocent mistake, but one that didn't make J look too bright. Anytime you introduce an obvious change, no matter how minor, to a highly codified culture in which you are a newcomer, it will be seen as alien behavior. And ya might just find yourself being left in the dark about a lot of what's going on around you as a result.
It's so simple to inadvertently criticize what you find in a culture you are new to. One of The Girls Who Call Us, Barbara, a sales account executive for a handbag manufacturer, started a new job and immediately began making myriad suggestions to her fellow salespeople and other coworkers about how to improve the office environment and the business itself.
From her first day on the job, she wanted to change the way everything was done. Barbara began rapid-firing memos to execs about how the processes should be altered and improved, what software they should all buy to be more efficient, and on and on. She kept it up for a month, until she became conscious of the resentment that was building around her.
What she saw as being passionate, helpful, and enthusiastic, her colleagues saw as attacks on how they had managed the business before she arrived. Essentially, she was slamming them. Barbara never managed to heal those relationships, and she left the job within four months; none of her suggestions had been taken.
When you enter a new culture, if you see areas for improvement, you must be careful to introduce your ideas gradually, and when you do so, be sure that you are sensitive to the fact that what you have found at the new job is the result of someone's decisions and someone's work.
We never stopped to consider that. In fact, we were completely mystified when what we considered minor episodes seemed to be such big fat hairy deals to others. We just couldn't understand why things were the way they were instead of the way we were sure they should be. We didn't know the rules, and we were pissed that no one would just tell us. As we matured, though, it dawned on us that everybody at work was just too damn busy to explain what we should have been able to see for ourselves if we just would have opened our eyes: if you refuse to fit in, you should get out.
In this chapter, we'll help you put your office under the microscope so you can study its unique culture. Understanding the Ego Ecosystem will help you avoid stumbling into culture craters that you thought were little divots. Not only that, but you will also discover how to put yourself in the right place at the right time, scratching the right backs so you can shine like Sirius, the brightest star in our galaxy.
Let's Do the Time Warp...
Time bends, sister. Each office culture has its own time zone and its own concept of "regular hours." Honey, there ain't no such thing as Standard Office Time.
Understanding the Time Culture in your organization is of the essence. One of The Girls Who Call Us, Sigourney, for example, was viewed as a foreign body when she said: "Isn't it a bummer to have an eight A.M. meeting?" She knew she'd blown it when her coworker, smiling at a nearby Uppity, replied: "Oh, I am always here by seven, and I never leave before ten. In fact, the rest of us are in the same boat." Sigourney didn't yet understand her company's time culture: although she frequently stayed late in the P.M., she never asked, and didn't realize that she was strolling in hours later in the A.M.
A given office might have any number of time zones, and you need to adjust yourself to each one you deal with. For example, the subculture reflected in your division or department might have a very different dynamic from the overall culture of your parent company.
When J was working in a start-up new-media division, the pace was insane, and everything and everyone was fast, fast, fast. But the parent company was established, plodding, highly bureaucratic, and procedure-happy. J quickly learned that when she worked with people outside her particular department, she was in a time warp and had to slow it down: she spoke slower, had to deliver detailed printed proposals instead of zipping out off-the-cuff emails, and had to have incredible patience and not take it personally while hearing nothing for days and days from the Most Uppity Uppers for answers that could easily have been issued in ten minutes.
Here are a few of the office culture timetables to check from time to time:
Pace yourself...accordingly. What's the general pace of things? Is everyone rushing around looking ever so busy? Then you probably should not be practicing your Zen meditative walk through the hallways. Are people mellow in their speech patterns? Then don't let your tongue zoom at NASCAR MPHs.
The times they are a-changin'. Do you have all the time in the world to generate that proposal but it had better be purr-fect? Or is sloppy better than seconds wasted? You can tell which option your culture finds more acceptable by which tends to receive more praise from Uppities. Btw, Uppities tend to measure efficiency against how long they think it should take to accomplish a task, not how long it actually took you to do it. Always ask your Uppity when she wants delivery. You just might need to turn that project around like Speedy Gonzalez. See, señorita?
