For most of us, high school generates a blissful sense of nostalgia or a painful, angst-filled sense of dread. We either yearn for those golden memories or cringe at the thought of the past. Depending on your teenage experiences, you may have already noticed or chosen to ignore the reality that most workplaces are like high school all over again.
When you stop to think about it, doesn’t the company Christmas party sometimes come off more like a pep rally? Do you ever catch yourself ducking the executive suite like it’s the principal’s office? Do you have this inherent department pride when compared to some other random department—like it’s seniors versus juniors all over again?
In my case, I was lucky. I attended a tiny high school in rural North Carolina that doesn’t even exist anymore. My high school actually included grades 7–12. That’s right; I essentially had six years of high school. I graduated with 84 other teenagers and, for the most part, had a great experience, which I know isn’t true for everyone.
As a seventh grader, it was kind of harrowing to go to school, eat lunch, and ride the bus with young adults who could drive, shave and, in some cases, even vote. Despite a six-year age range, there was little strife at my school. We always saved it for the opposing teams during Friday night football games and gave each other respect and space in the meantime.
In the years since high school, I’ve graduated from college and gone on to spend time at both large and small companies. I’m still amazed at how much the workplace can be like high school even after all this time. Whether you are a new graduate entering the workforce or a seasoned member of those referred to as “gainfully employed,” you can apply these high school lessons to be successful in the workplace:
It’s Who You Know
It goes without saying that my small rural high school was located in a small rural area. If you’re not familiar, folks in a small rural town know everybody and everything about everybody. This certainly has its perks. Having my mom’s best friend from church behind the lunch counter was fairly beneficial. However, we won’t talk about the fact my dad dated the algebra teacher back in the day since I’m trying to keep this positive. I shudder at the memory.
Ultimately, identifying the influencers in your company may be much tougher than picking out your parents’ friends in the cafeteria. Don’t be fooled into thinking the influencers are the top executives; sometimes their assistants hold that honor. And never underestimate the value of a good relationship with the receptionist.
I’ve had the privilege of working side-by-side with top executives over the years. (Having a communications background obviously has its advantages.) Getting to the busiest of execs means knowing their schedules, and assistants usually know executives’ schedules and habits better than the bosses do. After all, you don’t want to spend half the day waiting around for an exec whose return flight was delayed. Or worse: You don’t want to try to pitch your brilliant, money-saving idea to an exec who is 15 minutes away from leaving for an important trip.
Never forget assistants and administrative support personnel hold the keys to the kingdom.
The In-Crowd or Finding the Big Man on Campus
Like I said, I had it pretty easy in high school, but it wasn’t because I was the best looking, most athletic, or even the most popular. My high school life was made better mostly because of my older brother. The coolest guy at my school? He was my older brother’s good friend. The prettiest girl at my school? She had a crush on my older brother. The toughest guy at my school? He played church softball with my brother. So, thanks in large part to my brother, I was connected with these folks.
Knowing the in-crowd has its advantages—especially for a seventh grader when your brother is friends with the movers and shakers. But it’s tougher in the workplace to identify the true influencers. More often than not, there’s probably someone at your company you know outside of work. If you got the job because of someone you know, then you’re ahead of the game. Knowing them obviously didn’t hurt your chances, but how do you nurture connections once you’ve got your foot in the door and the job offer in hand? Ask folks questions about where they’re from and where they live now. Notice what teams they root for and if you have children the same age. These common factors are more powerful than you think.
I recently discovered that a woman I work with went to college with my wife and grew up 20 miles from me, so we’re cool with each other because of these commonalities. The rural life wasn’t for either of us apparently. My newfound connection with her allows me access to a whole different set of folks in a different department. While she doesn’t run that department, she is well liked and seen as an asset to the company. You can’t have enough friends at work like that if you want to continue to grow your network or even just feel a sense of belonging.
Save It for the Field
Every school has that standout athlete or overachieving team. At my school, it was the girls’ basketball team. They were state champions two years in a row. Interestingly, my friends on the boys’ basketball team were not the most supportive of their peers at times. They were jealous of the girls’ success and were haters.
In the workplace, you have to recognize when you’re the hated and when you’re simply the hater. Typically, sales teams get a lot of positive feedback and tons of pats on the back. Pep rallies aside, they bring in the revenue, so props may be well deserved. I’ve worked on communications and marketing teams in support of sales teams, and that can be a minefield in terms of navigating personalities and roles.
Salespeople want to score, but they need help making that goal from other departments in the organization. Whether that support means you’re essentially limited to being a water boy or the team manager, do what you have to do to be as supportive as possible. It’s essential that, if it’s within your skill set and duties, you’re the one helping and not the one hating. Haters don’t go far in the workplace.
Beware the Mean Girls and the Bullies
If you’ve never noticed that the workplace has bullies and mean girls just like high school, then let this be your moment of enlightenment. Wait for it… there you go. It just hit you. So just like high school, it’s tough avoiding bullies and mean girls. They’re everywhere: in finance, in the mailroom, and in the IT department. They’re lurking everywhere. And just like high school, they exist to make your life as hellacious as possible with minimal effort. Hopefully, they aren’t your boss or director. If so, that sucks for you.
I’ve always taken the “kill ’em with kindness” approach because bullies and mean girls don’t change. Ever. If they still have their job in this economy, they must bring some value to the table, and apparently tending to your needs is not a success metric they are evaluated on. So identify these folks who potentially can and will make your life at work harder. Be cordial to them but beware. Bullies and mean girls can smell insincerity faster than anyone.
However, like most bullies and mean girls, they’re probably just misunderstood. Having a little more patience with them could pay dividends you never imagined if you can stomach the challenge. It won’t be easy, but just the fact of knowing who could possibly impede your success at work is more important than how many days ‘til summer vacation.
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