March 5, 2008 7:02 AM   Subscribe

Startupfilter: I'm a 2ndgen hire at a startup (non-computer) in Beijing, and I want promotionZ. HOW DO I GET THEM??? Because I was promised them. The "more inside" is long...

Grammar mistakes are intentional.

Here's my situation: I, the stereotypical Non-Conformist freelance worker in a city full of people trying to get ahead by Any Means Necessary, was roped into a company by a friend of mine by very informal means. She is the manager of this new startup, a former consultant and freelancer like I was (and still am on weekends), and basically chased me down and told me that I MUST work for this company, because she needs (here come the caps again) Good People. And I was told, at the outset, that I'm one of the most promotable people in this company by the very person who manages promotions.

Now, normally I wouldn't do this AT ALL. I am vehemently anti- 9-5 and took pride in not being a part of office culture. I've never done it before, and was perfectly content not to. But, the truth is, my youthful idealism (I'm 24) isn't edible and doesn't convince other people to work with me, and over time it became pretty obvious that I'd need to do some time in an office and nail down all of what goes into being a 9-5 monkey (no disrespect intended) before people would respect me enough as a freelancer to give me money without questioning my capacity to understand what an office needs. When this opportunity came along, I figured it may as well be for a friend, who won't subject me to the usual manager/coworker/TPS-reports grind.

I've been in the office two weeks now, and I understand completely why I needed this. I need this experience, and I need it to be GOOD. This company is a visa agent for a specialized training program for a very specific skillset in demand both in England and vastly in need of reform in China. My job is to help with applications and train those who need to go for an interview how to interview. This company is very ethical, they won't EVER teach an applicant to lie or exaggerate, the owner is a man who isn't shy with bonuses and takes suggestions well, and they're as multicultural a team as you'll find anywhere, with staff that I can count from 8 countries (my bosses, in descending order, are Singaporean, American, and Chinese, with a primary secretary from the Philippines who makes more than I do), pay scales are equal, there's no exploiting the locals here, or aggrandizing the Anglosphere, or duping the furriners. They're small, roughly 15 people in-office, with a few in the field, and they're well-connected, and through those connections our client base has exploded 2000% in a year, I shit you not. That's why they hired me. I've found my coworkers knowledgeable and worth the time in the office, the work is satisfying and interesting and just crammed with resume fodder...basically it's ideal. The pay? Well, that's what I'm worried about.

Currently I make about twice what qualifies as standard 9-5 fare for Beijing (for what I do), and as expat wages go, it's on the low end. I could be making twice this by staying freelance (well, in a good month). And I don't need the money. I don't pay rent, I own, I have a decent car (in Beijing that's status symbol #1), and I don't have any dependents, but I do have a girlfriend I'm devoted to, who is in the process of starting her own company, which basically secures me for a visa if I need it. Now, the owner of the company is Singaporean, and because he pays twice the normal office wage, he expects a Singaporean work ethic. The thing about this company is, most of the employees are imports from either foreign countries who are glad for the China experience or imports from outside of Beijing who are glad for the wage differential. I'm competing, and working, mostly with economic migrants. He DOES promote. More hires will be coming soon, I expect. And what he expects is devotion, utter, total devotion. Which I can give, but which I don't know how long or how hard I'll have to give. I'm okay with it, but I need some pointers before I dive in.

The clincher in all this is, I signed on not just because of the promotions promised and the requisite benefits (which, really, do outstrip anything I could make as a freelance translator in Beijing in the next few years), but because I want to learn how to run and grow a company. It's a small office, and the various departments have privately expressed interest in my experience. I'm the only non-Chinese on-staff who speaks, reads, and writes Mandarin, and I do have substantial teaching and marketing experience, which are the two departments I don't work in.

And (if you're not annoyed by the tone and claims already) I can tell you, coming from the freelance world, I've rubbed some people the wrong way. I got a call from that friend, 2nd in charge at the company, telling me she was getting some bad feedback about me, most of it having to do with me being a little too carefree with my words and behavior, none with the quality of my work, which I was praised by coworkers for. I think I was a bit too boisterous my first day, but I've reined that in and not sensed any bad karma from my coworkers since. But...who knows.