Watch the daily tides & swim accordingly. Observe when people wash in and when they wash back out. In some cultures there are high expectations of overtime without pay, and the on-the-dot nine-to-fiver is perceived as an annoyingly anal alien. You don't need to directly mimic the timing patterns of your culture, but the closer you match your coworkers' schedules, the less alien you will seem.
Ponder the monthly phases of the paper moon. Know what the company policies are and how the process works. If expense reports must be filed monthly, don't turn in six months' worth at once, whining you didn't have the time to do them. M did this all the time, and in doing so she both brought into question her administrative abilities and irritated the nice accountants. Worse, though, was what happened to one of The Girls Who Call Us, Jean, a printing-equipment salesperson. Jean got stiffed to the tune of almost ten grand when she didn't follow the policy and file her expenses routinely. Because Jean was so hell-bent on selling and completely ignored the climate in her company, she wasn't tuned in to the signs that it was going under, and she let her expenses pile up for almost a year. She was unexpectedly laid off, the company went bankrupt, and she never saw a dime of the money she'd spent out of her own pocket. In a highly bureaucratic culture, internal paperwork is an essential part of your job responsibilities, and in all other cultures it's still important and you must stay on top of it, no matter what else you have going on.
Adjust seasonally. When's crunch time? Which department gets slammed, when, and how often annually, monthly, weekly? Don't be running to accounting asking for a copy of your W2 from three years ago during the stay-all-night height of budget season. If you know when the worst times are for each person and division, you can put yourself in a great position to do favors by being Miss Sensitivity and offering to help out. Do a quick coffee run for the accounting team before you punch out for the night. Or do as J used to do when she knew particular departments were pulling late-nighters and drop off a sympathy six-pack or a bottle of tequila and a few shot glasses.
Check up on the annuals. Read the company handbook and ask coworkers how often people tend to get promoted. Is it every third Friday, or only in sync with the viewing of Halley's comet? If you know that people are promoted regularly, feel free to go in after six months on the job when you've exceeded expectations and ask for a bump. If promotions are next to never and you ask for one prematurely, you are doomed: stingy cultures call this "entitlement."
Watch the other guy's watch. Everyone has good and bad times of day not to mention the month. Make it your business to learn coworkers' cycles and chart them on a mood forecaster spreadsheet, which will help you predict the most auspicious times for meetings, requests, and delivering bad news. "Lucas: won't answer questions till after 5 P.M." "Elias: crabby before lunch; cheerful after." "Tia: don't speak to her until she's drained her second cup of coffee." "Gary: has 3 P.M. deadline every day."
Show them a good time sensitivity. In every culture: Don't keep people waiting. Don't say you'll call back in two minutes if you know it will be twenty. If you need help, ask: "Is this a good time?" If you call a meeting, keep it as brief as possible by being prepared.
Look for the Uniformity Label
Oh, this one drives us nuts with The Girls Who Call Us. So many of them tell us, "Look, I have my style, and I'm not going to change it. I'm great at what I do! What does the way I dress have anything to do with my abilities? How dare they try to tell me how to dress!"
We agree! But tough doodly-doo for all of us. The way you dress in the office has a ton to do with your abilities it can get them completely ignored!
Even if there is absolutely no written official dress code for your office, there is a dress code. The whole thing about office attire is a very sensitive issue because it pits individual style against the collective culture dicey stuff. Dressing too distinctively can seem like an act of disloyalty against the culture.
When J was working in the Boston advertising agency, even though that company prided itself on its culture of creativity, virtually everyone wore superpreppy clothing. J, not one to be straitjacketed, clung to her New York City Sexy Mama look. On days when she wore something even remotely conservative (as in not skintight), a nice older gentleman, who was clearly trying to help her out with-out getting himself sued, observed that she "looked nice" and gently suggested that when she wore foundation makeup she "looked better."
