Janis’ introduction: For younger millennials facing the complexities of first or second jobs, the rules can be perplexing. They begin their career in a humble organizational role where lofty management and leadership concepts infrequently trickle down. My daughter Joanna found herself struggling to make sense of conflicting values and roles in her first jobs, so we decided to share our dialogue on finding meaning in this challenging context. We focus on three critical areas deserving our attention: learning how to work, taking relationship responsibility, and deciphering what our contribution is as well as what it should be.
Janis: As a management professor, I meet and mentor an increasing number of young people who are trying to figure out “the rules of the game” before or shortly after beginning their first job. They need to survive long enough to pay their bills while they search for the next job. While many millennials may be labouring in more “flat” organizations (where sharing responsibility as a team player and communicating across various lines of responsibility is a given), others start in large organizations, many of which are still bureaucratic and hierarchical.
I’ve worked in a number of different sizes and shapes of organizations, but the one where I grew the most was large and bureaucratic. Why? Because it was a phenomenal learning experience. I was in way over my head and knew it fairly quickly. It was critical that I adopt the position of learner and recognize the strengths of others on whom I depended in order to get things accomplished and succeed in my work.
Joanna: As I went straight from college to a job as a paralegal at a large law firm in Manhattan, there were peers from whom I could learn, but I was largely left on my own. As a result, I focused on my individual goals and personal accomplishments much more than on meeting the organization’s needs. So, I missed a lot of opportunities for interaction and institutional learning, which would have helped me be much more productive.
Janis: The nature of the work is one of the difficulties. In countries where technology is a primary driver, it seems that we have created a culture of glorifying the person who makes things happen on his or her own, who dreams of and creates the product that everyone else wants and needs, or who revolutionizes the company (and who may not always be a boomer). This leaves little time for nurturing someone who may have solid knowledge and good practical skills, but doesn’t stand out from day one.
Joanna: It soon dawned on me that I needed to learn how to get a detailed, administrative job done—a job that was not going to stretch me in the way I wanted and that did not provide me the opportunity to work the way in which I was most comfortable. Because of my undergraduate experience I had a measure of adaptability and self-awareness, but I spent months stymied because I didn’t feel confident that I could do the job the way they wanted.
Janis: We do have a highly educated workforce that has been told that their ideas matter—that they can change the world (which of course they can, but perhaps not in their first job!). But then they go into their first formal position and are told what to do, and given tasks that they feel anyone can do. While they may be willing to squeeze these tasks in if they are really needed, they do not view them as their primary contribution, even if assigned by the boss or another executive. Instead, they set for themselves a list of priorities that often does not match the organization’s priorities.
Joanna: It would have been helpful if after college someone had said to me, “Working professionally is not like school—choose jobs that will help you learn how to work, and ignore those that do not.” I also needed to learn about what Peter Drucker called “relationship responsibility”—figuring out what the boss or client wants and delivering it “their way,” not mine.
Janis: Some millennials struggle to make the work fit with their social goals, which are important to them. They may want the company to meet certain social aspirations (like being “green” or supporting community volunteer work), or engage relationally (creating opportunities to socialize and have fun together), which is part of their motivation for working well. When these needs or desires aren’t acknowledged or encouraged by the organization or senior executives, it can be de-motivating and often leads to disengagement from the tasks at hand.
Joanna: There is also a tension between what I think is valuable to learn in order to do the job and what the boss or client may want me to learn. I know I need to work on developing self-control and discipline, but without feedback it’s very difficult to tell whether the changes I’m making are the right ones!
Janis: These circumstances can contribute to our learning, however. It’s amazing how many seemingly inconsequential jobs or experiences help make it possible to do much more significant things later. You really have to keep things in perspective. Today’s twenty-somethings will have decades of productive work life. Whether or not you do everything exactly as the boss would like, the experience offers you the opportunity—depending on how you interact with it—to become the type of person you want to be. “What we pay attention to, and how we pay attention,” as Csikszentmihalyi explains, “determines the content and quality of life.”
Joanna: I have spent the first five years of work life after college learning how to stay focused, self-regulate, and set goals—and it will probably take another five to really figure this out, especially if I want to make sure my work counts for the organization as well as for me.
Janis: Millennials focus enormous energy and attention on personality and personhood. While wholeness and self-worth are important, you must move from self-analysis to self-management in order to achieve results. Not only will you then find more significance in what you do, but you will also engender respect and create a foundation for performing your own work well.
Joanna: I agree that we need to focus more on getting results—but doing so is not intuitive. It may have something to do with how our brains are wired, but it is difficult to keep a balance between figuring out what your “calling” is and what you want to spend your life doing, and getting on with day-to-day responsibilities. I wanted my bosses to encourage my gifts and nurture and affirm my talents. Instead, I found the majority of managers apathetic, overworked, critical, and far more interested in measuring the minutiae of my mistakes than pointing me down a path to my strengths. (But maybe it wasn’t all about me!)
Janis: Max De Pree said that “if you want to build trust and if you want to have covenantal relationships, it always has to start with respect.” And this respect goes both ways—up and down the hierarchy or across a flat organization. When you think about learning experiences at work, you usually start with your bosses—as you point out.
My best bosses stood out in two ways:
- They were respected—both as the kind of human being you were glad to find in the workplace and because they were excellent at their own work. One interim boss was a CFO, and I was always amazed that nothing got past him—even when he was wearing two or three hats at one time. Another, a Vice President and bright, former engineer, relished what he didn’t know and could find the answer to any problem, but expected you to do it before he had to. While both were good at managing others, each achieved his own performance and results.
- They were supportive—whether that meant pitching in when a crisis erupted, or backing my sometimes unpleasant news to the Executive Vice President.
Joanna: I had one boss who I respected because he did excellent work, and I think this mitigated what could sometimes be a stressful work environment. I believe that a boss who wants to get the best work out of someone new on the job should delegate meaningful work and ensure that the person is accountable for his or her results. The boss should be one of those who help us learn how to adapt our style to fit her needs and the organization’s. But I realize now that this will not always happen. If it doesn’t, I have to adjust my expectations and initiate efforts to figure out how it works. I can’t sit back and wait for the opportunity to come to me.
Janis: Ultimately, it is our individual responsibility to infuse meaning into our work and draw meaning from it. Some situations make this easier than others. But learning how to work, take relationship responsibility, and decipher what our contribution is and what it should be is part of a lifelong, continuing cycle of learning.