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3 pieces of advice for in-house Millennials

Guidance for the Facebook generation in the corporate legal world

This column was inspired by two seemingly unrelated events. First, my editor relayed a comment from one of our Millennial readers (more on that later). Second, I read a great feature in Fortune magazine on the corporate culture at Facebook, which can be summarized by the phrase “code wins.” As in: producing great work is all that matters.

Facebook proactively takes steps to discourage hierarchy. Many Millennials who work at Facebook consider founder Mark Zuckerberg to be nothing less than an anti-establishment hero, but the author of the Fortune article wonders if Zuckerberg’s culture is sustainable as Facebook grows and starts trading as a public company.

To paraphrase the reader comment, a young inside counsel was miffed when an effort to go beyond his job description was unappreciatively viewed as a political play by his boss. My first online exclusive column for InsideCounsel, Playing the Corporate Game,” merits a re-read for my broad view, but now I will offer some best practices advice on corporate politics designed specifically for Millennials. And I do so with a reverence for Facebook’s culture as a starting point.

Fact: Millennials are every bit as achievement-oriented and capable as previous generations—perhaps more so in some ways. The stereotype is that Millennials are less competitive (everyone gets a trophy just for participating) and not nearly as title oriented versus us older egomaniacs.

I think the stereotype has some merit, but my spin on the Millennial generation is a positive one. I find that younger workers tend to be group- and team-oriented. They share information freely and operate from an orientation of communal activity. The Internet, and Facebook specifically, have profoundly influenced mindsets. Millennials expect transparency in all things. This ultimately will help make them excellent inside counsel and compliance officers. However, many Millennials can truly look like deer caught in headlights when faced with non-transparency such as hidden personal agendas and corporate politics.

So, for all the Millennials who do not work as engineers at Facebook, here are some pointers for dealing with the realities of corporate politics.

1. This one may sting a little: don’t be so darn sensitive all the time. I think you are fabulous and that you will change our world for the better. But your greatest weakness as a generation seems to be thin skin. Accept criticism, even if you don’t agree with it, and get over it. Understand that not everyone will be happy with you all of the time. The boss referenced earlier in this column was probably momentarily annoyed by something the reader did and has already forgotten about it. That’s O.K.

If it’s a larger issue of a boss who feels threatened by you and is furious that you went over his head, then appreciate his insecurity. Ask him how to introduce new ideas going forward and work to meet his expectations. Mark Zuckerberg would go crazy reading this advice, but worry more about pleasing your boss than taking your company to greater heights. Patience. If you are truly an excellent performer, that will get noticed. Bosses move around and so will you.

2. Think an extra 30 seconds before hitting the send button on any internal office email that includes a complaint, concern, frustration or criticism of any kind about anything. Millennials are extremely transparent with their feelings and thoughts among friends (hello again, Facebook), and that speak-anything instinct can carry over into the workplace. Learn to filter your comments and think about how they could be perceived. If you still wish to proceed with the communication after really thinking about it, then OK. I’m not trying to silence you. But I encourage you to voice concerns and complaints in person. You may be positively perceived as confident and, if raising a concern helps the company, you get recognition and credit. Doing the same thing over email makes you seem passive-aggressive and whiny.

3. Finally, my best advice is to actively seek and engage a corporate mentor. This could be someone within the company, a person who can help you navigate internal politics and even advocate for you if needed. But such a person may not exist right away for you, especially in a smaller company. So, also consider an outside mentor, perhaps an aunt or uncle in the corporate world, for example. I discourage former professors as mentors, as they tend to be too idealistic and not in touch with true corporate politics.

Engage mentors in conversation at least twice per month, and don’t hold anything back. Mutual trust has to be at the core of those relationships. This will give you an outlet to scratch that itch for transparency, and provide guidance on when to let problems go versus when it’s best to fight for change.

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