Career lessons #2 — the team is unlikely to change for you

25 July 2021

One of the best things you can do early on in your career is to attempt to have candid conversations with more experienced people in your workplace, in order to have explained to you the things that people are less likely to explain to you. This may be harder now than it used to be, as people are probably more careful about what they say in the workplace these days, but it is still worth doing.

Early on in my career, although I do not remember if it was in my first or second year in the labour market, I went for coffee with a much more experienced colleague in order for him to — as he put it — see how I was getting on. The genesis of his suggestion had probably been one or two brief but cheerful exchanges during the workday which went beyond the usual exchange of facts.

Sat at a table outside, coffees in hand, in the financial district, I broadly explained to him what I did and did not like about my role, and specifically in relation to the latter, my criticisms of the way the place was run in general.

In short, I wanted my job to be more like his; as someone who was more experienced, skilled and hard-working than others in the team, and who seemed to be completely disinterested in political machinations other than to the extent required to be paid properly, he had carved out something of a niche for himself. He only did deals, and he often did deals which involved the most important clients. This was something that I aspired to, clearly, and I would have been happy to have done a bit less of the grunt work too.

These were acknowledged but his responses were elliptical. He explained to me that of the people who had joined in the year that he did, 8 or 9 years before, of some 20 or 30 people he was the only one that remained. This was not because he was necessarily better, it was because he acknowledged that it was supposed to be hard. He had embraced this and he regarded other explanations for success or failure with suspicion. In order to increase his range of skill and understanding, he had moved between teams within the firm; initially this presented a steep learning curve with each change but over his career it had paid dividends because he understood a broader swathe of what was going on than his colleagues.

I pressed a bit further in order to try to get better and more satisfying answers from him; is there a good reason why it cannot be like this or like that, etc. He then explained to me that unfortunately, it is unlikely that the team is going to change; so unlikely one had may as well discount it. The team was not going to change for me. By extension, the firm was not going to change for me either, even though many would agree with everything that I had said. It was when he had realised this for himself a few years earlier that he had left the firm and gone to a competitor — he had then came back subsequently which is how he came to be working with me now, where he had started his career.

I have remembered since then the implicit suggestion that anyone who stumbles upon repeated frustrations at work at least think about having a look around.