Dear Millennials....Here's Some Advice Your First Boss Probably Won't Give You (But Should)

03/19/2017 09:05 pm ET
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Let’s be honest…Millennials and other early career professionals often enter the workplace straight out of 16+ years of academia without much of a clue as to how to navigate the corporate jungle. Unfortunately, the reality is that too many managers shy away from the uncomfortable candid feedback conversation and instead overlook their weaknesses (while oftentimes still penalizing them whether consciously or subconsciously) and fail to clue them in on many of the unspoken rules of the workplace. As a corporate trainer, I know far too well that those who quickly learn and master these “rules” often become the organizational superstars.

Work Hard – Come in Early, Stay Late and Pay Your Dues

These days it seems like there’s so much focus (appropriately so) on work life balance and alternative work schedules, but the reality is that Millennials are often on a steep learning curve and working harder than most is a great way to build your brand, learn your industry/functional area, and build some critical goodwill with your team. My experience has been that most bosses don’t want to micromanage when you come in/leave, how long you take for lunch, etc. Increasingly, managers support work/life balance initiatives and won’t mind you cutting out a little early here and there on a Friday to catch a flight or get your weekend started early as long as they know you’re a hard worker and will get the job done. It’s also a complete buzzkill when you seem more interested in the fine print on the telework policy and 4 day work week options before you’ve gotten your id badge. If your specific situation requires a specific schedule/time off, negotiate that before accepting the position, but once you’re there focus your energy on developing a reputation as the one working circles around everyone else (not in an unhealthy workaholic way, but just focused, determined, and dedicated).

Always Make the Boss Look Good

Yes, there are probably some extreme circumstances where this wouldn’t hold true, but in general, always look for opportunities to make your boss look good. I’m not talking about traditional brown nosing (not a fan of that actually). Instead, I’m talking about being careful about blatantly contradicting your boss in public, taking credit for ideas/showboating, or simply dropping the ball on high visibility tasks/projects. Sometimes newer employees are anxious in meetings and tend to talk too much or over talk/contradict their boss on mundane issues when they’re oftentimes better off sitting back, observing, and contributing thoughtfully where appropriate. Of course, it’s important to always be honest and advocate for yourself as needed, but showing some level of deference to your superiors is generally a good idea. Also, humility is an underrated but powerful quality. If you feel your report turned out poorly in large part due to unclear direction from the boss, you might say something like… “My apologies for missing the boat on the vendor selection portion. I didn’t understand that you wanted to include specific criteria, but I can rework it and get you a revised version by end of week…will that work?” Avoid simply verbalizing your thought bubble – “Rick, you know good and well, you didn’t say anything about including vendor selection criteria. I’m not a mind reader dude!” If you disagree with your boss, there’s certainly a way to speak up about that. First, do it privately or if that’s not an option (say you’re asked a direct question in a meeting), find a way to voice your concern as a question instead of directly contradicting them. “I think Rick’s idea is definitely innovative. We’ve certainly never considered penetrating that market. I’m just wondering though if we might have liability concerns with that type of product line?”

Look for Ways to Take Something Off Your Boss’ Plate

One of my first bosses told me that he loved me because I was always taking things “off his plate” as he said. Let’s face it. Everyone is swamped and there are some people who seem to always add to your plate when you bump into them and others that take one or two items off your plate. You want to be the latter, not the former. What does this look like? It’s often simple things like volunteering to take simple action items that come up in a meeting, volunteering to send out the calendar invite for a meeting with your boss, asking if he/she would like you to make a call/do some research to follow up on a new idea, offering to put their thoughts into a slide or spreadsheet to make them easier to share, etc.

Questions are Critical, But There Really Are Dumb Questions

Newer employees in particular are hesitant to ask questions, but I find thoughtful questions to be impressive. More importantly, most managers typically aren’t crystal clear in their communications so questioning plays a critical role in ensuring that the message is conveyed accurately. If you have concerns about how you’ll be viewed when questioning (say a task assignment), preface it with something like “Since our timeframe is so short on this task, I’d like to ask a couple clarifying questions if you don’t mind to be sure I have the requirements correct….” Having acknowledged the importance of questioning, I must also admit that I have heard some dumb questions in my day (and probably asked a few as well). If you’re questioning because you weren’t paying attention, just to hear yourself talk, or because you fundamentally don’t understand the basics of your business/industry, you’re likely better off saving it or asking a trusted friend/colleague instead who can help get you up to speed in a safe environment.

Dana Brownlee is an acclaimed keynote speaker, corporate trainer, and team development consultant. She is President of Professionalism Matters, Inc. a boutique professional development corporate training firm based in Atlanta, GA. She can be reached at Connect with her on Linked In @ and Twitter @DanaBrownlee.

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