Corporate Key to Success #4: Cubicle Decoration

After arriving at your desk, still feeling the exhilaration of your first meeting, you suddenly realize that you have no idea how you’re supposed to decorate your cubicle.

Don’t worry—this happens to everyone.

Not surprisingly, your first moment of panic comes you realize that everyone will judge you by your new corporate home, just as they would when pulling up to your residential home. Are your faded fabric-lined walls nicely trimmed? Are your orientation papers strewn across your desk? Is your monitor already caked with scattered dust from your fellow co-workers’ cubicles? Well, don’t despair—you simply need a few simple rules to guide you.

  1. Before anything else, you have to resign yourself to one thing: this desk, or one very much like it, will be your home all the way up until your retirement 34 years from now. That is a very long time. As a result, you must treat your home as something you’ll have three times as long as your most beloved pet.
  2. If you happen to obtain any kind of achievement certificate, put it on your wall—and make no mistake, these are not nearly as difficult to come by as you might think.  There might be one for completing a required purchase order system training session.  Another might celebrate your ability to exhibit a “moment of excellence,” in which case you can display the certificate long after the fleeting program’s demise (and for all anyone will know, you were truly astonishing in that moment).  If you’re really lucky, though, you can get a framed certificate that commemorates your survival within the company in five-year increments.  That will come later—but goal-setting is very important at this stage.
  3. Don’t make the rookie mistake of putting away your various project papers.  This is because the more papers you have, the busier you will appear. So when you go to any meeting, grab any handouts that you possibly can (even swipe the extras!), then take them back and stack them in your cube.  Do you think they’re going to fire the employee with the ultra-clean desk, or the one that has so many important papers that there aren’t enough drawers for them?Exactly.
  4. Always, always place a mirror in the back of your cube.  I know, you’re thinking this sounds strange—but that’s only because this is your first day in a cubicle.  If you consider your new space for just a moment, you’ll realize that your chair faces away from the entrance of your cube.  Why?  Well, because: 1) everyone loves a good surprise, and 2) office environments are designed to keep you from seeing other human beings. Distractions are not good.  So the bottom line is: get a mirror, and you’ll feel just a little more human.
  5. Keep in mind that you exist in a corporate office, so there are many rules about what you can’t do.  For example, don’t ever place items on top of or on the outside of your cubicle.  This goes back to the previous point, in which you are not supposed to be encouraging human interaction.  Second, don’t even think about plants.  Plants are only allowed in executive offices.  You may be thinking that God gave everyone the right to plants, but you’d be wrong, because God was a big believer in a little thing called trickle-down horticulture.  And finally, do not pursue lamps or other lighting.  You won’t need it.  When working in any cubicle, you will have the blessing of being bathed in overwhelmingly bright fluorescent lighting—which has the pleasant effect of always keeping you awake!  Burned retinas and shockingly white skin are a small price to pay for corporate alertness.

If this seems like a lot to remember, don’t worry.  You’ll have plenty of time to focus and create a cubicle action plan—especially with the lack of distractions.  Somewhere around 34 years, in fact.

Corporate Key to Success #3: Meetings

(This is the third in a series of posts on Corporate Orientation.)

There is little doubt that the following is true: Corporations hold a tremendous amount of power in America, and this power has increased significantly in recent years. We often see it exercised in the form of large financial transactions, but where does the money come from? How is such unbridled power created?

Well, I’ll tell you – it’s created through meetings.

Very, very little happens in any corporate office outside of meetings. So as you begin your corporate life, this is where you should devote a huge amount of attention (after you’ve parked and found your cubicle, of course). It would not be overly dramatic to say that many of the world’s most promising businessmen have ended up as doormen and dishwashers because they never found a way to navigate the meeting climate of their businesses. Thankfully, I can offer a few simple rules to keep you afloat in such a fast-action environment:

