A Monthly Column for Word Lovers
Scale Your Onboarding
A job I worked on recently brought me into close and personal contact with a genre of language that previously had always been just out of my reach: the language of the corporate workplace. I have spent little of my career in full-time jobs, never for largish companies. So this was an opportunity for me to peer inside the corner offices and across the sea of cubicles. I don’t foresee a personal use for this language, but if you have a corporate job in your future, read on to ensure that you’ll know to say the right thing at the right time, using the right words.
The prevailing metaphors for joining and participating in the corporate world are travel-related. This is surely not surprising. As my fellow VT columnist Nancy Friedman wrote a few years ago, journey is one of our culture’s dominant metaphors. Right from the start, your induction into the corporate world is called onboarding. But once you’re inside the vehicle (or is it a vessel? See below), don’t imagine that you can sit back and relax. Far from it. You are now expected to drive. Drive what? Not the whole juggernaut, fortunately, but your own little corner of it. You’ll be most successful if you can drive results. Driving decisions and driving projects will also win approval. You’ll distinguish yourself if you can drive impact. This corporate sense of drive is related to the verb’s original sense (i.e., to drive cattle, for example: force them to move) so you might think that successful driving in the corporate world would make you a drover but that’s not the case. You want to become a driver.
How fast are you driving? That seems to be measured by cadence. Can you develop a good cadence on your team’s development journey? Perhaps adjusting the cadence of your meetings with them will help. You may want to spin up your cadence if you feel that you’re not being impactful enough.
All of us are much more comfortable driving our own vehicle than a borrowed or rented one, and that works in the corporate world too because you really need to own what you are doing (and driving). Among the things you should be conspicuous about owning are outcomes, processes, and projects. Exhibiting ownership over your areas of responsibility gets you high marks. You should not let a day pass without making it clear that you are an owner. Exhibiting such extreme ownership makes you a star.
After your ownership has begun to shine, you need to think about scaling. Scales can move in two directions but in the corporate world, scale always means “scale up”: that is, make proportionally larger or wider in application. What should you scale? Just about anything: your influence, a system, infrastructure, your effort, your team. All of these are candidates for the scaling that everyone wants you to do. You should think seriously about how you can scale yourself, scale your voice, and scale your leverage.
Scale your voice? It turns out that you can leverage your voice too; both of these are ways of augmenting your influence (sorry, your impact). Your voice needs special attention because it is the preferred metonym for your influence and your perspective. So early on, make sure that you find your voice and then take steps to develop it. You need to always make sure that your voice is heard. This doesn’t mean you should have a loud voice, but a strong and consistent voice is desirable.
You are excused for some confusion in whether it's a vehicle or a vessel that you’re the captain of because very often you will have to navigate ambiguity. The verb navigate has undeniable nautical origins but today it’s used widely for all kinds of wayfinding, whether across land, water, or air. Or figuratively, as in the case of the ambiguity that you have to navigate at work.
What lies behind these dark patches of ambiguity? It may simply be a blocker, a person or thing that prevents you from going where you want to go. Or perhaps you have not consulted all of the stakeholders. They may have pain points that you are not aware of. If this is the case, be prepared to double down in order to push through your agenda. You’ll be able to do this much more effectively if you are already leaning into it. All three of these forceful phrasal verbs–double down, lean into, push through–may be the only effective tool against headwinds (that is, obstructive forces).
How will you know whether you’ve achieved success? There are sure to be metrics for that. Your performance metrics are the ones that matter most, but be prepared for metrics all around you: core metrics, business metrics, team metrics. A metrics dashboard (it’s right there in your vehicle or vessel) may be the most efficient way for you to organize all of these.
All of this specialized language might make you think you’re entering a different world, but it’s not quite that drastic; you’re just acclimating yourself to a different culture. Companies today proudly own their cultures, and for that reason you may want to see if you can become a culture carrier: someone who can impart, through example and instruction, the workplace culture. Ideally, your onboarding mentor did this for you so that you can do it for others. One way to model the culture effectively is to excel at working cross-functionally: when you and your team share ideas, methods, and insights with another team to solve problems. So do your best to foster, promote, and embody the culture of your organization. This may enable you to be a force multiplier, which is another accolade of the corporate workplace.
Now that you have mastered the patter and conquered the navigation, you may be wondering if there is any way that you can fail. Yes! You will surely fail if you are not sufficiently proactive. You should aim to be extremely proactive and always take a proactive stance (which will presumably be the case if you are successful at making your strong and consistent voice heard).
If all of this specialized vocabulary wearies you, remember that it serves a purpose, and the purpose is your company’s mission. If you’re unclear on what your company’s mission is, never fear; it is probably articulated somewhere on their website, in a mission statement, a topic I wrote about in more detail some years ago. So do your best to uphold, further, and embrace your company’s mission. Try to make everything you do mission critical. That is the best way to ensure that your drive on the corporate journey will deliver the most impactful results.