99. Knowing the unspoken rules can help navigate the work environment | Gorick NG


 Gorick NG | Author and Adviser at Harvard



Welcome to Episode 99 of The Future of Work, the podcast that looks at every aspect of work in the future, featuring industry experts and thought leaders discussing how work is changing and evolving. The Future of Work is NOW.

In this second outing with author and adviser Gorick NG, we find out more about his work at BCGHarvard, and the Future of Work Project. His book, The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right is a deconstruction of what one learns at highly-resourced companies and comes from over 500 interviews. 

Gorick explains that it’s what to do, what to say, and how to navigate these unspoken rules that is the key to early success and fast-tracking your career. And it’s not just for new work entrants, leadership can also gain great insight into their workforce by understanding these rules.


Gorick NG BIO


Gorick Ng is the Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right, a book published by Harvard Business Review Press named by Thinkers50 as one of the top 10 management books of 2022.

Gorick is a career adviser at Harvard College, specializing in coaching first-generation, low-income students. He is also on the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, where he teaches the unspoken rules of career navigation.

He has been featured in Forbes, The Today Show, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BuzzFeed, New York Post, Fast Company, Fortune Magazine, and CNBC. He was named by Thinkers50 as one of 30 thinkers to watch in 2022.



[00:00:00] - Gorick NG
It was at that point that I had this aha moment where I thought, "Wow, even though I was at one of the most well-resourced organizations in the world, I was still trying to figure out so much through trial and error despite all of the training." What does that say about the experience that other people would have in less structured environments.

[00:00:25] - Doug Foulkes
Welcome to Episode 99 of Chaos & Rocketfuel: The Future of Work Podcast. This is the podcast that looks at all aspects of work in the future. It's brought to you by WNDYR, and I'm your host, Doug Foulkes. With me is the CEO at WNDYR, Claire Haidar. This month, we're spending time with author and adviser at Harvard College, Gorick Ng. Gorick's book, The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right, is aimed to help first time professionals navigate the workplace.

[00:00:55] - Doug Foulkes
In the first episode, we looked at some of Gorick's lived experiences as an outsider and how he has dedicated his time to helping others through his book to navigate this arena. Today, we delve deeper into his research and see how all new work entrance as well as leadership can benefit from his work. Gorick, I'd like you just to tell us more about your work at the Boston Consulting Group, and obviously Harvard Business School where you are, and the Future of Work project.

[00:01:23] - Gorick NG
Sure thing. Starting with Boston Consulting Group, it's one of the largest consulting firms out there. What BCG does and what I did was work with senior management teams at some of the world's largest organizations on their strategy and operations. I worked in the pharmaceutical industry, worked for financial services, worked for credit cards, worked for large insurance companies, worked for large industrialist companies as well. What we did was essentially break down otherwise ambiguous and overwhelming problems into strategies, into an operating plan that then the organization can take on.

[00:02:05] - Gorick NG
I'd say that that was a big piece of learning for me, which was actually the foundation of my book, which was when I was at BCG, what I realized was that some of the best training for early career professionals actually happens at the most well-resourced organizations, companies like BCG and other consulting and professional services firms.

[00:02:26] - Gorick NG
At which point I was looking at some of my coworkers and friends from college and where they were ending up at nonprofits, at startups, at smaller medium-sized businesses, who didn't get any training at all. It was at that point that I had this aha moment where I thought, "Wow, even though I was at one of the most well-resourced organizations in the world, I was still trying to figure out so much through trial and error, despite all of the training."

[00:02:50] - Gorick NG
What does that say about the experience that other people would have in less structured environments? One way of thinking about my work is I've essentially deconstructed what you learn at these rotational programs, at these professional services firms, and deconstructed it down to a book that anyone can read and pick up and share.

