Friday, August 22, 2008

The Things I Miss About Working for The Man

(Sorry that this post, which I wrote most of on Thursday, wasn't up until today. I will still write my originally planned post for today, too, so check back again tonight or tomorrow!)

Now that I have not-so-fondly recalled some of my most hated buzzwords/phrases and the things I haven't missed from my career in Corporate America, it is now time to admit what aspects of working for The Man I actually appreciate even more now that I've been without them for a year.

The Top Ten Things I Miss About Working for The Man

10. A Routine / Organization

Less than one week after I left my last job, I knew that I desperately needed a routine, if only for my dog's sake. Fortunately, he has gotten used to me being around and has pretty much resumed his old habit of sleeping all day in his (open) crate, except for when it's time to take our midday walk.

But I still haven't nailed down a "normal" schedule for myself. Yes, sometimes bizarre things happen that I could've never planned for that tie up hours on end. But that happens in an office environment, too (ahh! I forgot "putting out fires" on the annoying phrases list...), and doesn't negate the need for an attempt at a schedule.

Because I love organization, I took great comfort in, say, the weekly Business Development meeting, or the every-other-Thursday Project X call, or the fact that my boss would be expecting to review a certain report on a specific day. Now, I don't have any recurring appointments (except for the dog-walk), and in the past year I've only had self-imposed deadlines for things I've been working on. And we all know how self-imposed deadlines go. I can't fire myself, give myself a raise, or reward myself with a bonus like a real boss could.

And so, I continue to try and learn exactly how I work best. One thing I have noticed is that when I have a lot of writing projects coming in, I am actually more productive in the other areas of my life, too. All of a sudden the laundry is done and the counter is cleaned and the bills are mailed and even a few magazines might get read, even though I am technically "busier." My guidance counselor in high school, all those years ago, had me figured out: "Erika thrives on stress." Ms. Hamilton, wherever you are, you were a genius.

9. Mentors

When you work for an organization that has a good number of employees, there are usually a lot of people who've been at the company or in the work force for decades and find great pleasure in taking a younger colleague under their wing. I've been lucky enough to meet many wonderful mentors throughout the years who were honest with me about my strengths and shortcomings, and who helped me navigate the sometimes treacherous world of office politics. I keep in touch with almost all of them to this day, and while I feel like they don't quite understand what I'm doing right now--only because they were such big cheerleaders for me in Corporate America--they've still been supportive and give me confidence that I can succeed in whatever I put my mind to.

When you work for yourself by yourself, umm.... there's no one else around. If you want a mentor, you're going to have to put in a lot of effort to seek such a person out. And if you don't have something like, say, an employer in common, then it could be kind of weird or awkward to get to the point of asking them for advice. I've been doing my best to contact (notice how I didn't say "reach out to") other writers in the Chicagoland area, and have been pleasantly surprised at how helpful and encouraging everyone has been. I just need to keep those relationships going, because I'm not going to see these people in the hall, like I would if we both worked in the same building.

8. Large-scale Accomplishments

Some of the projects I was involved with during my days in the financial industry helped move tens of thousands of customers from one banking platform to another. Or made the experience accountants across the country had with a heavily-used web site significantly better. Or helped businesses large and small hedge against dramatic financial losses. Or saved millions in cash. Or successfully kept trillions of dollars pumping through the markets.

If I introduce a new theory about Lost when it returns to the airwaves early next year, does that really measure up to what I was doing before? I know the answer is an astounding "YES!!!!" from many of you out there, and for that, I love you. But you get my point. It is very cool to be a part of something that's so much bigger than yourself. Something that's truly doing some good in the world. And I know a lot of you work for places that achieve much more incredible feats than the ones I described. You should be proud of that, because it's hard to make a significant impact when you are working for yourself.

A "sister benefit" to this one, if you will, is...

7. Company Pride

So there are the things you may be working on that help others and therefore give you something to feel good about at your job. But then there's also a higher level of pride that comes from feeling that your company, overall, is just pretty damn cool. You don't have to be at some whiz-bang place like Google to experience this. In fact, I think I had more respect for the larger banks and financial institutions I worked for than I did for some of the smaller web development boutiques I spent the mid-90s with.

For me, my level of company pride usually depended on the quality of executive management at my firm. If I thought they were on the up-and-up, if I thought they were taking the company in the right direction, if I thought they were intelligent, and if I thought they seemed like cool people to hang out with, should I ever get the chance, then that counted for something. I would like to read articles in The Wall Street Journal where my CEO was interviewed and had a brilliant remark. I would silently applaud him if he delivered a rousing speech to the troops. I would be so impressed when he would donate huge chunks of money and volunteer time when the nation suffered through disasters.

If your firm has a strong leader or set of leaders, then you've experienced first-hand how powerfully certain visionaries can influence the morale and culture of rest of the company. If you work at a really large place, it may be a completely separate division that achieves some breakthrough in technology or health care that puts that lump of pride in your throat. Wherever you get it from, it's a nice feeling to have. And so I miss having that "Go Team!" spirit to rally around from time to time.

