In May 2002, I arrived at work for the first time, not knowing what to expect, but incredibly excited about the fact that my career had finally kicked off and I was well on my way to success where I would make “the millions”. Having held one or two “odd jobs” while in university, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the big company signage that greeted me at reception, the mere posh appearance of my desk, the lighting, the phones and most notably the many faces that surrounded me; giving me a sense of incredible privilege. Like most black people, I silently thought to myself... “first black guy to…” I remember phoning my parents that evening and they were oozing with pride as they expressed their overwhelming happiness -or maybe relief- at the fact that someone had finally decided to hire their son. Did I worry them that much I thought? In order to keep their moment of pride alive, I decided to omit one minor detail… the fact that I was working for virtually nothing more than transport money and experience; something I would eventually learn means a lot in the corporate environment.
With the hope that my story will inspire someone to take a slightly different path, avoid some of the mistakes that I made, and become a far bigger success than I have been, I decided to document some of the lessons I have learnt in the corporate world over the years. This is the first of a series of 4 blogs, which I will post over the next three months.
Despite my first job being in a small company of about 10 people, I quickly got to learn that enjoyment of life and success in Corporate South Africa is determined by who you align yourself with, bearing in mind that this process is one that needs to happen within one’s first 3 months in a job. Although most people walk in being neutral, the wise quickly find “alliance partners” and begin to build a power base. Considering the fact that I was the only black guy among the office staff, Henry, the driver and Mildred our tea lady (not their real names); who were both wonderful elderly black folk took it upon themselves to induct and guide me through a few basics; kind of, reminding me at each turn how lucky I was to be working with these super humans. Obviously being cultured and respectful to my elders, I followed their lead and it wasn’t too long before I lost every ounce of bargaining power that I had walked in with and was inches away from being asked to make the odd cup of tea. Did Henry and Mildred have any clue that they were doing me a disservice despite their good intentions? I guess not.
My lesson here was simple: Your networks will make or break your career.
The next lesson was perhaps the most interesting, but most difficult, to accept. Having spent a few years in university learning to become a high flying corporate professional, it eventually dawned on me that the degree I had worked so hard to get, meant very little beyond that hand shake on the day I accepted the job. I transitioned into what I call “the great depression” the day I had a look at the organogram and realized that, despite my qualifications, I had given new meaning to the cliché “starting at the bottom”. Refusing to learn this lesson, I took my degree with me and joined another company where once again I got a hand shake and was shown my desk. I couldn’t quite understand how these mere mortals were refusing to recognize the greatness that stood before them, until I realized that very few people actually understand the value that a degree adds to the thinking capacity of an individual. Most importantly though, I also realized just how poorly university students are bridged over into the corporate world and are allowed to go into it with delusions of changing the world, when in reality, they are perceived to be cheap labour willing to do anything.
My lesson here? Education is simply an indicator that you have the ability to learn and not a guarantee that you will perform. Don’t exaggerate it’s importance.
Two years into my career and at the tender age of 24, I was handed an opportunity of a lifetime; an opportunity to join the management team of a major bank. Excited about the salary and the prospect of buying myself a real car for a change, I went in gun’s blazing but very ill prepared on two fronts. Firstly, I had never managed people before and secondly, the number of hours in a day suddenly became a game changer! My first day at work was particularly entertaining. Although my contract stated that I was required to work the conventional 8 to 4, I had previously learnt that managing perceptions was an important part of corporate survival. In this case, the application of my learning was simple: “Do not be the first one to get up and go home on your first day on the job unless you are itching to create some office gossip”. Knowing this, like a good employee, I sat and waited for an indicator. 4 o’clock, 5 o’clock, 6 o’clock and no one was moving or even looking bothered. Eventually at about 6:30, the office joker got up and said “cheers everyone” to a few chuckles in response. Ironically, this was the person I soon learnt I would be replacing (no pressure). I eventually made it home that day after 8 pm and from that moment on; I knew I had a long two years of real work ahead of me.
My lesson here? Unless you are the new CEO, read the environment and adapt quickly. It’s normally very difficult to recover from a poor first impression.
My most valuable lessons in this job however, were learnt in an area that defined who I became as a manager; People Management. This will be covered in part two of this series of blogs, in which I will share specific instances that I now consider missed opportunities.
I would appreciate any comments and additional lessons that you too have learnt in your career as I build on this blog.
- Amasi Mwela