What I need, simply, is advice. If I'm to accomplish what I set out to do in this company, which is learn by practice how to grow and market a startup, I need some mental guidelines to go by. If you were me, what would you do? If you've had this kind of experience, how did you finagle your way into the upper echelons while making sure everything you did was for the good of all? I don't want to step on anyone's toes, and I don't want to piss anyone off. I just want to prove that I'm worth the responsibilities (and promotionZ) I was told I'd be right for. I've just completed my first major independent contribution to the team according to the standards set by the department I'm working for (though by my own standards with a little weekend overtime I could double what I've done), and crunch time for that 2000% expansion is week. What if I put in that overtime? Would that offend the rest of the team or would it help my case with the boss (which inevitably will go through the boss of our team)? I'm confused, and if you've got some advice for a situation like this, I could definitely use it. And just general advice for a company like this. I'm more than a n00b, I'm a freelancer, and I need help!
posted by saysthis to Human Relations (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You sound like you have a pretty sweet life. You sound like you peripherally know you have a sweet life. But it sounds like your life has been handed to you, yet you are entitled and deserve much much more because of your self-conceived awesomeness of just being you.

I'm 3 years older than you are. So I hope my perspective isn't that far off. Part of job experience is to realize that you are not the greatest thing ever that is going to revolutionize the industry. It doesn't sound like you are ready to accept this fate, and you may be the one out of gazillion people that it may not apply to (i.e. Bill Gates, Warren Buffet).

So I see you having 2 choices:

1. Be humble. Accept that the people that you work with have something to teach you whether it be how to interact with different kinds of people to how to run a business. Shut up and observe.

2. Quit. Be your own boss. Run your own business. Take the risk and you'll make mistakes and hopefully, you'll learn from them. Life is struggle. Life is pain. But that is what makes the good times more appreciated and worth it.

Good luck.
posted by spec80 at 7:25 AM on March 5, 2008

Also, please don't look down on the secretary even if she's paid higher than you. Secretaries have to deal with a lot of random shit you couldn't imagine. Having to deal with that and still have a good attitude is pretty central to a small company. And if she's paid higher than you now, that might be her cap while you might have the opportunity to earn more and more each year. Give her a break.
posted by spec80 at 7:28 AM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Could you clarify one thing for me? You've been in the office two weeks and you expect a promotion? Or are you asking about how to secure a promotion somewhere down the line?
posted by MegoSteve at 7:37 AM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

If they're talking to you about the possibility of promotion, why not ask them directly what it is that will help you get promoted? It shouldn't scare them, or result in stepped-on toes. They brought it up. And if your ambition worries anyone, best to find out now.

Show that you want to get promoted and bust your ass at work. I think that should do it.
posted by dosterm at 7:56 AM on March 5, 2008

Be nice to people -- not just the people you need to suck up to, but *everyone*. Don't overlook the importance of the feedback your peers and (if any) direct reports will give to bosses in casual conversation. Become popular -- make people know that they can not only rely on you, they can have a drink with you too. Fix the "boisterous" problem. Work your ass off -- yes, work that overtime. Voila!
posted by olinerd at 7:56 AM on March 5, 2008

You've only been there two weeks? Focus on meeting and/or exceeding your superior's expectations consistently over a period of time and improving your level of professionalism/teamwork . Doing so should set you on the right path to all the promotionZ.
posted by SoulOnIce at 8:00 AM on March 5, 2008

Be nice to people -- not just the people you need to suck up to, but *everyone*.

