Guest column / The lost art of learning the ropes
Young people -- specifically millennials -- have it tough these days with the economy, and I truly feel for them.
Their baby-boomer parents had it so much easier. In those days, the economy was running like a well-oiled machine, education was relatively inexpensive and all it took was determination, dedication and ambition to get ahead. Companies were generally loyal to employees and the first company you joined might well have been the last one for which you ever worked.
Today's millennials, on the other hand, find themselves smack in the middle of an economy that has double-digit unemployment, including the large, often invisible group that has simply stopped looking for work. Employers, fearful of instability in world markets and lacking confidence in their own government, are hesitant to fill current openings and are skittish about expanding.
To succeed in this economic climate, job-seekers and those early in their professional careers, must bring to the table so much more than just the ability to do their jobs. The workplace can be strewn with mines, and those that don't bother to figure out how to navigate their way around them may well be doomed to fail.
That's why it is so essential to learn the ropes -- the hundreds of observations and actions that help you to understand what it means to be part of an organization, how do deal with those above and below you in the pecking order, and how to succeed in a highly territorial, competitive and cutthroat world.
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This is not an easy process. It takes research, powers of observation, introspection, flexibility and planning. You need to figure out how the workplace operates, what the behavior patterns of your co-workers are and which behaviors are rewarded and which are looked down upon.
Normally, it takes about 14 years to learn the ropes. Think of these years as your boot camp. They train you for combat (make no mistake about it -- it is combat) giving you the skills and strategies to not only stay alive in the workplace, but thrive.
Every workplace has its cultural traditions, rituals and procedures. In anthropological terms, those who embrace the culture will be the ones more respected and revered, while those who violate the tenets and core beliefs of the group will be banished or marginalized.
By way of example, every office has a grapevine. Those who dismiss it as idle gossip do so at their own risk. Learn how it operates, find out who wields the real influence and then use it to your advantage.
Those who understand and manipulate the grapevine to their advantage can quietly, but effectively, promote themselves and make strong alliances. If there are negative rumors about you, an understanding of the grapevine's mechanisms can help to clear your name.
It amazes me to see how many people are oblivious to these issues or don't give them the attention they deserve. I call these people "work illiterate." If you don't actively try to learn the ropes, there will be significant gaps in your knowledge base, leaving you without the sound instincts about what to do when and under what circumstances.
Over the years, many colleagues have asked me to give advice on this very subject to their sons and daughters. While I can't sum up all of the advice here, I point them in the right direction by giving them some concrete first steps:
Figure out who you are and what you want: This self knowledge will help lead you to the type of work you should be doing and the nature of the organization where you will be most fulfilled.
Find yourself a mentor or several mentors: Search out the people who have "been there and done that." The advice you get from a respected mentor can cut your learning curve down by years. I was fortunate to have brilliant mentors throughout my life, first my father, then my professor and then senior executives when I was just starting out in my career.
Learn how to present yourself: So many young people lose out on jobs for which they are qualified simply by not looking or acting the part. I've interviewed hundreds of people over the years and many of my judgments, especially the negative ones, are made in the first few seconds.
Cultivate manners: Good manners are in rare supply these days. Possess them and you will have a clear competitive edge. It may sound old-fashioned, but good manners demonstrate character, confidence and empathy.
Do your homework: In the digital age, there is a wealth of information literally at your fingertips. Find out everything you can about your company or the company you're interested in working for. That means everything from company financials, to articles about the company and its executives to the hobbies and interests of your bosses.
As I said at the outset, it is a very difficult economic climate out there.
There's no changing that reality, but you do have the power to pro-actively put yourself in the best possible position to succeed. Your upbringing, innate talents and education have all put you in a position where you are ready to embark upon your life in the business world.
But now is the time to learn an entirely different skill set -- the ropes.
I would say "good luck," but luck has nothing to do with it.
Robert Dilenschneider, of Darien, is the founder and principal of The Dilenschneider Group, a strategic communications consultancy. An author of numerous books, his most recent, "The Critical 14 Years of Your Professional Life," was published in January by Kensington Publishing Corp.