When J finally got the hang of the conservative thing, she then landed a job at Rolling Stone. J spent months frumping around that terminally hip office culture in Ann Taylor red or blue suits, opaque stockings, and practical pumps, all of which she later realized pegged her for a big fat D-U-D. Finally a colleague tipped her off that the French twist had to go. J regrouped and regroovified her wardrobe to fall into step with her hipper-than-thou coworkers.
Think of it this way when it's snowing out there, you don't take it as an affront to your personal sense of style or your intellectual capabilities that you need to pop on a pair of boots instead of slingbacks. Check out the clothing climate of your office:
Think of uniforms. They show belonging to a group. Same thing in the office. If you outdress coworkers by a league, they will perceive you as "too good for the rest of us." If you underdress by a mile, guess what? "Clueless D-U-D." Look around and check out the message that others are sending with their clothes groovy/hip, status-conscious, classic, authoritative, trendy, powerful and align your working wardrobe accordingly.
Dress Uppity. Check out what the respected execs are wearing and follow suit. Never conform in a way that makes you look bad, though. If all the women have bowl haircuts and you think that cut will make you look like one of the Three Stooges, skip it. Pay close attention to when Uppity Uppers tell you they like an outfit, and wear it regularly, but no overkill. Pull together other outfits that give a similar look and feel.
Icon eye candy. Within the context of your office culture's uniform, create a Visual Signature an item of clothing or style that people identify with you. M has white hair and always wears an antique cameo ring; J never fails to turn out in fabulous shoes. Ladies, the world is our oyster when it comes to creating memorable Visual Signatures: all most guys have to work with are their ties and wherever their hairline happens to fall.
Is It a Workstation or a PlayStation?
Everyone knows about the corner office the bigger the office, the more powerful the person. The better the view, generally the more influential the inhabitant. No news there. It's just a big ol' corner office cliché.
But we want you to look beyond square footage. You can learn a ton about your company's culture just by checking out coworkers' desks.
When M started with Food Arts, it was a small, chaotic start-up environment. Pretty much anything went everyone's desk looked like the aftermath of a hurricane. M's desk was always piled precariously high with all manner of manuscripts, folders, and month-old newspapers. Then, when the magazine was purchased by M. Shanken Communications, a more established publishing firm, and moved to far posher quarters, M brought her start-up mentality with her. Her desk was always a disaster area that's how we show people we're busy, right?
Once M bothered to look around, though, she realized that all the coworkers in the cubicles around her pretty much kept their stuff in nice neat productive-looking piles, and you could land a plane on the clear surfaces of the executives' desks. M realized she looked not only out of place but also out of control by comparison. She cleaned up her act.
Take the desk litmus. Are the desks orderly? It might indicate a highly structured by-the-book environment. Are there lots of kitschy paraphernalia strewn around rubber nuns and Barbie dolls in various states of undress? You are probably in a creative culture. Keep the state of your desk in a manner that meshes with that established pattern. If there is a wide culture gulf between subculture styles in different divisions, then subtly follow the lead of the company execs.
Cultish or clannish? Do people display lots of family photos, or none at all? This can tell you how much or how little to talk about your personal life. Hint: no photos can mean that employees don't want to let the Most Uppity Uppers know that they might have other obligations and priorities beyond their loyalty to the company. In this company cult culture a fifteen-hour day is likely to be an expectation rather than an exception.
Status cues. If all the Uppities have Palm Pilot docks on their desks, don't be dragging your gigantic day planner to meetings with all those Post-it notes bursting out of it like New Year's confetti. Pick up the cues, follow the clues.
Tell no tales. Don't let your stress show on your desk. Put the bottle of Rolaids in the drawer, okaaaaayyyy?
Desk destination. Be strategic about what you are communicating with your workspace. Rotate in objects that fit the culture and generate interest and discussion on their own. For example, in the creative culture, keep your paper clips in some handmade pottery. In the techno culture, display the latest prototype gadget. One of The Girls Who Call Us, Natasha, a graphic designer, displays classic toys like Slinkys. Natasha's coworkers come over to visit just to fiddle with the latest toy and play a while. Hummmm. Conversely, stacks of black binders are good for the boring android corporate camper look.