  1. Rule #1: You don’t have to arrive on time. Sure, your meeting invitation says 10:00 – but like every great party, it is trendy to arrive fashionably late. Everyone is busy, after all. In the end, it always comes down to the law of averages, and the average is that there will be some poor schmuck who “respects everyone’s time” and shows up to start the meeting at 10:00. And by working longer at your desk, you’ve just become 15% more productive than that person.
  2. Rule #2: Talk over people on conference calls. Quite simply, you can’t “win” if you’re never heard (and neither can anyone else!). So take a good two or three minutes before the meeting starts to decide how it will end, then jump into the conversation at every chance to win over the attendees. This takes some perseverance, but remember, you’ve got the additional energy you saved from missing the first ten minutes of the meeting.
  3. Rule #3: Master the big moment. Few people realize that within an hour meeting, there is a window of about 10-12 minutes that truly matters. We call that The Big Moment.™ Why only 10-12 minutes? Well, because you have to subtract out the time waiting for the stragglers (including you!) to arrive, going over what you covered in the last meeting, predicting what you’ll cover in the next meeting, recapping topics for people that missed the last meeting because of other meetings, and talking about the weather from a windowless conference room. After all of this is removed, you only have to master those 10-12 minutes, and you’ll be a genius.
  4. Rule #4: Your Blackberry is your friend. I’ll warn you: relearning the rules of social interaction within a corporate office can be difficult. At home, for instance, if your spouse is talking with you about an important home project, you’d get beaten with a frying pan for texting in the middle of the conversation. In a corporate office, however, this is not the case. I can’t stress this strongly enough. If you’re in a meeting, using your Blackberry while someone is talking means that you are an Important Person. It also means that you’re kind enough to let others make decisions, because you trust them to do the right thing (although if your subconscious hears something that sounds wrong, don’t hesitate to stop typing and ask them to repeat it). Meanwhile, you’re racking up e-mail responses like levels of Angry Birds! If you’re still not sure, I’d ask you which sounds better: multi-tasking or single-tasking? Yes, I thought so.
  5. Rule #5: Take lots of notes. Within your first few days, talk to other corporate employees and ask them to show you their meeting notebook. Everyone has one. It’s the place that you’ll constantly refer back to when you want to relive some of your company’s greatest meeting moments – perhaps it’s best to think of it as one of those soaring sequences of movie clips at the Oscars. That time when the project went from yellow status to green status? It’s in there. Want to recall when you delivered the most action items last February? It’s in there, too! Of course, it’s likely that you missed a few things while taking those notes, but the important thing is that you have the notebook. No one can ever take that away from you.
  6. Rule #6: Make a streamlined agenda. If you find yourself in the unenviable position of making an agenda, realize that the only important thing is that you need to have an agenda. The most efficient meeting organizers master this by creating an initial agenda that is very generic, then recycling that agenda into each weekly meeting. Items like “Discuss Topics” and “Review Action Items” are especially efficient.
  7. Rule #7: Brainstorm using Post-It notes. If there’s one thing that kills a productive meeting faster than any other, it’s an idea filter. What is that, you ask? Well, you know how there are times when someone asks for suggestions, then an idea pops into your head, and you immediately think, “That’s the dumbest f&*king thing I’ve ever thought of in my life?” Well, never think that. You’re killing your own ideas! People need to hear those ideas, and that’s what brainstorming is all about. You don’t have to use post-it notes, per se, as a big paper easel will do – anything that can hold all of the ideas. Even the ones that would make your father shake his head with that sad, bemused, “What I have created?” look.

And there you have it. It may sound like a lot of things to keep in mind, but you’ll find that most people do not know these rules, and your way to success is already laid out in front of you. And it’s all possible via the magic of meetings.

Corporate Key to Success #2: Entrance and Navigation

(This is the second in a series of posts on Corporate Orientation.)

Upon entering your shiny new corporate office building, you’ll immediately notice a couple of things.  First, your hopes will be dashed by the decal on the front door informing you that bombs and guns are not allowed in the building.

No one covered this during the interview process.

There are a number of ways to lead in a given environment, but much like most Americans, you’ve gained the lion’s share of your knowledge by watching television, movies, and movies on television.  You know instinctively that whipping around a gun pretty much gets you whatever you want, and that if this doesn’t work, you can always go the bomb route.  (Coincidentally, your most successful pick up line in college also involved “dropping a bomb,” so it’s always had a proven track record for you.)  Suddenly you’re told that you’ll have neither of these things available to you.

After pausing for a very long moment, you’ll notice the second surprise:  that stairs are nearly obsolete.  There are various reasons for this, which I’ll get to in a moment, but in today’s world, you actually have to go on something of a treasure hunt to find a usable stairwell.  When you do, it’s like discovering your own tropical island—except for the scents of ancient coffee spills and past employee breakdowns.  And if you do manage to find the stairs and take them up a few floors, you’ll really frighten people when you open the door at your destination.

No one expects to see someone suddenly emerge from a door that they long believed to be a closet.

Now, how have stairs become obsolete?  The answer is semi-obvious: because stairs are like kryptonite for a corporate employee.  With countless meetings and cubicle conversations as your professional lifeblood, you’re going to need every once of wind that your lungs contain, and if you’ve ever seen a fire drill in a corporate office, you’ll know that sending employees down stairs depletes more oxygen than a kitchen fire in space.  It’s gotten so bad that I can guarantee it will only be a year or two before you see little oxygen panels in corporate stairwells—the same kind that you see on airplanes.

