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5 Ways Business Is Just Like High School. Not!

July 1, 2013

(Photo credit: Karen Griggs)

What is it about high school that sticks with us for decades? I don’t mean what did we learn that we remember, I mean that for many of us the actual high school experience is memorable.

Last weekend in Lacey, Washington a group of people got together, some after traveling hundreds of miles to go back to high school for a few days. Yep, it was my high school reunion. Timberline High School, class of 1983. Our graduating class was about 350 people and maybe a third of those made it back. Since this blog is supposed to be about business, I couldn’t really waste your time by talking about a reunion. But, it did get me thinking about the lessons we learned in high school and just how applicable those are to the business world. Often, not at all.

After 30 years, most of the stupid parts of high school are past. We have graduates who run television studios and guys who are out of work. We’ve got guys who went to college and those who didn’t. Lots of kids, or no kids. Some married right out of high school, some never married. A few who recently got married because they were finally allowed to.

Here’s my top five ways business is different than high school.

1. The geeks are now running the world

Bill Gates is every geek’s hero. I worked for Microsoft for a decade and saw him at company events. The guy was worth a billion dollars and still looked like the pencil neck geek from HS Electronics class. The guys who were mocked and ridiculed in high school went on to learn computers and business. They founded companies that now employ some of the very people who used to make fun of them. (Oh, and they now pay people to pick out their clothes.)

2. Looks aren’t important. . .they are critical

A bunch of us changed our Facebook profile pictures to our high school pics this week. Here’s mine.

(Photo credit: Cairn 1983)

Graduating in the 80’s we all wanted the feathered hair. I’m slightly embarrassed to say that as a senior, I spent way more time on my hair than I do now. I think I spent more time than my daughters do now. But, in business it’s not as critical to have just the right hair style.

What it’s been replaced with is the need to dress the part. I worked with some brilliant engineers who were excited when the company relaxed the dress code and they could stop wearing socks with their sandals. They didn’t care. They were engineers. And they were brilliant. But, sales? Marketing? CxO? Startup entrepreneur? You will be judged by your looks more than you ever were in high school.

Your company has a uniform, even if it doesn’t have a dress code. Violate it at your peril.

3. The answers don’t exist in the back of the book

I remember working on a really difficult problem around how to implement WordPerfect Office. Basically, I needed to strip the autogenerated reply routing information when a message got replied to. It was cutting edge back in 1991. I spent hours and hours reconfiguring my lab and pouring over network traces. I remember thinking, “I’m willing to take partial credit if I can just take a peek at the answer in the back of the book!” I eventually figured it out, but high school and college had a point at which you could ask for help. In business, help is available, but if you are going to be one of the best in the world at what you do, expect that at times you will have no where to turn.

4. You don’t get to start each year with a clean slate

I survived rather than passed certain classes in high school. My advanced math class was one that by the end of the semester I didn’t really care what my grade was. I realized I was never going to be a mathematician. Once the class was over, I thought, “I’m never going through THAT again” and I went to take more writing classes.

But, in business, especially if you stay with a single company, your reputation is the culmination of everything you’ve done, and it’s your failures as much as your successes that define you. I was working for a company and had a terrible review. (Fire, Comics and Change) I thought, “Maybe I’ll just put it behind me and change departments.” My mentor convinced me that it would be best to work through it. It took months, but eventually I corrected the mistakes and reset people’s perceptions. Some people change their jobs every time things get challenging at their current one. But, I can tell you from experience you learn more from your mistakes than from your successes. If you want to be a better employee, figure it out and fix it. There is no end of the year party where it all gets forgotten.

5. The teachers don’t give grades

I couple of weeks ago I wrote about a Microsoft employee straight out of high school. (Make Them Be Nice To Me.) The point that Brandon didn’t realize was that in business you have trainers, and you have mentors and they will certainly teach you things if you will learn. But, the concept of “the teacher” is really best left in high school.

Occasionally as a manager I had two employees come to me with an issue they couldn’t resolve. It’s an awkward position for a manager. Mostly I focused on who was ultimately responsible, in other words, if things suddenly went sideways, who was going to be called on the carpet to explain it?

There have been times when I’ve needed to go to my manager when I had a conflict with another team. Most often I went with a plan. Often he agreed (Sometimes You Need To Punt.) Other times he didn’t. But, just because he had a bigger office, didn’t mean that it was his job to arbitrate the high school drama.

I loved high school. A friend asked me if I had the chance would I want to go back.

Not a chance!

Rodney Bliss is an author, blogger and IT Manager. He graduated in the top 50% of his class of 350. He’s proud that most of his 13 children are aspiring to greater academic achievements. He lives with them and his lovely wife in Pleasant Grove, UT.

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