Space: The Vinyl Frontier?
Take a look at the decor. What are its pretensions? Is there expensive framed Belle Epoque artwork on the walls? Then you are probably in a place where a "cultured" image counts, and you can be sure the Uppity Uppers never miss the Sunday New York Times Magazine and always know what's on the best-seller list.
Are there illustrated posters on how to be a good corporate camper plastered through the hallways, like there are at AOL headquarters? Then you'll be wanting to use the words upgrade and proactive a lot. Is there an implied emphasis on innovation? Renew that subscription to Wired. Is it grunge youthful? Then perhaps you can keep your nose ring in and use your purple marker after all.
Check out the parking lot: what kind of cars do the execs drive? If it's a bunch of Lexuses, Porsches, or Aston Martins, you know that luxury status items count in this office culture big time. If there are SUVs, you are dealing with a whole other status mentality the active life-style wannabe culture so you probably want to let it be known that you own a snowboard. And if the parking lot is full of rusty trucks and nasty old Volvos, then you know that these people probably care more about good value and faithfulness or, quite possibly, just driving everything into the ground.
See where we're headed here? Map out what you think is the underlying cultural system and message as expressed by the physical office spaces and align your head space with it. Whatever the culture seems to esteem (is it outsider art? vintage tools? brainy Mensa-esque quarterlies?), educate yourself. It's not tough, since there's a website for everything (europuppy.com need we say more?). To succeed, you need to understand the culture and clearly fit into it, but not conform to the point that you lose your individuality and become invisible.
When M. Shanken, which publishes Wine Spectator, purchased Food Arts, M didn't know a claret from a clarinet, her entire exposure to wine up to that point having been provided by swill with screw tops and fruit-sopped sangria. Even though M didn't work on Wine Spectator herself, wine was clearly the epicenter of the company's culture the huge glass wine cellar in the lobby was a pretty good tip-off. M made it her business to first teach herself a little bit through reading and classes and then asked some Wine Spectator editors to mentor her further.
She would speak to these colleagues/wine experts about how much she was enjoying the classes she was taking, ask them for advice, and give them updates on her progress. Eventually, sensing her sincere interest, they began to invite her along to in-house wine tastings and wine events around the city. She was candid about what she didn't know, was respectful about asking to be included, listened carefully to the lessons, learned quickly, and showed her appreciation to them for having shared their time and knowledge. She became highly Visible within the larger company and formed great and lasting friendships with those mentors.
In fact, if you are in a culture where everyone knows about something you don't, it's a great excuse to begin Chatting with coworkers so you can build a relationship that Hums for years. Get yourself interested in the topic with a little research, tell someone in your company about your desire to know more, and ask them to help you learn. People are always flattered when you ask for help and make it clear that you trust them to teach you well.
So focus some of your energy on building skills and promoting the subjects that the atmosphere seems to suggest it values. For example, if the place seems on the cheapy, chintzy side, become an efficiency expert: look for ways to save a dime and toss them up to the executives. If the walls are filled with press clippings, start learning the ropes of promotion and showing your support for the PR effort. If your company slogan is "Think Different," then no matter what your job description, it's your job to come up with innovative ideas that will help the company grow. This is what we call being the Synergizer Bunny you keep going and going to develop and display yourself as a person who not only fits into the culture but enhances it.
You get the idea here. Hop to it!
Tapping In to the Chatter
Observe how and where people communicate with each other in your office. Where do people gather to Chat? Is it the coffee room? Is it the mailroom? Is it Colonel Mustard in the conference room with a rope?
Check out where and when people do the most Chatting and be there, baby. Frequently morning is the best time to Chat & Hum around the office before the heavy lifting commences. We've told many of The Girls Who Call Us to show up half an hour early just to get in on that prime Chat bonding time.
