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Cracking the elite code: being at ease in unfamiliar territory

When you started your first job out of university, did you suddenly feel you had been thrown into a completely unfamiliar environment, also commonly referred to as “the real world”? Did you feel intimidated by your bosses or find that your colleagues seemed less collegial than your university classmates? For me, the transition from the academic world to the “real world” – as much as a team room full of McKinsey consultants can be considered the real world!! – was definitely a shock. I felt completely out of place. People were different, habits were different, opinions were different – nothing was the way I felt familiar with. I had never really understood why this happened to me (and so many others I knew). I assumed I probably lacked “networking skills” or “communication skills” that one was supposed to need for happiness and success at work.

Then, I came across a fascinating  book written by sociologist Shamus Rahman Khan – Privilege: the making of an adolescent elite at St Paul’s School. The author is himself a former student and then teacher of the elite US boarding school. He describes the history, values and sociology at the school – the different types of students at the school, how they fit in and what challenges they face. I found so many parallels to my own experience in “elite jobs” in the business world that I could fill a book on it (and one day I might!), but there were three lessons that I found immediately applicable to my current career success and job satisfaction that I want to share immediately. I will summarise heavily for the book is written in detailed academic style – if you are used to reading social science research and academic papers you will breeze through it, but not everybody might, so I will highlight the key lessons.

Turns out, there are three characteristics that really set apart successful members of the “elite” from those who fail to fit in and thrive in their work place:

1. Being at ease: imagine two new employees, equally smart. Let’s assume the join a top consulting firm. Both are equally hard working, have excellent test scores and CVs. Now imagine one of them always knew she was meant to join this firm. Her father and other relatives who are mostly corporate executives have always advised her that this was the best career start she could make. She chose the right degree at the right business school to maximise her chances of landing the job. She knows many alumni already working at the firm. When she joins, she is among family, in the place she is meant to be. She is at ease. Now consider her peer. He comes from an educated family and has recently completed a PhD in political science. He is very smart and eloquent and has done impressive internships at well-known think tanks. His plan was to become a diplomat or join an international organization, but he slowly realises as graduation approaches that these organizations are far less interested in offering him a paid position than he expected. Careers in these places can be very slow and depend on personal networks and politics rather than merit. He has amassed debt of $100,000 over the course of his degree. He suddenly has the opportunity to earn a much higher salary than he would ever receive as an entry level political analyst, while gaining valuable consulting experience that will open many doors for him in international organizations later. When he joins, there aren’t many people of his background on his first team. He doesn’t share the same sort of values that most of the MBAs share. His parents and professors might be surprised if not disappointed by his choice.

Who do you think will be more successful in their first year? Who will be at ease? Who will be content? Though the answer is obvious, you need to go one step further and think about ways of using this information to your advantage. To be at ease, to join the elite, you need to feel at home in your job. You need to make yourself believe that you are where you are meant to be, that this is your home, your type of people, what you were meant to do. If you can think like this, your job will become so much easier. You need to be at ease with your decision to be in the job you are. Even if you are unhappy, don’t resent your choice. Remind yourself WHY you chose this job and why this was the right decision for you, in the given circumstances and under the constraints you operate under. It will help you immensely.

2. Embracing hierachy: when you join an investment bank as an analyst and do grunt level, mindless work correcting power point slides for pitches on deals that will never happen, there are two approaches you can take: resent the job and the work you are made to do, be annoyed that just because you are the analyst who gets the tasks nobody else wants to carry out (coffee, anyone?), complain about a hierarchical environment in which senior executives make sure juniors have a bad experience because that is what they went through in the past. As you can imagine, you might not stay in the job or become successful with this approach. The other approach is to focus on the long term and have confidence that this hierarchical ladder is a great and clear path for you to get to the top. All you need to do is fulfil the steps that have been laid out for you and be patient, and you will end up on top. It turns out those who expect to get to the top eventually embrace and trust hierarchies – this has a very positive impact on their motivation and performance

3. Gaining trust and respect of senior management: one skill that set elite students apart was dealing with teachers, and the same would apply to junior employees dealing with bosses. Those who succeed have the critical skill of building intimacy while maintaining hierarchical boundaries and showing respect. It is a very fine line and one many who have little experience dealing with people of power and authority struggle with – the author found that particularly minority students and those from poorer social backgrounds faced issues building relationships with teachers, which impacted their grades and recommendations for scholarships and elite colleges. If you lack this skill, you might either respect people of power so much that you do not dare to speak to them and thus fail to gain their acknowledgement. Or you might be painfully aware that you have to promote yourself and network with your bosses, but you might be awkward about it and thus come across as pushy or aggressive. It is a fine line to walk indeed, and as so few master it, I believe building intimacy while respecting boundaries is the key to success at work. One way I have found for achieving this is by seeking advice from seniors. This way, you communicate with them, appear eager and curious while also showing respect for their experience and knowledge, and you learn how senior management thinks in the process. I am sure there are other ways of going about it, but this is one I came up with and tried after reading the book, and I have found it to be very effective.

Think about how you could apply these approaches in your job. I have found it made a big difference to my job satisfaction and performance, and I challenge you to start experimenting like a sociologist at work and share what you find!

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{ 2 comments… add one }

  • Ina von Buddenbrock April 29, 2012, 10:02 PM

    Hi, great article. I think the “feeling at ease” goes two ways though. In some companies/countries and for some people (minorities or not), fitting in also can mean to “dumb down” a bit in order to not come across as too intellectual or different, i.e. learning to talk about sports teams, food, TV shows etc.
    Do you agree?

    • High Flying Ladies
      Twitter: ueberfliegernet
      April 29, 2012, 10:31 PM

      interesting idea. I definitely think learning the language and culture of any work place is crucial – and showing an interest in sports or TV shows can be a big part of it. I would think that if you feel like the environment you’re in requires “dumbing down” in order to fit in, maybe you are in a place that is below your potential? I would strive for a place where fitting in requires “smarting up” rather than “dumbing down”? That said, my hope is probably unrealistic because you can go to the top elitist job and in the end the guys will always talk about baseball, tennis or the X-Factor!

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