5 Tips on How to Navigate Corporate America

This is for my fellow women who put in more effort on looks (and deliverables) to get the credibility she deserves. This is for the next generation, the new wave of leaders to shape the corporate landscape. This is for BIPOC who often get undermined, passed over, or scapegoated for not looking (or thinking) like the default. This is for those who think that people always merit their success when networks and privilege all play a much bigger role.

Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash

So, you’ve decided to drink the Kool-Aid. Welcome to Corporate America, where you either eat or get eaten, where you sink or swim, where you work to make money only to spend it on ways to soothe your weary soul (until Friday happy hour). You do it all over again on Monday at 8 am after riding out the Sunday scaries. If this resonates, you’re not alone. Regardless of your stage in the journey of work-life balance* (or should I say, harmony?), you might find yourself in need of a gentle reminder on how to do it well.

Chances are, you were lucky enough to have had a holistic academic experience from a nationally accredited institution. For that, you’re thankful. You’ve had a few internships here and there. And you’ve been told for a long time that you’re smart, you’re driven, and if you work hard, you’ll go places. Now that you’re here, you find yourself having to navigate new environments and situations again and again. Whether you’re logging into the secure VPN of a Fortune 500 or gearing up for the return to the office, fear not. The below lists five go-to reminders to help you sail the daunting waters of your next chapter with any large employer of your choice.

1. Check out the scene.

Showing up and listening is half the battle. If you can understand the players and their key roles, you can navigate the organization knowing the who, what, when, and how. Mapping out the landscape will help you to develop relationships, identify your resources, and better contribute. Understand how your job fits into the larger mission, how your role makes an impact, and from there, provide value. That alone will get you far. Balance the need to execute on your daily responsibilities while keeping an eye on the big picture. Corporate America, or navigating any large organization, is like a game of chess. When you know the game, you can play it.

2. Find your mentors and lean on them.

Institutions and their subsequent politics will fail you if you fail to find the right support. Look for those who will mentor you, sponsor you, advocate for you, believe in you, and recognize you and your strengths. Build those relationships and make them mutually symbiotic. If you don’t surround yourself with a team of people who will support you, then you cannot go far. Level up by finding those who are ready and eager to help you. Success is never achieved alone.

3. Speak when you have something to say. (And even when you don’t.)

The West and its systems of power love it when you talk, even if your point is mediocre. Granted, it’s better received when it comes from someone who looks like the default. Yet it’s perceived as though one has something of value to offer. It’s not uncommon for us BIPOC, women, or young people to put our heads down thinking we must say less to minimize risk for trouble. After all, a common mindset follows a famous Chinese proverb, which says, “The loudest duck gets shot.” But the systems in power say, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Take credit for your work frequently and let them know who you are and what you did. It’s normal to fear the potential of sounding too arrogant, too assertive, too this, too that. Do it anyway with grace and confidence. (Credit to this book for these insights.)

4. Ask for what you’re worth.

When it comes to salaries, go to bat for yourself. Know your worth and ask for it. As a personal example, I was offered a $65K starting salary to join a Fortune 500 straight out of business school. Based on the data available at the time, recent MBAs earned an average of $115K. Given the location and cost of living considerations, I asked for $85–90K as compensation for my skills, experience, and credentials. I also asked for a more senior title given the years of experience I’d be contributing. Was it nerve-wracking? A little. But I was well-researched, well-prepared, and well within reason. So, they bumped it up to $70K. I declined. A month later, I received a phone call from the same company about an open position within the salary range and title I had originally requested. Had I accepted the original offer without asking for what I’m worth, I would have lost $20K right off the bat. Over the course of my career, however, I would have lost out on over $1 million USD. Here’s a graph.

X-axis is time in years

This data shows that a starting salary of $85K over the course of 35 years makes over $1.1M more dollars than a starting salary of $65K. This picture paints a conservative scenario depicting an annual bonus of 2.5% and does not account for other types of bonuses that may be determined based on salary, such as signing, retention, holiday, on-the-spot, and referral bonuses. You are your best advocate. Show up for yourself.

5. Never stop learning.

To learn is to grow, and to grow is to fulfill your highest potential. Any supportive boss or superior would understand the need for a high-value employee to continuously learn and gain new skills, lest they risk boredom and eventual exit. Anyone worthy of playing a role in your success would invest in you and encourage your growth, even if it means you move to a different team, department, or company. Seek knowledge, practice new skills, and build on your resources. Benefits, high. Costs, none.

Doing your job is the bare minimum, and it’s not enough to ascend in the long run. Here in the West, you’re rewarded ten-fold for:

· Understanding the big picture

· Building a strong network of advocates

· Speaking up early and often

· Asking for what you’re worth, and

· Never stop learning.

What’d I miss? Drop your own tidbits in the comments below. Sharing is caring. Stay well.

Melissa Chanthalangsy has worked at various institutions before she pursued her own ventures. If you need help on writing, she’s reachable on twitter @mtchansy.

Amplifying my voice and finding my power, one story at a time.

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