Alien intruder. Be careful not to barge in on coworkers' chats unless there is an obvious opening for you to do so. If people are obviously engrossed in a tête-à-tête, say hello, but be sure not to insert yourself into the conversation.
Subjects matter. Catch the general drift of office chitterchatter. Is it all work? Mostly work? If so, do not start in about your new boyfriend, your old mother, your "about last night" stories. If coworkers routinely discuss personal matters, you must join in and bond with them. Pet talk is always a safe topic, but please, not in that all oozy snookum-poo-speak that makes people want to cough up a hairball.
Cover your privates. The most common mistake people make when Chatting is that they say things that make them look bad or reveal too much. Stay mindful when you are blah-blahing and never say anything that will make you look U-G-L-Y, shows poor judgment, or will otherwise give someone a bad impression. For example, even though it's chic to be on antidepressants, the knowledge that you take them will most likely change someone's image of you. Don't get anxious about it; just keep the old trap shut about the bats in your belfry.
Hotbeds of Hearsay
Gossip is probably the way most news spreads through your office, and you really do want to be on that grapevine. Most people tend to think of gossip as coming in only one flavor: malicious. It's just not true. Really, anything that doesn't come directly from the source or isn't officially pronounced is considered gossip. Gossip can be anything from where Dominique got that fabulous deal on her cool shearling coat to buzz about the company relocating to Montana.
Gossip can help you prepare for what would have been an ugly surprise, like the time J tipped M off that Eating Well was going to be folded by the parent company. And if you find out through the grapevine that the COO was squeezed out for attacking the CEO, you'll be less likely to tell the CEO when you run into her in the elevator what a great loss it was that he left the company.
In other words, gossip will keep you in the know and on your toes. Here's how to manage unofficial office communications:
Be a bystander. If what you hear as the rumor mill spins is primarily personal dirt, it's best to be very busy at those moments when the worst blood is being spilled. If you do happen to hear some exceedingly damaging stuff, don't repeat it. Repeat: don't repeat!
Give to take. In a gossip culture, you must supply tidbits as well as digest them or most people will eventually stop feeding you anything. Keep an ear to the ground for innocuous morsels that are work-related, and pass them around strategically to a small group of reliable sources who are in a position to return the favor. Don't blab everything you hear to everybody, otherwise the word about you will be that you are an indiscreet gossipmonger.
Avoid temptation. If someone confides in you with a particularly important piece of information, like the fact that they must fire someone you know, don't use it as currency in the gossip market. Keep it to yourself. Discretion builds friends for life. Nothing busts trust like a betrayal in favor of a cheap gossip thrill spill. J once told a colleague that she might fire a subordinate. The colleague immediately told the subordinate the bad news. Tides changed and J didn't need to let that subordinate go after all, but she never told the blabbing colleague so much as the time, let alone anything important, ever again.
Grains of salt. Never confuse gossip with gospel. Listen and consider carefully before you repeat or take any action. Even if the gossip is benign information, it could still be incorrect, and repeating it could make you look foolish. Assume what you hear is true and brace yourself accordingly, but sit on it. Some gossip might make you nervous, such as impending layoffs, and you will be tempted to discuss it to calm yourself. Resist the urge and work on your resumé instead, girlfriend.
Playing post office. Remember that anything you say to anybody about anything will be repeated and attributed to Y-O-U. As you are Chatting, keep in mind that what you say might be taken out of context later, and you will probably be misquoted.
Internal? External? Eternal?
Pay careful attention to how the company communicates to its employees. Are there lots of companywide memos? If so, who sends them? If anybody and everybody memos the entire staff all the time, feel free to email the universe with requests for participation in the paper recycling initiative. But, if companywide memos only come down from on high, do not send memos of any nature to the entire organization.
Check out the tone of internal communications is it friendly and chatty? Pithy? Punny? Putrid? Observe and learn, lady.
