Chicago — You're an early career professional, sitting in a meeting where leaders are providing updates on strategy, the business and the broader market it exists in. They speak passionately about the services your company offers or the problems it helps to solve with its products. It almost has the makings of an inspiring call to action, a tear-jerking moment, where at the end of the speech everyone dramatically claps along and you, after scanning your left and your right, feel prompted to follow.
There’s just one problem — you have no idea what they’re talking about.
Despite your nods in agreement and your nervous smiles, you don’t fully understand the way the company makes money, the impact it has on people’s lives and how your role actually fits into that. Besides, what’s a market, anyway? Is it an actual place? Isn’t a business model someone who rips the runway in the latest office attire?
All jokes aside, the spirit of questions like these permeated my mind when I first entered the workforce. I struggled to understand basic business and economic concepts and how they related to my job. When those basic questions aren’t answered, it can create a disconnect between you, your job and the meaning you can derive from it. It also can create a perception that your role doesn’t matter as much as the ones veteran professionals take on and you don’t need to look any further than that for a motivation killer.
Additionally, it can misalign expectations about what your leaders, your company and colleagues prioritize — a veil of ignorance that could be keeping you from career development.
Take it from me, someone who started his journalism career unaware of the role analytics played in editorial decisions at some companies. I thought news organizations were to choose stories by focusing on issues that impacted communities, including new programs, trends and the implications of government actions. If the public didn’t have a pressing interest in certain subjects under those umbrellas, it was supposed to be our job to show why they should care, I thought. Meanwhile, I didn’t even consider how the company actually made its money while balancing that priority.
I was surprised to find out that some organizations don’t gauge company success by the importance of the issues they write about, especially when it's time to pay the bills. Some allow engagement metrics to drive coverage choices, a trade-off for maintaining a profitable business in an increasingly digital world and a tight attention economy. Can you blame them? Content producers need to create things audiences predictably want in order to keep the lights on and keep up with their competitors. What better way to identify that than to look at the stories consumers click on the most or spend the most time reading?
Sometimes it all works out and what's profitable and popular also happens to be very important. Other times it translates to inflammatory headlines, biased story coverage and a lot of content slipping through the cracks.
Understanding this allowed me to see strategic decision making through my leaders’ eyes. It also weighed on my decision to intentionally find companies that aligned more with my values.
But what should you do, young professional? Continue to clap along mindlessly during your early days at the company and learn how to pretend — as so many professionals do — or actually take the time to understand how things work?
If the latter solution is for you, here are some suggestions:
Go back to the basics
If you were like me and didn’t pay attention in classes that covered economics in school, then I have bad news for you. You won’t be able to understand your company and its place in the broader business landscape without understanding basic economic principles. The good thing is you don’t need to know how to do every economic equation known to man. Start with understanding the idea of scarcity, competition, and supply and demand. Connect the dots between those concepts and what you observe at your company. See if you can understand how your company uses its resources to deliver value and how it attempts to do it efficiently (or not).
Research your company
To understand how your company works, it could be useful to see how it presents itself to the public online. Go through its ‘About’ page, and its investor relations tab, if it has one. Read about the company’s mission, who it serves and how it does so. While you do this, jot notes about your role. Describe what you do and try to come up with ideas on how your responsibilities support the company’s overarching mission.
Read publications that dive into various industries to track down particular challenges your company is facing. Think about how your company is responding to them. You might also come across ways other organizations are leveraging emerging technology to solve certain problems.
See if you can find reviews from people who’ve worked there in the past on sites like Indeed. Even if 90% of what you read feels generic, there might be one person who makes a comment that matches your experience. Write down questions that this exercise generates about the company and as you attend meetings and interact with your colleagues, ask them.
Talking with a leader about your questions is another way to get the answers you want. Some may not have the time, but good leaders will see your initiative and will be happy to help you. Here are some things you can ask:
- What’s the company’s business model and how does it make money? What part do I play in that?
- What are some of the greatest challenges we face? How are we trying to solve them?
- What are some of the trends in our industry that have had your attention and why?
Noah Johnson (he/him/his) is a Chicago-based journalist. Follow him on Twitter: @noahwritestoo.
Edited by NaTyshca Pickett