[00:03:10] - Gorick NG
When it came to my work with managing the Future of Work Project at Harvard Business School, what I did there was I looked at the future of higher education and its tie in with industry. Specifically, I was looking at the United States community college system and how we have a large segment of the population pursuing two-year degrees that are on ramps to good jobs, but that could be improved if we had... Well, one, in the United States, just put more investment behind the community college system, and two, if we built more partnerships between industry and classroom teaching. Could we make the on ramp to a career more efficient, less costly for especially those who are under resourced?

[00:03:58] - Doug Foulkes
My second question is really just a lead on from that. You've spoken about your book. It's called The Unspoken Rules. Tell us about the book, if you don't mind. Specifically, I think, is who do you want to be reading it? Who is the intended audience?

[00:04:12] - Gorick NG
Well, The Unspoken Rules is a compilation of over 500 interviews that I conducted with professionals across geographies, industries, and job types. It maps out what to do, what to say, how to think about, how to navigate before your first day, your first day, your first week, your first month, your first year, everything from your first meeting to your first one on one to your first project to your first performance evaluation. What are all the unspoken rules? What are all the things that people expect you to know but don't have the time or too awkward to tell you?

[00:04:44] - Gorick NG
When it comes to the audience of this book, initially I wrote it for early career professionals to be this toolkit that they would have going into their first jobs and internships. However, over the last while, as I've worked with some of the Fortune 500s, I've realized, and actually, talent development experts have told me, "Wait a second, this isn't just a book for early career hires. You should really be speaking to our leadership teams because they're the ones who decide the culture of this place. They're the ones who these interns will be managed by."

[00:05:16] - Gorick NG
My audience, I would say, has drifted and evolved from early career professionals who don't know what they don't know to the managers who ultimately feel the pain of someone who doesn't know how to conduct themselves in this professional environment.

[00:05:27] - Doug Foulkes
Yeah, it certainly makes sense. Can the same writing, because you're looking in essence through two very different sets of eyes, can the same writing appeal to both?

[00:05:38] - Gorick NG
I have been exploring the possibility of writing a second book that's aimed at managers that speaks more of their language. But in the meantime, I've had a number of leaders tell me that my book has been useful for them as a self-reflection tool of, "Oh, wow, when I'm comparing employee A to employee B, these are the behaviors that I see in employee A that employee B could benefit from knowing." What I think of my book as is essentially a high quality conversation between a mentor and a mentee. For leaders who pick up the book, what I hope this can do is provide you with talking points on how to better engage with your teams.

[00:06:18] - Claire Haidar
Gorick, having shared about your research, your work, the book that you're planning to write as a follow on to this first one is I want us to get really practical. First of all, I highly recommend the T-level executives go and get your book and start reading it. But if I'm an executive listening to this podcast, we all know that running a company comes with the challenge, the ongoing relentless challenge of talent. Sometimes that's hiring, sometimes that's onboarding, offboarding, retention, you name it. Talent remains one of the biggest challenges. Why should I care about this group of people today and give me the practical steps outside of what you've already shared with us on the podcast around how we build a specific strategy around this specific group of people?

[00:07:11] - Gorick NG
When it comes to language that I think we can all agree upon, it's several fold. One is how do we reduce ramp up time for new hires? Two is how do we accelerate the learning curve of employees so that they reach full productivity faster? Three is how do we motivate our talent so that they're engaged and that they show up wanting to contribute? Then four is how do we retain our talent, make sure that the people we've worked so hard to bring through the door end up staying and end up ultimately, hopefully, ascending to positions of leadership?

[00:07:49] - Gorick NG
Regardless of who you are, I could imagine that these four or so objectives are top of mind for you from a talent perspective. When I think about what it takes to achieve these goals and the mistakes that leaders make, well, it's several fold as well. Number one is the mistake of failing to make newcomers welcome. So much of onboarding comes in the form of, "Well, here's your laptop, here's your login. Good luck." Leaving employees confused about what's expected of them and feeling unsupported and undervalued.

[00:08:25] - Gorick NG
Even just speaking some of these unspoken rules, building a checklist of, "Hey, you're about to start your job next week, these are five quick things that you can do to set yourself up for success," can make a huge difference in calming some nerves, making sure that your newcomers feel supported, and ultimately to get them into the right mindset of succeeding on day one.

