Navigating Work Without Any (Or Vague) Direction
Startup culture from tech to real estate is exciting, inspiring, and full of possibility. Where else can you dream of changing the world and actually have a stab at doing it?
This enthusiasm is true of founders, but there are usually diminishing returns (and equity) for the rest of the company.
A young woman I interviewed recently said that she never got any training, which was to be expected at a startup. But when she asked her boss what she should be focusing on, he said:
“If you think it’s awesome, let’s do it!”
As encouraging as that may sound, it is also vague and subject to opinion. Is it enough that I think it’s awesome? Or does the CEO need to think it’s awesome too? Hmmm…
When I started out as a fresh analyst in management consulting, I tried to position myself for some experience in media. But the firm at that time had few, if any, media clients. I spoke to the partner responsible for its nearest cousin – telecommunications. He said:
“Make a proposal and go sell it!”
He was also five times my size, from India, and didn’t look me in the eye the whole time. Ostensibly this exchange was supposed to motivate me to sell million-dollar consulting work while barely making enough salary to pay my rent. Right.
And people wonder why young people don’t feel like they’re taken seriously at work. Situations like this are empty calories of one-liners without support, direction, or authentic mentorship.
First step is to show appreciation for their response.
“Thank you. I appreciate how much you believe in my skills.”
Then immediately follow up with a clarifying question. Ask for concrete examples. When you don’t get guidance, especially when masked as a hands-off style, don’t settle for face value. Managers still expect you to do a job. And more often than not, that job means doing what they want even if they don’t say so. Welcome to Corporate America.
You need to extract what you can from the situation. This is where “leaning in” is actually applicable. For example, I wish I would have said something like this to that consulting partner.
“Can you give me an example of a successful media proposal? And maybe why it worked?”
Or for my friend who is at the free-wheeling startup:
“What do you think is the awesomest thing we’ve done in the last three years?”
Whether you have a direct manager or not, just feeling like you don’t have guidance can force anyone into an uncomfortable spot. Saddle up. Focus on the positive – which is nobody can really punish you for not doing something if they didn’t tell you in the first place.
This is where disciplined communication is key:
- Focus on projects that will solve existing headaches in the business or grow revenue. Memorize these reasons so you can parrot them back when your motives are questioned. Unfortunately, “I think it’s awesome and he said I could do what I thought was awesome” probably won’t cut it.
- Create a Trello board to keep yourself on track. Let yourself be accountable to the goals you set to complete a project.
- Summarize what you did every week. Better if it’s just a few bullet points. Send it to yourself so there is a digital record of it or, even better, send it to your boss.
The reality is when times are tough (which happens in every business), the first question people in power tend to raise is: “What exactly does s/he do?” Ideally there is someone in the room who can vouch for you, but sometimes there’s not…
A digital record of what you’ve worked on is proof for anybody who asks, but also a personal record for yourself of what you’ve accomplished. Which may become handy if ever you need to update your resume.
Ask For Help
This seems obvious, but is often sidestepped. I would regularly repeat to my team how important it was to ask questions. And yet, some were stubbornly determined to solve a problem without any help.
I’ll never know why. As a senior executive, I could only make myself available. Nobody can help people who don’t want to be helped.
At the same time, I realize the power dynamics that are in play. This has become a touchstone for why I believe there is a real place for accessible mentorship that is easy, fun, and transparent.
In the end, the way you navigate without direction is making sure you get some from someone who’s been there. Create an account and be part of our upcoming launch today.