Absolutely, this is great advice. You should do this because you just should but also that you never know where people are going to end up in 5, 10, 15, 20 years. One day you might be stuck and in need of a favor/helping hand, and that underling that you were rude to back in the day now runs his/her own company. People are much more likely to help someone out who they remember as easy to get along with and personable than for someone that they remember negatively.
posted by ob at 8:17 AM on March 5, 2008

What I came away with after reading your question:

You are “the stereotypical Non-Conformist” and “took pride in not being a part of office culture.” Your goal is to “nail down all of what goes into being a 9-5 monkey (no disrespect intended)” so that you get money and respect without “questioning.” You’re self-aware enough to know that you’ve “rubbed some people the wrong way” and that your readers may be “annoyed by the tone and claims” of your question. You were “roped into” this “grind” but now you want to “finagle your way into the upper echelons” without “step[ping] on anyone's toes.”

You sound arrogant, you seem to feel entitled to respect that you haven’t earned, and you look down on the “monkeys” around you. You think you’re too good for this job and you want to use it as a platform to do the Work that is Truly Worthy of your extraordinary Talent and Potential. Lest this sound harsh, I’d say this is probably largely the result of inexperience, and I am not trying to tell you that you’re a horrible person. However, the attitudes that I am describing are going to make it difficult for you to get along with the people you work with. In my experience, people are almost always worse at hiding what they’re thinking than they think they are. If your question accurately reflects your attitude toward this job and your co-workers, then I would expect them to pick up on it and resent you. I know that I would be uncomfortable around someone who thought he was too good for the work we were both doing. If you want to make a good impression and avoid stepping on toes, you need to show the people you work with that you respect them.

You’re being advised to “be nice to everyone,” but be careful not to telegraph I’M BEING NICE TO YOU, MONKEY! AREN’T I A SWELL GUY?

It sounds like you really have something to contribute. As long as you don’t get wrapped up in how great you are, I’m sure you’ll do very well for yourself.

I found this part of your question confusing: “And what he expects is devotion, utter, total devotion. Which I can give, but which I don't know how long or how hard I'll have to give. I'm okay with it, but I need some pointers before I dive in.” My strong advice is for you to commit to THIS job. Forget, for a while, that you have big plans. You’re going to work in this office for at least a year (I assume), and for that year, be about what you do there, not about what you’ll eventually do somewhere else. Take your work seriously, take your co-workers seriously, and take yourself far, far less seriously than you currently do. If your focus is on the work that you’re doing, the skills you want to pick up will only come more quickly. And if what you really want is to be promoted, nothing will help you more than making a sincere commitment to this company. Having one foot mentally out the door will affect how you work and, again, people will pick up on it.

And the easiest of your questions:

“What if I put in that overtime? Would that offend the rest of the team or would it help my case with the boss (which inevitably will go through the boss of our team)?”

Unless there’s more to this than you wrote, it’s hard for me to imagine that if you personally put in overtime without making a big martyr out of yourself about it, it could offend someone. Working hard is not a problem in offices that run as well as yours.


I am making an effort to be objective in this answer, but I do want to say this: choosing not to work in an office doesn’t make you better than someone who does choose to work in an office. Office workers are not mindless drones or conformists. If your personality is such that a 9-5 office job makes you unhappy, that doesn’t make you any cooler than someone with different preferences. You seem to be smug about how you’re Too Good, and that’s not just bad because it will make it more difficult for you to achieve your goals, that’s bad because it’s a wall between you and other people. It’s not a cute personality quirk, it’s a flaw. Don’t get hung up on how you’re such a rebel or you’re such a genius. What you do with your talent and how you treat the people around you are far, far better measures of a person.
posted by prefpara at 8:31 AM on March 5, 2008 [8 favorites]

Hello, me of 1998.

Ditch the rebel freelancer persona. Good freelancers don't act like that.

I've been freelancing for more than a decade now, and my income went up substantially once I discovered out that I wasn't being the rockstar outside-the-corporate-culture guy, I was just being a jerk. A talented jerk, sure, which is why I didn't go out of business. But the attitude was holding me back.