Function follows form. Try to tailor your communication style to that of the company's culture. If email is the primary form, don't be walking the halls looking to poke your head in someone's door with every incidental observation. If yelling from office to office is the mode, don't be Miss Formal Fancy Pants and have every communication start with "As per our discussion of 4 August..."
Plagiarize to synergize. Copy the tone, style, and format of the corporate communications, so don't use that ivy background and 26-point fuchsia Comic Sans font on your emails if the company emails are froof-free. For language points, see the "Cool 'Tude Dude" section on page 92.
Kindly in kind. Specifically focus in on how individuals communicate, and reply in kind to each. Some people resent too much email; others don't want to hear from you unless you put it in writing. Is the boss a one-word email kind of guy? Then no Les Misérables epic-length replies. But be careful not to come off as abrupt, as some bossy bosses can dish it out but not take it. Always sign off with a "thanks." Does the Uppity Upper hate being caught on the fly? Then don't say, "I'd like a quick word with you." Instead say, "I'd like to schedule a quick meeting." Same meaning, different planet.
Meetings of the Mindless
Are you in a by-committee culture? Are people huddled together frequently with the conference room door shut? Are meetings highly formatted and planned or spontaneously constructed and BYOB casual? Who attends? Who doesn't? Do people ask lots of questions or sit quietly like kids in detention? Are the meetings stress fests or snooze fests? Do Uppities tend to kill the messenger? Watch it all and learn your company's meeting culture.
If Simon says bring pastry, bring pastry. If people never interrupt each other, don't interrupt. If it is always formal, don't call a meeting and then show up without a written agenda. If decisions are always made in premeetings, hold one before yours.
Take the time to prepare. A good place to start is knowing what the topic is.
Know how to run a meeting. It's a skill, not an art. Don't let people go off onto unrelated tangents; keep it on track and you'll look like a star. If you don't really know the ins and outs of running an effective meeting, ask someone outside your company for advice and coaching; always pay close attention to those in your office culture who you think do it well.
Cool 'Tude Dude
When J first started at Rolling Stone, she had never worked for a magazine before. Her boss started blah-blahing about "rate base," and J had noooo clue what he was talking about. J was smart enough not to say, "Excuse me, but what the hell is a rate base?" She knew that to reveal her ignorance would have branded her as a know-nothing outsider alien. Instead, J bluffed her way through it by repeating back more or less what he had said to her: "Right. Rate base is key."
To fit in, you must keep up with the jargonese of your industry. Read at least one or more trade magazines every month, and check out your company and industry websites. Learn the language and speak it, sister.
Adopt the lingo, Lois. If everyone is walking around saying, "What are the deliverables and next steps?" then don't you be saying, "When will you get me that thingy and what d'ya wanna do now?"
Don't overuse any one term. You'll become the jargonhead joke of your office if you do. Make sure you know when a buzz-phrase is dated and don't use it. We were sooo sad when "I'm swamped" was replaced with "I don't have the bandwidth." Thank God we had the RAM to handle it.
Introduce a new buzzword. Go to the job sites, click on your field, and read the job descriptions it's a great way to pick up the latest buzzwords in your industry. Check out wordspy.com for the new word evolutions and convolutions in our language and talk about them.
Don't pick up bad habits from your officemates. Cliché overkill is the worst: "I hear ya." Poor grammar ain't nothing too good neither. Here's the rule: if your boss doesn't say it, don't you say it.
Observe the Movements of the Stars
Follow the leaders, follow the leaders, follow the leaders. We can't say that enough. No matter where you are in the company, do your very best to keep an eye on the executives. Hint: it's a good idea to know who they are and what they do. To find out, go to your company website and read the bios, or ask around.
Observe how the leaders lead. Get to know their styles, listen carefully to the behavior they publicly praise, and repeat it. M once worked with a CEO who practically canonized another VP for presenting a report in PowerPoint. You can't believe how fast M taught herself to use PowerPoint.
