For most folks, their high school years were either the most blissful of their lives or so painful and angst-filled that they’re still haunted by them. Depending on your teenage experiences, you may have already noticed, or chosen to ignore, that most workplaces are like high school all over again.
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?
I was lucky. I attended a tiny high school in rural NC 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.
But as a seventh grader, it was kind of harrowing that I went to school, ate lunch, and rode the bus with young adults who could drive, shave, and possibly vote. Despite a six-year age range, there was little strife at my school. We always saved it for the opposing teams during Friday football games.
In the years since, after graduating from college and spending time at both large and small companies, I’m still amazed at how much the workplace can be like high school. Whether you are a new graduate entering the workforce or a seasoned member of the employed, you can apply these high school lessons to be successful in the workplace:
It’s Who You Know
Obviously, a small rural high school is going to be located in a small rural area. If you’re not familiar, folks in a small rural town know everybody and everything about everybody. I have to admit though having my mom’s best friend from church behind the lunch counter was fairly beneficial. We won’t talk about the algebra teacher my dad used to date since I’m trying to keep this positive. Identifying the influencers in your company may be much tougher than picking out your parent’s friends in the cafeteria. The influencers aren’t necessarily the top executives. Sometimes their assistants hold that honor. And don’t 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 has its advantages. Getting to the busiest of execs means knowing their schedules, and usually assistants 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, possibly 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.
The In-Crowd or Finding the BMOC
Like I said, I had it pretty good in high school. I wasn’t 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, well, we were cool with each other. Knowing the in-crowd has its advantages, especially for a seventh grader. But it’s tougher in the workplace to identify the true influencers. More chances than not, there’s 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, 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. The rural life wasn’t for 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.
Save It for the Field
Every school has that standout athlete or overachieving team. At my school, it was the girl’s basketball team. They were state champions two years in a row. Interestingly, my friends on the boy’s basketball team at times were not the most supportive. 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 patting 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. Salespeople want to score, but they need help making that goal from other departments in the organization. Whether that means essentially being a water boy or 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.
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 enlightening moment. Wait for it… there you go. So just like high school, it’s tough avoiding bullies and mean girls. They’re in finance, they’re in the mailroom, and they’re in the IT department. And just like high school, they exist to make your life as hellacious as possible. Hopefully they are not your boss. If so, that sucks for you. I’ve always tried the “kill ’em with kindness” stance, because bullies and mean girls don’t change. If they still have their job in this economy, they must bring some value to the table, and servicing your needs is not a priority they are judged on apparently. 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. Like most bullies and mean girls, they’re probably just misunderstood. Having a little more patience with them could pay dividends you never imagined. 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.