You're absolutely correct that you need some solid 9 to 5 experience to be a good freelancer. The main reasons are twofold: 1) you can only really learn what offices really need by actually working in one for a while, and more important 2) you need to learn that fulltime employees are not monkeys, they're not beneath you, and believing yourself to be better than them is only going to hold you back in the long run. Yes, the freelance world has a higher proportion of rockstars to drones, compared to office workers -- but only because freelance drones generally drown pretty quickly. That doesn't mean that freelancers are de facto better than 9-to-5ers, though; there are plenty of rockstars who prefer steady employment to the freelance world. Sooner you learn that, the better.

So, good for you, you're on the right track; stick it out for a while, be the best employee you can be. Think of this as your opportunity to make contacts, see the other side, and take the edge off those arrogant sharp edges of yours.
posted by ook at 10:08 AM on March 5, 2008

Know yourself. I am precisely that "arrogant" "free-thinker" as well. The only recourse I've found is to accept myself, turn this negative into a positive, and realize I need to be a brazen entrepreneur.
You are “the stereotypical Non-Conformist” and “took pride in not being a part of office culture.” Your goal is to “nail down all of what goes into being a 9-5 monkey (no disrespect intended)”
In other words, you're really defeating and contradicting yourself here by doing this. If you take pride in not being part of the office culture, aren't you going to shoot yourself in the foot by being part of the office culture? I've burnt myself twice taking a job that was inconsistent with who I am at my core.

I recommend reading What Color is my Parachute and The Pathfinder to find out what you really want out of work.
posted by philosophistry at 12:28 PM on March 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Wow, didn't expect so many responses.

First of all, when I say "office monkey" or anything derisive to that tone, I'm joking. I really, really respect the work they do, and moreso now that I'm one of them and (am just beginning to) understand how hard it is. But if that's one of the things that can piss off a coworker, you guys are right, it needs to be watched. I really had no idea I'd come off as arrogant as I seem to in this thread. This is helpful.

As to whether I'm doing the overtime - yes I am. This from prefpara: "it’s hard for me to imagine that if you personally put in overtime without making a big martyr out of yourself about it, it could offend someone. Working hard is not a problem in offices that run as well as yours." Thank you for that, because crazy as this sounds, it's what I needed to hear.

Alright, off to the office. I'll try to respond more when I get back, and thanks again for the comments!
posted by saysthis at 4:49 PM on March 5, 2008

saysthis, there were some critical things said to you in this thread (many by me). Your response was very mature, and I have no doubt that you're going to do very well at this job (and in life) because you're clearly willing to listen to advice and learn from your mistakes, which is a priceless skill.

It's good to know that your joking was just that, and not your way of acting out hidden condescension and scorn. That means you just need to apply a work filter to your sense of humor, which is far easier than effecting a fundamental attitude change. Just back it off until you get a sense of what crosses the line and what doesn't, which you can best accomplish by seeing what kinds of jokes others make in the office and how those are received. "Monkey see, monkey do" is a good way to integrate into a new culture.

Good luck with your overtime project! And, in general, don't worry. You've shown that you can take feedback and act on it to become better, and a competent boss will know how valuable that is. Just keep working hard and periodically check in with your supervisor to see if there's anything you need to improve.

posted by prefpara at 8:26 PM on March 5, 2008

Seconding prefpara. If you can take the quite pointed criticism directed at you in this thread and make a positive out of it, this is an entirely good thing and says a lot for you.
posted by Wolof at 10:36 PM on March 5, 2008

I'd contribute a little comment on this part:

"Now, the owner of the company is Singaporean, and because he pays twice the normal office wage, he expects a Singaporean work ethic."

I'm an Indonesian working as programmer in Singapore for almost 2 years already. From a personal experience, it would be more accurate to call the "Singaporean work ethic" as the asian work ethic. While this varies in degree from one company to another, it concerns mostly deference to your higher-ups (american openess might be considered as a lack of respect to your supervisors here), so you might want to keep that in mind.

Apart from that, just like in any other parts of the world, the most important thing in work is getting stuffs done. This would be the only way you can credibly prove your abilities.
posted by joewandy at 11:57 PM on March 5, 2008

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