6. Traveling

As you all should know by now, I like to take vacations. But I also enjoyed traveling for work, too. In fact, I would not have made it to a lot of the countries--and even one continent (Australia)-- I've visited if it hadn't been for a work assignment. When I was younger and in positions where I was constantly on the road it did get a little old, but going somewhere once a month was just fine with me. And hey, visiting cities like Paris, London or New York City on an expense account is really the best way to do it, don't you agree?

5. Learning New Things

Oh sure, I learn new things as a writer (remember my shock at the Self-Employment Tax from Wednesday's post?), but it doesn't quite compare to what you learn when you have a job with a boss, co-workers, a mentor and maybe even employees reporting to you. You learn all sorts of things about human nature, you learn new things about your business and industry, you learn about your competitors and customers, you learn about other people's careers and backgrounds, you really do learn something new--even if it's just a small bit of information--every day. It's like school without a degree. And until I find the time to learn Spanish and to play the piano like I was also lamenting about Wednesday, I'm stuck with only learning how to better manage my day!

4. Getting Paid on a Regular Basis

When you work for The Man, you know when that paycheck is going to be deposited. Unless you are in danger of getting laid off or fired, you don't worry about when the next one is going to arrive. There's a schedule and they stick to it. You know how much your check is going to be, and you can plan your finances around that.

In the world of self-employment, that all goes out the window. I'll leave it at that.

3. Benefits

"Benefits" come along with a paycheck. I was always on my husband's health insurance plan, but other people who decide to go into business for themselves usually need to start ponying up hundreds of dollars a month to ensure their medical expenses will be covered. There are also stock-purchase programs and retirement plans and all of those sorts of perks that are wonderful, too.

But on top of those things, I also miss the other benefits, like "free cholesterol screenings" and "becoming a better presenter" seminars and the ice cream party our building would throw once a year and discounts we would get on phone plans or laptops. Every once in a while, someone would order pizza for the entire floor. Or it would be someone's birthday and we'd all get cake. Or we'd all get new company t-shirts or notepads. These seem like little things, but you will never get any of them when you work alone from your kitchen.

2. A Team-Based Culture

What I'm talking about here is different from the "company pride" I was discussing earlier. There were companies I worked for where I felt like I was doing something cool and I was proud to say that I worked for the company overall, but on a day-to-day basis, I did not feel like I was part of a team. I didn't get the sense that we were "all in it together." Many people were out for themselves, and there was a general sense of paranoia from anyone who was actually responsible for something--they knew they would be the scapegoat if something went wrong with their project.

At other companies, that sort of culture didn't exist. Sure, there were little battles for power here and there, or a few people who didn't get along and always seemed to be undermining each other, but by and large, personal agendas were put aside for the sake of the larger team and firm. When you go from a culture where there's a lot of back-stabbing and reluctance to take charge to one where everyone truly works well together, it's quite a shock. And it's also awesome.

When I was in business school, we had all sorts of famous CEOs come speak. One of the most recurring themes across their talks was the importance of a strong, team-based culture. "You are all sitting there, worried about your Finance and Accounting classes," one of them said. "But what you really need to pay attention to is the class you're all blowing off as fluff, Organizational Behavior. How employees work together will absolutely make or break yor company." They were right.

1. The Good People

I ranted about The Evil People on Tuesday, but as I also mentioned then, 99.99% of the people I've worked with have been incredible. Fun, smart, sarcastic in a good way, and cool. We would protect each other from and vent to each other about The Evil People. We would go out to lunch, go out to drinks after work, pass along gossip, give each other advice, celebrate births, engagements, marriages and birthdays, and support each other through tough times. Because that is what friends do. And yes, when you work with great people, your co-workers often become your friends.

Since I miss seeing or talking to these people every day, I do my best to keep tabs on them and meet up with them as often as possible. So I've lost them as co-workers, but I've kept them as friends.

My biggest advice to anyone working for The Man is this: if you don't like the vast majority of the people you work with on a daily basis, start looking for a new job. Life is too short and you spend way too much time at work to let your co-workers make you miserable. To this point, I once worked as an Internet consultant for Company A. I didn't really click with anyone there and hated it. I had pretty much the exact same job a few years later at Company B. Even though I was traveling constantly and totally stressed out and working until two in the morning every night, I loved everyone there, and I therefore loved my job. It was the exact same position as the one I held at Company A, but the people made all the difference.

I know I have more than a few readers out there who are in college and will one day be interviewing for their first "real" job. I hope that this post has given you some insight on what to look for in a place of employment. Your happiness at work will be greatly affected by the people you interact with every day. If you really hit it off with your interviewers, that's a good sign! If they seem arrogant or condescending or rude... run as far away from that company as you can. They don't deserve you!

- e


Wanders said...

Gosh, you made me appreciate my job a lot more. Thanks! Actually, I'm one of the fortunate few who loves his job. Even if I need to take a break now and then to read your blog. Keep it up; you do an awesome job.

twilight said...

i agree... the people make all the difference... i'm working part-time at a toy store about 20 hours a week (i also nanny 25+ hours weekly and am a student making her way through college), and while i'm making $10.20/hour (not bad for my first real job that has taxes taken out of my paycheck), i wouldn't stick around if it wasn't for my coworkers and loyal customers. they are so great, i'm almost disappointed when i have a day off! :)

p.s. i *love* your blogs... you are an amazing writer... i jump for joy when your lost recaps come out :)