We know what you're thinking, and we're telling you right now: this is not sucking up. It's responding appropriately to the culture cues. M didn't go in the next day and say: "Boss, you were riiiight. Ooooh, PowerPoint is soooo special. You are soooo wise...that must be why youuuu are the boss." M just put her next report in PowerPoint because her boss had expressed that preference. Ignoring the boss's stated or inferred preferences is not ass-kissing avoidance it's active passive-aggression. (For more boss biz, see Chapter 12, "Hail to the Chef.")
If you don't have direct access to Uppity Uppers, do your best to make yourself known to them anyway. J used to literally follow company execs to the deli so she could "bump into them." It might sound a bit absurd, but she did some major bonding there in front of the cold tortellini salad. One VP from the deli became the friend, mentor, and office champion who helped J become Visible to other Uppities within and beyond the walls of that particular company. Btw, they are still friends.
Take a few risks (the old bump while getting a grinder at the deli) to meet your company Uppities. Chat & Hum in the elevator, at office functions, wherever, and find the common ground. Execs and managers in other divisions who take a shine to you will tell you far more about what's actually going on in the company than your direct boss probably ever will! J had the inside scoop on everything because of Mr. Tortellini from the salad counter.
Then there are the invisible leaders. These are the people who are not necessarily in the big offices; they might not have the fancy titles. It might be the most low-key person in the company, but she or he is the most trusted and most influential person in the company. We call these coworkers the Rainmakers.
The Rainmakers are the people who know how things work. They know how to make things happen in a company. They are the eyes and ears of the Most Uppity Uppers, and God help you if you inadvertently piss off the Rainmaker we're talking major downpour on your career parade.
One of The Girls Who Call Us, Anita, was a newly installed director at an Internet service provider. The CEO initially bragged to all about what a superstar performer Anita was. And she was. This gal was a dynamo of productivity and efficiency. Anita, however, needed the cooperation of the quality assurance department to keep her own division running smoothly.
Anita, who was stubborn and fearless, would inform the head of quality assurance in ever-so-snotty emails and a few snide face-offs how he was "screwing everything up." The quality assurance guy was intensely mellow in the face of Anita's browbeating. Anita was gone within six months. The quality assurance guy happened to be an old college buddy of the CEO's, and while it's almost impossible to know for sure, our guess is he was the Rainmaker.
The Rainmaker could be a senior exec, the Most Uppity Upper's assistant, or just some nondescript employee whose job function no one is exactly sure about. You just don't know. Finding the Rainmaker is like trying to catch snowflakes on your tongue seems like it should be easy, but you're never entirely sure when you've been successful, which is why you should plan on being professional and courteous with everyone rain or shine.
Changes in the Wind
Corporate culture is like the weather it can and will change. Sometimes a production glitch or missed deadline will cause a sudden storm, but things soon return to normal. Other times the environment undergoes a dramatic change caused by some cataclysmic happening a new tornado of a CEO comes aboard and rips through the joint, and life never returns to its original state. Change can also happen over time, through erosion, and you suddenly notice no one seems to be doing things "they way we've always done them."
Change is the one thing you should count on, Grasshopper. You need to put up those alien antennae and observe how the execs respond to change however and whenever it happens. If there's a big shift in culture, you must be prepared to move with it. You might not like the change as it happens but if you show that you are resistant toward it, you are in for a big culture shock yourself.
We've seen this again and again when a new manager comes in and wants to change the way everything is done, even if it means undoing all the stuff that was accomplished in the last six months. The staffer kicks up a nasty dust storm, relying completely on her tenure to see her through. But when the dust settles, the new manager is still there, and the girl is nowhere in sight.
You must be on the lookout for and adapt yourself to every change. Even when you get promoted, you will, once again, be an alien until you figure out the culture at your new higher elevation. The air is thinner at the top, which can cause dizziness, delusions, and disillusion not to mention that increased risk for heart attack. Don't overexert yourself unduly trying to prove that you belong there at the top. Stay cool, baby, stay cool.
Copyright © 2005 by Marcelle DiFalco & Jocelyn Greenky Herz