5 Lessons From Big Business That I’ve Gladly Taken Home

05/26/2017 09:44 am ET Updated May 26, 2017

Major corporations get a bad rap, in the media and online. It's not hard to understand why - as in so many other things, the abuses from the few lead to the suspicion of the many. I've spent my entire professional career in and around large organizations, from the front line to the executive suite. In my experience, bad apples are fewer and farther between than the impression Facebook or the evening news would have you accept.

Much of what goes on inside corporations is a lot like what goes on outside of them. Groups of people, coming together, trying to create something useful to make life a little better for themselves, their loved ones, and/or the population at large. Corporations, volunteer organizations, church groups, book clubs, knitting circles, and even friends planning a party, all have this in common. Maybe that’s why the lessons I've learned inside the big glass buildings have often been so useful on the outside.

So, in a continuation of my efforts to decouple the idea of evil from the idea of organization. I humbly offer five useful things I learned about life from big business.

1. Be productive, but connected.

Even the most dysfunctional corporation requires output from its employees. The better ones are crystal clear about what that output is, and what resources the employees need to produce it. Being productive means owning your side of that equation - looking for clarity regarding what you're supposed to accomplish, and what you’ll need in order to get it done. This hunt itself, and the subsequent search for the resource needs it uncovers, is rarely a linear, straightforward process. It usually involves a lot of questions, and invariably, other people. That's where being connected comes in. None of us can produce our output in a vacuum; neither can we sacrifice it in support of the relationships around us. The trick is to do both. Keep tasks on track while maintaining relationships.

In the rest of my life, my goals include fitness, financial health, and vacations - to name just a few. Being crystal clear about what my goals are, and then holding their achievement in balance with family and friends, is a never ending process. I learned it at work, and I use it everywhere.

2. Find a mentor. Then find another one.

In the old days, the apprentice/mentor relationship was one of the primary mechanisms for skill transfer between generations. Today, the term "mentor" has a broader meaning; many companies attempt to encourage mentoring in a variety of ways, from structured matching programs to informal encouragement. Much of the conversation still follows the old-fashioned definition, where one relationship lasts several years, or a whole career. While finding such a mentor can be a positive, life-changing thing for both sides, it's not the only way for you to learn and grow. Mentor and protégé alike may benefit equally from a sort of micro-mentoring relationship - one that teaches a single skill, or lasts for only a few weeks. Not every cup of coffee leads to marriage, nor should it.

I need help in all parts of my life - home improvement, financial management, and parenting, to name a few. And, I know some things, too. Being open to sharing information with others about such personal topics has served me well, far beyond the office.

3. Get along with people you don't get along with.

If there's one thing you learn in a large company, it's that you don't always have control over who's around you. We've all been thrust into situations forcing us to work with a thorny, difficult, or downright abrasive personality. Some of us have may have even been called that ourselves! (Hey! I'm looking at me when I say that.) Over time, those who are successful in big business learn how to make the best of such situations and learn that sometimes, behind the difficulty lies a talented, helpful, even kind person. To find it requires some combination of clear boundaries, tolerance, and patience.

I don't know how many times I've been across the counter, or the support desk phone line, from someone whose help I needed but who didn't seem particularly helpful. Getting better at finding the human behind the problem, and making the best of the situation at hand, always brings me right back to clear boundaries, tolerance, and patience. Three things I continue to need well after the workday ends.

4. Do scary things.

Public speaking may be one of humanity's biggest fears, but big business just does not care. Spend enough time in a company and you'll find yourself in front of a room full of people explaining something, or maybe asking for money. You may also find yourself face to face with angry customers, a CEO, or even the media. When you do, the fear and dread you face won't stop you, not because they're not paralyzing, but because - well, not doing it just isn't an option.

Public speaking made me nervous too, but only the first hundred times or so. Learning to press on despite that fear has proven useful to me time and again – at work, and in personal situations from skydiving to dating.

5. Don't stop growing.

Some of the best employers are also the most demanding. Sometimes the constant drive to do more feels like the worst form of the rat race. But here, too, hides an upside: You can't keep doing more, or doing better, unless you keep learning. When you have a job that demands constant development, you're left with no recourse but to develop. So much so that it's often surprising to look back over your own resume over the last few years and realize how far you've come.

I don't think I'll ever have the desire or the luxury, to stop learning. That's true in business, for sure, but also at home. Parenting is constant learning; marriage is constant learning. In recent years, even my car seems to have spawned a technological learning curve. Welcoming those opportunities and tackling them head-on has brought me a lot more joy and satisfaction in life than I would have gotten by ignoring them, or fighting for the status quo.

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Work is neither perfect, easy, nor stress-free; I know this. Much of my professional life is dedicated to improving the workplace, and I sense a whole lot of job security in my field. Even so, dwelling for years in the halls of corporations hasn't taken my soul or left me depleted. Rather, the perspective and tools I've gotten in those contexts have been a strong force elsewhere in the best parts of my life today.

That’s why, from where I sit, being anti-evil doesn't mean you have to be anti-corporation. There’s a whole lot of good going on there too – just like everywhere else.

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