Your Reality Checklist

Five new realities and seven mindset shifts to get you work-ready

Source: The Cowl

Dear graduates,

You have amassed incredible book smarts in the last four years. Now it is time for you to build professional smarts. For me, as a first-generation Jamaican American, I didn’t have many examples in my private life of how to navigate the professional settings I ended up in — finance and strategy consulting firms. I had to learn that hustle, diligence, and many other things that I thought I’d learned in school all look quite different in a workplace. Below are five key differences I observed, and seven mindset shifts I had to undergo to effectively adapt.

Five new realities of how school differs from the workplace

1. The role of analytical skills

In school I gained the impression that I could think, plan, or brute-force my way into almost any opportunity I wanted. In retrospect, these tactics worked well because I was either undertaking something entrepreneurial, like starting a student group, or operating within a well-defined system, like a class scoring rubric. Most workplaces, by contrast, are somewhere in between. Systems are loosely-defined, with unspoken rules and silent expectations. Consequently, communication skills and other “soft skills”, like people skills and team collaboration, are more “make or break” than the analytical skills you learn at school.

2. The belief in objectivity

In academic courses, every attempt is made to set an objective grading rubric, to pre-define standards of what “right” is and what “good” looks like. While some companies try to come up with a trajectory map that emulates this specificity of standards, I have never seen one that wasn’t wide open to interpretation. Phrases like “produces consistent, high-quality work” on qualitative rating systems where the highest score is “exceeds expectations” are typical. These are vagaries layered on moving targets. Thus, it becomes your responsibility to manage not only your own performance and development, but also how you are perceived.

3. The idea  — and relevance — of a “right answer”

When a teacher poses a question to a class, more often than not there is a right answer ready to hand. Not so in business. More likely than not, the question is being asked *because* there is no ready answer. In strategy consulting (which is essentially project-based problem-solving for companies), I’ve found there can be multiple, equally valid answers to a question. Which answer you should lead with is context-dependent. The expansive number of unknowns also means you can expect to be wrong more often in the working world. In finance, peers often told me “as long as I’m right more than I’m wrong, I’m in good shape” — and these were peers putting other people’s money and, thus, livelihoods on the line with their decisions. Still, they were confident enough to take action and take responsibility for the consequences.

4. How you engage with authorities

Without a right answer at the ready, and with a lot of subconscious expectations, many managers struggle to give explicit guidance. Instead, most managers provide general guidance and are prone to make corrections after the fact. It is up to you to figure out what you don’t know you don’t know, so you have a comprehensive understanding of your development areas and how to meet or exceed expectations. This requires you to build rapport with and learn from peers and authorities alike. You build rapport by taking an interest in how they operate and what you should emulate. Figure out how you can make your boss’ life easier and also how to gracefully communicate your and your project’s needs.

5. How you define success

In school, there is a fairly narrow path to “success,” defined by grades and how advanced or complex the subjects you study are. By contrast, career success is deeply individual. Choosing your major in college may seem overwhelming but is finite compared to the unlimited number of career choices you will have. These choices will be multifaceted. You will need to balance your goals, financial needs, passions, and strengths. Rather than be overwhelmed, you simply need to be informed about the implications of each choice for your future opportunities, and to accept that you may not have the exact perfect job all the time. Indeed, a perfect job may be mythical, as no one likes their job all of the time. 

Seven mindset shifts to get “work-ready”

The above differences may sound straightforward on the surface, but they require a number of mental shifts to psychologically prepare for the working world. Below are seven “From / To goals” that will set you on a strong footing for your foray into the working world.

1. Thinking of work tasks as “assignments” Big-picture thinking about team objectives

Rather than thinking of your tasks as things to tick off a list, you need to think carefully about how your work will be used. Questions you might ask yourself include: Who is using what I am making? What will they expect to see? Are there examples or precedents I need to model my work after? How much of this is custom content vs. standard content? How can I simplify things to make this immediately usable or actionable?

2. Perfectionism Growth mindset

Rather than investing an infinite amount of energy into a project, you need to learn to invest the right amount of efforts to get the job done. There is no time to examine every alternative or to leave no stone unturned. This means you have to let go of any fear of being imperfect or wrong, as you calibrate with and for your team or client.

3. Expecting a roadmap Learning to navigate

While there may be a few examples to learn from that help you make a preliminary plan or guide for your work and career, some aspect of your work will include uncharted territory. You will have to develop the skill of navigating as you go, in a way that progresses your objective as new information becomes available.

4. “Big reveals” Bringing people with you as you produce work

Just working hard won’t necessarily win you appreciation or reward. Hoping people notice your work without sharing your progress or involving others also leaves you at risk of going in the wrong direction. Rather than revealing all your hard work when it’s done, validate your approach with your boss and pick up tips from your peers along the way. Involve your team in your journey.

5. Assuming people think like you Listening to and managing people

Eliminate the word “should” from your vocabulary when thinking about others. Empathy is your most powerful tool for understanding coworkers and managing your boss, your teammates, and other co-workers.

6. Thinking a role is too good or not good enough Focusing on learning and strong execution

Knowing how to execute simpler tasks inside and out means you will be competent enough to teach others and to find efficiencies. Taking on “stretch roles” that are beyond your current experience or knowledge is equally important. Don’t be afraid to take informed risks. Be confident in your capacity to learn, adapt, and step up.