[00:08:48] - Gorick NG
The second is around failing to explain the broader significance of the work. If I just think back to how my mom had approached her work as a result of her profession. Well, she was a sewing machine operator. All she really needed to do was put her head down, sew garments, and do so quickly and with attention to detail.

[00:09:12] - Gorick NG
However, if I import that mindset into the workplace, into the white collar workplace in particular, it doesn't quite work because when we think about employees who manage up well, who can manage their managers, they see the big picture. They know what I think of as the why, the what, the how, and the by when.

[00:09:33] - Gorick NG
One thing that leaders can do just as a mental checklist when they're delegating work is to explain why are we doing this in the first place? What's the broader goal? What are we trying to do? How are we going to do it and by when do we need to do it? If we don't clarify all four things, you will end up with teams that do the wrong work, do it the wrong way, and not do it on time. That's not as a result of their faults. Perhaps they could have asked more questions when they were delegated work, but it's also the responsibility of the leader to clarify the why, the what, the how, and the by when.

[00:10:05] - Gorick NG
Another mistake, and I'll pause here, is the mistake of not having everyone feel seen and heard. Leaders themselves will complain about other leaders saying that when they ask for their team's opinion, they'll ask it in the form of, "Let's do this. What do you all think?" We've probably all found ourselves in those situations where you sense some hesitancy around the room, people really aren't on board with what a particular manager is saying. But then no one is willing to speak up. They'll look left, they'll look right and wait for one person to creep their hand up and vote yes, and then one person encourages the second person to raise their hand, encourages the third person and so on and so forth, and then you all of a sudden have this false consensus around the room.

[00:10:51] - Gorick NG
Well, what that leads to is employees feeling like, "Wait, you don't actually care about my point of view. You're just asking for my endorsement and you're actually coercing me into an endorsement." One thing that leaders can do if they want to, for example, make sure that their employees feel seen and heard is to survey their employees, to more importantly, respond to what others think and to show that they are listening and hearing to what their employees have to say, whether that's in the form of a blind vote, whether that's in the form of an anonymous comment box, whether it's in the form of having a town hall where you're sitting down with your new hires and not just talking about your company's values, but listening to what their broader goals are. That can make a huge difference in your culture and whether folks feel like they belong.

[00:11:38] - Claire Haidar
Gorick, leading on from that, are you saying that we shouldn't focus on this group specifically and put a strategy around this group specifically as leaders and executives and companies, but that we should rather approach this more holistically across the whole DENI strategy and the whole HR strategy, and that that will yield better results long-term for everybody?

[00:12:05] - Gorick NG
Yes, I'm so glad you asked that question, Claire, because I know we started this conversation by talking about first generation professionals, those who are outsiders to your organization. But what's important to keep in mind is that what is a must for some is good for all. By that, I mean, many of these unspoken rules would most benefit those who are coming from under-resourced backgrounds, who might be outsiders to your particular profession, to your particular function, to your particular industry.

[00:12:35] - Gorick NG
But much of what we're talking about isn't specific and isn't just going to be useful to those who are outsiders. It's useful to everybody. When I think about The Unspoken Rule, for example, of being responsive, especially if we're thinking about Gen Z and cultural differences around hidden expectations of, "Well, when I send you an email, I'd like a response rather promptly." Well, yes, someone who hasn't been exposed to this unspoken rule may oftentimes also be coming from a first generation or low income background. But I'd be shocked if this weren't an expectation that you'd want from all of your employees, assuming that's something you want to codify.

[00:13:20] - Doug Foulkes
With that, we draw the second part of our conversation with Gorick to a close. If you missed the first part of our conversation, you can check it out on your favorite podcast platform or, of course, on WNDYR's website, wndyr.com. We'll conclude our chat with Gorick shortly. From Claire and myself, we'll see you soon.

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