I was supposed to land in Philadelphia in the early evening on Sunday, August 5, 2012 in time for my first day in the “real world” on August 6. I had moved into my new Chicago apartment on Wednesday; attended Lollapalooza (for the only time) on Saturday; and woke up on Sunday to a voicemail from American Airlines that my Philly flight was cancelled. After trying not to panic and a few phone calls with a very helpful agent, I was lucky to nab a seat on the last flight – which would land at 1 AM EST. And so began my tenure (and first lesson) at SAP: change is inevitable, learn to have an option B, C, and D.
There were a few reasons I never imagined I would stay at a company for five years. The first was that my passion still revolved around counterterrorism work, and I was hoping to eventually use my private sector experience to get security clearances for work in the public sector. The second was that I was still interested in continuing my education, and saw this “jaunt” as a break from schooling that would allow me to study for the GRE or GMAT. Finally, really, who stayed at a company more than two years anymore? Longevity at a company was not en vogue.
Lots of things have changed, and as I celebrated my five-year anniversary, I reflected on the five top lessons I’ve been able to learn from staying at a company when my similarly-aged peers switch companies seemingly faster than it takes us to call an Uber or swipe on a dating app.
- Passion projects are key for employee engagement. When I first came to SAP, many I met were surprised that someone who graduated with a History major would come work for a software company. (I wondered this myself during the first two weeks of “bootcamp”, which consisted of me scribbling down acronyms to look up later.) I had an opportunity to meet my manager’s boss early into my first rotation and he quickly dug into this “quirky” background. After this initial meeting, he asked me to utilize my past counterterrorism research to develop a security solution concept for retail stores. I was (pleasantly) surprised and impressed on how he saw this as an asset and a way to engage my “expertise” in a creative way. Since then, I’ve found a way to work with my managers to create “passion projects”, or longer-term projects that, well, don’t feel like work because I enjoy the time and effort that goes into them. Now, these ideas certainly need to somehow relate back to the mission of the company, but I’ve found this goes a long way toward positive engagement of employees, especially millennials.
- Create a safe environment where everyone can share. I started my post-rotational program career in sales, which was a surprise to everyone, myself included. Nervous about my lack of experience, one of my early mistakes was sticking to a script too much. I had learned about sales cycles, but only as they would exist in a perfect world, not in real life. (Another important lesson; it may look good on paper, but this fails to account for a whole host of speed bumps along the way.) I then got assigned to a net-new project which appeared a losing battle – an existing, referenceable client of our competitor and two lead account executives (myself and another AE) who had a combined 18 months of sales experience. The manager quickly assigned a senior account executive to help guide us through our inexperience. While it would have been very easy for this senior AE to essentially take over, only giving us marching orders, he instead asked us to walk him through our plans for the sales cycle. He really wanted us to only use him as a guide, steering us back on-task if we ventured a little too outside the box. The result? An incredibly – dare I say fun? – sales cycle that resulted in a win for us by using tactics such as Buzzword Bingo boards, a graphic artist, and handwritten postcards. Some of our “craziest” ideas became assets to a winning sales cycle, all because this leader created a safe environment for us to brainstorm ideas. By making your employees feel important and that their opinions are valued, you are able to get the full benefits of having diverse minds across your team. “Inexperience” can work in your favor!
- Give opportunities and watch people surprise you. I have had four positions in the five years I’ve worked at SAP. Every single one of my managers has taken a chance on me as I have never been a “traditional” candidate for a single role, often lacking past experience in the role I wish to move into. But something amazing happens when you take a chance and hire someone who may not fulfill 100% of the job description. Gratefulness for giving them the opportunity often manifests itself in overcompensation. Putting me in positions where I was not completely ready to take on all of the responsibilities in a role has taught me the importance of team work, the need to ask for and incorporate feedback, and the necessity to work harder and improve faster. Similar to above, having room to grow into a role has allowed me not only to rely on guidance from team members for things I don’t know, but also the ability to challenge existing processes or status quo simply by being outside the traditional hire in the role. This will not work in every case, but I’ve often found that employees push themselves to their highest potential when they believe they have something to prove.
- Be the best burger flipper. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, famously titled her first book Lean In, which was a call to women in the workforce to metaphorically and physically take their seat at the meeting table instead of on the peripheral. I certainly agree with Ms. Sandberg’s sentiment to make one’s voice heard, but I think that as a millennial, there’s also times where it’s better to lean out. When I was shadowing account executives to learn more about sales, I always asked them how I could help. Most of the time, the role was simple. Order lunch. Take notes. Watch the body language in the room. I quickly learned that I would have to subscribe to a philosophy to be the best burger flipper. What I mean is that, if your job is to flip burgers, you should take it seriously – none of them burned, quick and efficient in your delivery, and ultimately, a great customer experience. If you go above and beyond – consistently making the best burgers anyone’s ever tasted — people will notice. You’ll soon get promoted to the fries, then the cash register, then manager of the store, and so on. Too often, I see millennials who don’t take these jobs seriously, as if the tasks are beneath them. But being diligent about food allergies or passing out lunch without disrupting the meeting, typing up and e-mailing all the participants notes with follow-up actions, and noting who from the customer was on their e-mail instead of listening — this got me noticed with the account executives I was shadowing. When I asked them for help, they were a lot more likely to say “yes”, all because I took my “menial” jobs seriously and helped them (while they were really doing me a favor). The lesson here is to be a team member and, in the famous words of winning coach Bill Belechick, “Do Your Job”. Do your job — whatever it is — to the absolute best of your abilities, and you should never have to worry about finding the next one.
- Mentors are like spices; pick the right one for the recipe. The first few weeks in the corporate world, my peers and I played a game where we would tally the number of times “networking” was said as sage advice. However, it really isn’t a joke. Networking can make (or break) a career; it’s amazing how small an 87,000-employee company can feel at times. With networking comes the extension of needing a mentor. I do believe everyone needs mentors; someone who can see the trees through the forest when our own vision is clouded, who can network on our behalf, or who can simply give feedback on a problem or situation. However, I will say that I have never formally had just one mentor. Instead, I like to say I gather my mentors like spices. Just as in cooking, sometimes a recipe (professional or personal situation) calls for some cinnamon. Sometimes it calls for a dash of cilantro, and other times, ginger is a necessity. When you limit yourself to one mentor, you tend to put too much weight on that person’s opinion and (sometimes unknowingly) close yourself off to other people willing to help or assist. I’ve come across many people I consider mentors in my life, and it’s been more comfortable for me to have a go-to person for various situations I encounter, not a end-all, be-all. While it’s certainly “trendy” to need one singular mentor, finding fellow peers, managers, friends, or outside influences along your career path can lend itself to a much richer network of mentors.
Lauren Shanley is currently the Executive Director of Consumer Industries at SAP. She loves the idea that we’re living through the Digital Renaissance and is passionate about helping consumer-based companies embrace change. You can follow her on Twitter @shanley_l for more thoughts on Millennials and Michigan Wolverines football.