At any rate, we’re a little off track here:  the point is to prepare you for the reality you’ll face in your new job, and that reality exists in the form of corporate elevators.  Elevators that you’ll ride with your fellow employees for years to come.

If you’ve ever seen an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, you’ll know that crazy shit can happen on an elevator.  You get in, and everything seems fine.  You ride up one floor, the door opens, and suddenly you’re looking at The Last Person You Would Ever Want to See in This Moment.  At that point, there is really no way to avoid the situation, so that person gets on and the doors shut.

The next five minutes are excruciating.

I know what you thinking:  it’s impossible for elevator rides to last five minutes unless you’re either: 1) experiencing serious mechanical failures, or 2) you’re in Inception.  But it happens.  Time seems to tilt on its axis, and you’re paralyzed in limbo with The Last Person You Would Ever Want to See in This Moment.  There are awkward pauses.  You glance at the mirror on the side of the elevator, trying to check things out discretely, and you freeze when you see the other person doing the same thing.  You say, “Hi, how are you?”, engaging your automated greeting system, and the other person responds in kind.  You pray that he or she doesn’t answer truthfully, because you don’t want to spend the next four and a half minutes of this elevator ride pretending to be sympathetic.

Sooner or later, it ends, and between this and the parking deck adventure, you’re truly in mental anguish.

Most of the time, however, you can breathe easily (as long as you don’t suffer from claustrophobia).  You’re in a small, portable room full of strangers, and to make the ride successful you only have to abide by a handful of rules:

  • Remain equidistant at all times.  If you failed high school geometry, you’re in a bit of trouble here—I’d recommend a handy cheat sheet.  Essentially, though, you want to make sure that the maximum amount of space exists between every single person in the elevator (this is most obvious when there are four people, and all of them are huddled in each corner like the poor soul at the end of The Blair Witch Project).
  • Don’t make eye contact.  Stare at the back of the elevator door, stare at your Blackberry, stare at your watch…do anything but look at another person.  Fortunately, this is made easier by the fact that it takes a double breach to cause a transgression.
  • Due to the enormous upswing in after-hours corporate office raids (you’d be surprised how well motivational posters sell on the black market), make sure you know your super-secret elevator code if you’re in the office at odds hours.  There is a great side to this, though:  if you enter your code correctly, you feel like you’ve just saved the princess in Super Mario Brothers.

If you can do these things, and outlast a potential personality conflict for five minutes, then you’re off to a terrific start.

Corporate Keys to Success: An Orientation

For anyone arriving at a corporation for the first time, overweight briefcase or purse in hand, it can be quite a shocking experience. Society simply does not do its part to prepare you for this, and most corporate orientations take place several weeks into your actual employment. The hopeful anticipation of the interview process evolves into a sense of wonder.

You’re part of something big now.

Of course, you don’t really have any idea how true this is until you cross the threshold, and when you do, there is nothing there to guide you. Until now.

After over fifteen years in a corporate environment, I have finally found an opportunity to give back—to provide the orientation that I always wanted but never received. You will hold in your hand the most treasured secrets to corporate success. And when you ride those secrets to fame and fortune, you can thank me later with a heartfelt e-mail and generous tax-deductible donation.

Success, however, rarely comes wrapped in a tidy package. Sometimes the steps are messy, littered with the corpses of broken dreams and stagnant careers. I must ask you, then, to keep your eyes forward as we climb the ladder, and not to pause to stare at the lost souls we will pass in the night. They will only distract us.

Keys to Success #1: Parking Deck Navigation

Surprisingly, one of the most tragic mistakes that you can make happens before you even walk in the door. Crisply dressed and ready for action, you roll your Nissan Sentra into the corporate parking deck at 8:25 and prepare to hop out and stroll to your new job.

Only you can’t.

Every space on the first floor is full, and there is a 70-year old driver in front of you that looks like parking might be scariest thing he’s ever done. Now, you’d think that like the ridiculously bloated amount of “experience” you stuffed into your résumé, this man’s 55 years of parking experience would alleviate a certain amount of anxiety. But after a series of almost-turns, two random signals in the wrong direction, and one very long pause for mental processing, a feeling overwhelms you that is equal parts empathy and exasperation. You grab your door handle, half-ready to get out and push his car into a spot yourself—the only thing stopping you, of course, being that your car might be stolen in the twenty seconds you leave it.

And so you inch along, loosening your shirt collar and glancing anxiously at the cars stacking up behind you.

