How Did I Get Here and Where Do I Fit?

[Context is Key for Gen Yers Who “Get It” at Work]

Many Gen Yers have been prepped, prodded and pushed into career development since high school, with academic interest, personality and aptitude tests, internships and work study programs. The problem is, all those focus on how to get where you’re going, not what to do when you get there.

One of the biggest complaints about Gen Y, and one that I’ve seen happen around me, is that young professionals aren’t clear on what their role at the company is. Yes, you have a title and a team and a cube, but what’s the context? In Bruce Tulgan’s “Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage Gen Y,” a chapter on context is one of the most valuable in the whole book.

There are three parts to understanding your place at work: Chain of command, group situations and relationships with leaders. It’s entirely too common for us to make missteps because we just don’t get where we fall in the spectrum.

Be Observant.

You Can Do Your Job Right and Still Not Get It.

Let’s be clear: It’s your job to understand your context, and it’s not something that can easily be taught. You know you don’t really know everything, so get your ego out of the way and soak up the context of your job, not just the tasks.

Observe everything – who are the movers and shakers, who is related to each project and what does everyone do? I’m always shocked with peers who say, “Oh yeah, I don’t really get what she does. Must not be that important.” Uh, no. Find out – they’re your colleague and possibly boss.

Chain of Command

Gen Yers know we’re the bottom of the totem pole. Yes, really, we do. But the problem is that we’re confused with how to relate to those at the top. A lifetime of nurturing relationships creates the idea that all adults are there to help us. We report to multiple bosses, deal with people who expect respect without demonstrating or explaining why,  and work with other departments or vendors without understanding how our work relates to theirs – and more importantly, where our authority ends.

Be clear. When is it appropriate to go to a manager’s boss? Make sure we understand the gravity of end-running a situation. Most of the time, it’s not with malicious intent –  we are just confused, frustrated or want a second opinion. (Or impatience. Friends, learn patience. The workplace isn’t “click and ye shall receive.” Real answers can’t always happen in real time.)

At one point can you invoke the help of authority to get a job done? Why are certain people important and relevant to you? Don’t let young employees remain in a vacuum by not demonstrating the chain of command and appropriate responses.

A good strategy is to find yourself a peer mentor at work who isn’t directly your supervisor. They have life experience, emotional intelligence and a history with the company’s leaders/leadership styles that can inform many situations.

It’s easy to create rapport or a coaching-type relationship if you simply pay attention to who your coworkers are as people, and tie on to a commonality. Make sure you don’t impose on their time (ask every time: Is this a good time? Do you have a second to spare?), but make them want to help you because you’re passionate, curious and truly committed to being a good employee.

Group Situations

We’ve all been in a situation, be it a class, workshop, meeting or event where someone just won’t stop asking questions, giving opinions and generally sucking time away from the key reasons for the event in the first place.

Gen Yers, including myself, are guilty of this largely because they weren’t properly prepped. Reading background material, knowing the true purpose of the meeting, who will be there and what they need from you, is all crucial.

Managers, if it’s a time to be seen and not heard – tell me. I can take it, but be prepared to explain why I’m there, if that’s the case. If I’m there to watch and learn, tell me. If the meeting is pointless and any further discussion irrelevant to the outcome, tell me.

Lastly, a note about etiquette. Young professionals may not know the nonverbal cues you gained from experience. Tell your direct reports: Come one minute early, bring paper, write yourself a note if you have a question and only ask it if you’re sure it’s immediately relevant to all attending, says Tulgan.

Relationships with Leaders

Gen Yers aren’t intimidated by titles. In just our limited frame of reference, a President was brought to his knees by an intern, genius investors were revealed as low-down hucksters and some priests became labeled molesters. Yeah, we’re skeptical about why a title really matters. However, if you can impact me and my career, I want to know you and be on your radar.

However, managers note that though inclination to reach out to leaders is most notable among the highest spectrum of Gen Y employees, and access to leaders is a good incentivizing tool, there are also often unintended consequences of connecting new talent with the top.

So how do we as Gen Yers walk this line of connecting and respecting leaders, without walking over the line of propriety or appropriate behavior?

All of Tulgan’s advice is dead-on:

  • Gatekeepers are key – Know the assistant, keep them happy and use them as a resource to find out where that line is.
  • Don’t waste time of busy people – network only for real business reasons, otherwise, it’s disingenuous.
  • Approach others with what you have to offer, not what you need.
  • Make sure it’s truly the right person – Are they the decision-maker? Do your homework.
  • Once on a leader’s radar, demonstrate value by being valuable. Do research, prepare a script, be sure it’s relevant. Could result in wasted effort, but it’s better than useless e-mail forwards that you think are “valuable.”
  • Ask about follow up – don’t be a pest, do know what’s appropriate. If you aren’t sure, ask.


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