7. Always sticking it out Recognizing if an environment is unhealthy or just a bad fit

Only you know your tolerance-level for unhealthy work environments, which, unfortunately, there is no shortage of. If staying is important to your next professional or financial goal, you may stick out a job with a terrible boss or insane hours for several years. But notice how it’s impacting your sense of confidence and sense of self, and consider if there are alternatives that get you to the same place. And make sure you find a mentor or peer to talk it out with.

With that, class of 2020, I welcome you to the “real world.” I wish you a strong start, many adventures, and the confidence that comes with knowing that all of my friends from school have pretty much found their happy places.

Congraduations!

By guest contributor Jim Wallace

From the classroom to the boardroom, how to prepare for the modern office

You’ve done it! Today is your day. You’ve finally graduated and are ready to make your mark on the world, and here at MBA In The City, we’ve got your back. It was not too long ago we too first stepped foot into corporate America, and today we’re going to impart our hard won wisdom to you and your graduating class of [insert year]. Yes just for your class.

After four years of philosophical debate about the deepest problems of society, you may feel some mild existential dread about joining a traditional business. Rest assured, the rumors you’ve heard are wrong; the workforce isn’t a soulless cubical landscape as far as the eye can see. It’s actually a soulless, open plan landscape as far as they eye can see or, more importantly, as far as the voice can travel. Modern offices are very good at optimizing for the bottom line. That means you have to be good at optimizing your own productivity. To do that, you’ll need some important equipment.

Micro-climate management

With air conditioning as a staple of the modern office, you may have assumed that we have conquered the temperature variations that plagued our ancient ancestors of the 1900s. The modern office instead brings a taste of adventure that appeals to its diverse and outdoorsy millennial talent base. Moving from place to place in today’s office is a journley through all of the climates on earth. One minute you’re in an jam-packed conference room that is slowly approaching the temperature of the sun. The next minute you’re on an arctic adventure, exploring the landscape that is the vast openness of the sea of monitors. To make sure you’re spending your energy working and not shivering or sweating, we recommend layering for the extremes.

Whether joining a meeting or working at your desk, every day you’ll need a few key garments for work.

  • Nice lightweight blouse or button-down shirt

  • A sweater or sweatshirt

  • A smart wool undershirt (250 gram)

  • A heaver smart wool undershirt (400 gram)

  • Long johns (especially in the summer)

  • Ski pants

  • A parka

  • Space heater

Bring your own toilet paper

In the competitive global economy we operate in, businesses must maintain their profitability by watching costs down to the cent or, as it were, the sheet. Niceties like two-ply toilet paper are just not in the budget. If companies splashed out on plush TP, how would they ever pay for the carefully engineered executive compensation packages? Work hard, and it may one day merit that coveted two-ply, and a promotion. Yes, just like school, promotion is merit-based, as our corporate leadership demographics point to. And executives have clearly been working harder and harder year on year, as CEO pay has continually increased over the past 30 years as a multiple of median employee salary. We need to support our fearless leaders and their personal sacrifices with multi-million dollar salaries, especially if the company is failing. You can remember with every wipe that your sacrifice is matched by theirs. But, if you like to wipe in style, add toilet paper to your supply list.

And with all the kit you’ll need, it’s time to think about how you’re going to store it.

Have the right bag

With hot desking and the general dearth of personal storage space that characterizes the modern office, you might be wondering where all your personal items will live at work. And at the same time, as the boundary hours of work life and home life blend, you’ll need to adjust the inventory you tote accordingly. Here’s what you’ll need on hand throughout your day:

  • Laptop computer

  • Charging cables, including

    • USB A to micro USB

    • USB A to mini USB

    • USB A to Thunderbolt

    • USB C to USB C

    • USB A to USB C

  • Laptop charger

  • Backup battery

  • Gym clothes

  • Water bottle

  • Locker lock

  • Full toiletry set, including toilet paper

  • All the professional clothes above

  • Office supplies, including

  • Pharmacy staples, including

    • Advil

    • Cold medicine

    • Vitamins

It’s a lot to carry, but we have good news: finding the right bag will actually require very little adjustment. Since you’re already used to wearing a backpack at school, you just need to upgrade to adult-sized gear.

Always eat before an event

We have observed a mathematical law that corporate events provide an amount of food equivalent to:

where x equals the number of employees who have RSVPed to the event. Thus, the per person allocation is ever decreasing as the size of the company and event increases. You can expect a full burger at a startup, a slider at a mid-cap company, and a meatball at a large company affair.

How to create a private space

 B

Most offices have plenty of conference rooms — that are always double-booked. These days glass walls are in, thanks to execs like Zuck taking the desire for transparency very literally. But if you’re a lactating mother or taking that doctor’s call about your infection status, you may not want to be on display. You could carry a “do not enter” sign to hang on the bathroom, which is now the most private space you will find in your building (It worked for Zack Morris!). That does feel a little budget though. Not to worry, Hushme has a solution for you: a noise canceling mouth-piece. So does BloxVox. You will look like Bane from Batman, but it gets the job done.

On the flip side, your peers may not have cottoned on to new privacy tech, and you may find yourself listening to messy divorces from spouses who don’t understand who their new family is.

Final thoughts

This is a starter guide, and doesn’t cover every contingency. So you will need to stay on your toes out there. I once worked at a company that was trying to win an office design award. To enhance their clean aesthetic, they took away all of the trash cans. As localized trash mountains began to collect, I realized it was time to improvise. I purchased a purse hook to hang a small plastic bag from my 3-foot-squared desk space as my new trash. The company was so inspired by this grass roots solution that they bought everyone branded purse hooks to use for their own trash! They did not provide bags though.

Oh, also, open offices can be kinda noisy. You should get a nice pair of headphones.