Thirteen right turns later, you’re still going. Sweat is trickling down your forehead, and you can’t help but think you’re starting to look disheveled. A moment ago the guy actually tried to get into a space, but seemed to forget that when he made his car selection, he had in fact clung to what has always proven true: size matters. So he has to abandon his attempt and continue onward. Your horn button now seems to grow in size under your hand, its warmth calling to you like an old friend.

But what if it’s a vice president? You recoil in panic and resolve to keep going.

As you round the next turn, you almost run straight into an enormous pick-up truck parked in a compact space—its tailgate open and hanging into the aisle like the beer gut of its likely owner. A small scream actually escapes you as you land hard on your brakes. At this point it’s a matter of pure survival.

Finally, at the top of the next ramp, the old guy turns left—clearly the wrong way—headed in the other direction out of sheer desperation. You can’t help but cheer his choice, even though it may mean his doom, but you feel comfortable assuming that nothing could penetrate the armored tank he is driving.

You speed up, elated with your newfound freedom, and almost run over the AVP of HR.

At this point, you’re emotionally broken, ten minutes late, and you can barely remember what you came here for in the first place. You’re googling “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” with one hand while parking with the other. And you’re still a seven-flight elevator ride from the street, where you’ll make the expected stroll into the office for the first time. If only the image in your rear view mirror didn’t look a little too much like a crazed sheepdog at the moment.

Have I scared you? Well, I hope so. But the good news is that all of this can be avoided with the right amount of awareness. So for my Keys to Success #1, be sure to do the following:

  • If you see an old man entering the parking deck, cut in front of him if at all possible. The best method of defense is offense.
  • Before you enter the main gate, silence your engine, roll down your window, and listen for the sounds of agonized screaming. If you hear anything amiss, treat the parking deck as an honest-to-God haunted house, and do not go in there. It’s far better to park on the street illegally and move your car in an hour.
  • Understand that “compact spaces” are nothing but a polite suggestion. If you have an oversized vehicle, it’s critical to understand you live in America and can parked the damned thing wherever you want to. Especially just around corners.
  • Allocate $400 a year to wheel realignment. No matter what the car dealers say, the only cars made to endure 5,500 turns a year in the same direction all have a NASCAR driver.

If you do these things, you’ll arrive at the office in reasonably good mental health, and we can finally begin the business of being a corporate employee.

The Guide to Know Whether Or Not Your Roommates Have Fur

Many of you out there have probably lived with a cat at some point. And I don’t mean those foxy ladies that slipped into your dorm room for a few days back in 1974. I mean actual cats. The kind that are full of hair and inconsistently bounce between “I love you” and “Dude, seriously, what the hell do you want?” looks.

But perhaps there are some of you that aren’t sure. So here are the clearest warning signs that you are, in fact, living with a cat:

  1. Every last damned thing you own, have ever owned, or will own in the future, is covered with a thick layer of hair. Can’t really understate this one.  If you’re at a party, and you’re wearing a brand new outfit, look closely and you’ll have countless pieces of hair stuck to it.  And not from the Grandma you just finished a swing dance with.
  2. The floors of at least two of your rooms are somewhat covered in tiny gray pellets called cat litter. This, my friends, is actually not only proof that you have a cat, but also proof that your home is host to the Nightly Cat Olympics.  No other beings in the world can deftly execute the backflip-defecation-litter toss combination like a cat.  Points for distance make a nice bonus.
  3. The wife, traditionally the true head of household, does not provide even a third of the House Sassyness Ratio. In most American families, this is a bit of a no brainer.  But should your house be inhabited by at least one cat, the lead woman is often no match for the furry creature only one-twelfth her size.  General behaviors that illustrate this are upturned noses, the “walk away”, and wicked hissing noises.  Note that the last can occur in either species.
  4. No one in your home is ever truly comfortable, regardless of which chair, blanket, sofa, or bed they sit on. This is very subtle but has the ability to wreak havoc throughout the house.  If you happen to see a loved one constantly pushing around a blanket for minutes at a time, turning circles, but never finding the right spot, then you’ve seen it.  Or perhaps it’s constant motion from one side of the couch to the other.  Maybe even it’s a more severe condition called lap whoring.  When these things set in, they aren’t pretty.
  5. Your border collie, once showing great promise as a loving pet, completely turns psychotic and becomes a relentless stalker, never resting and pacing non-stop until everyone around him goes nuts themselves. Obviously a tremendous problem that only affects people in rare circumstances.  Pray to God you don’t ever encounter this one, but if you do, you’ve not only got cats in the house, but you’ve got a situation no human being can possibly control.

Should you make it all the way through these tests, and cannot answer “yes” to any of these questions…well…congratulations.  You are cat free and on your way to an uncomplicated, stress-free life.

If you did answer to the affirmative, then God help you.  You have a lot of soul searching to do.