Article by Alex Song
Some people learn the entrepreneurial ropes through trial by fire, but there is an easier, more effective path: corporate employment. While many entrepreneurs hate the idea of working for someone else, the lessons I learned while working at Goldman Sachs provided context and clarity that have benefited me greatly on my entrepreneurial journey.
No matter how many books you read or how many conferences you attend, nothing adequately replicates the value of on-the-ground experience. During my time as an employee, I saw countless examples of what works — and what doesn’t — as my colleagues and bosses collaborated and collided. As a green recruit, I found my roles and expectations shifting constantly, but each of my experiences helped me understand how to run a business before I even knew what products or services my future company would provide.
I learned dozens of important lessons during my time at Goldman Sachs, but these four stand out to me as the foundational essentials every entrepreneur should know:
Larger organizations naturally create more social pressure. When you are surrounded by people who adhere to certain expectations, you find yourself striving to meet those expectations as well. To do that, you have to analyze how and why those standards exist. In the process, you learn about the norms of the business world. That way, when you’re going it on your own, you’ll have an understanding of what you, your clients, and your employees can and should expect from one another.
Working for a corporation helped me learn how to follow processes and programs before I set out to develop my own. So many entrepreneurs attempt to reinvent the wheel because they believe they must do everything differently to succeed. That’s not the case. The fact of the matter is that best practices are “best” for a reason, and there is a value in finding ways to innovate within — not outside of — the framework of tried-and-true methodologies. When you learn how to operate according to those tested and established models, you learn to see the value in the existing processes.
Corporate discipline helped me understand why certain standards maintain their value for so long. I iterated on those processes after I left, but I rarely felt the need to replace them entirely.
For example, Goldman Sachs uses a highly structured review system. Most startups neglect the importance of feedback, but I had learned that soliciting input from employees is the best way to stay ahead of the market. Today, my company hosts anonymous 360-degree feedback sessions twice a year, and I use them to guide the direction of our growth.
Investment banking earned its reputation as a meat grinder the honest way. During my time at Goldman Sachs, we worked 100 hours a week, and if we got to leave before 10 p.m. on a Friday, we considered that a win.
When you join an environment with high expectations, you must push yourself to find out how resilient you can be. It’s a grueling test, but as you dig deeper, you learn that you can do more than you ever thought possible. Just as people push themselves in competitive sports and marathons, tough corporate life forces you to challenge your mental, emotional, and physical limits. By learning that lesson when you’re young, you can remain confident in tough times that you will make it to the other side.
Of course, not every corporate job will be comparable to a role in investment banking. There are plenty of corporate jobs that may be too cushy to contribute to entrepreneurial resilience. If your employer only asks you to work 9-5 and lets you goof off for multiple hours per day, you don’t learn how to struggle — you learn how to be complacent. Humans crave stability, but business owners don’t have that luxury. Entrepreneurs must get comfortable with mistakes and setbacks. Because entrepreneurship is unpredictable by nature, the people who endure chaotic environments succeed more often.
To truly gain the level of resilience that will serve you well in an entrepreneurial role down the road, you need an intense corporate environment that demands a higher standard. That’s what sets you up to succeed when you set out on your own.
3. Social Intelligence
Office politics and social intelligence are close cousins. You can’t navigate treacherous waters without a bit of tact. While you don’t necessarily want or need to morph into a master manipulator to successfully lead your startup, you do need to learn how to handle delicate social situations with grace and foresight.
Deeply hierarchical organizations like corporations make excellent training grounds to build social intelligence. When you’re the junior employee, you have to learn how to make people like you. You also have to work within larger teams and find the delicate balance between standing out and crossing the line.
At Goldman Sachs, I watched how the leaders above me interacted and learned from one another within the parameters of operational command. They didn’t step on one another’s toes by handing tasks to someone else’s subordinates. They operated within the system and ensured everyone felt respected. Instead of learning this lesson the hard way — hurting someone’s feelings and having to make amends — I began my company with a broad understanding of how to work well with others.
Top performers in corporate environments learn to prove their value without a ton of one-on-one time with their superiors. As the leader of a business, you need your employees to respect your abilities and your vision, even if you don’t see all of them every day. Fresh college graduates rarely possess those social skills, but the demands of a corporate environment can forge you into a more capable leader.
Do not wait to invest in culture. Of all the lessons I learned in the corporate world, this one may be the most important.
When you work in a large organization, you see how difficult it is to get everyone aligned and working toward the same goals. Bad cultures create friction, while good cultures empower teams to become more than the sum of their parts.
Purpose that goes beyond personal well-being goes a long way toward building a positive culture. In finance, most of us wanted to make as much money as we could, regardless of how that mission affected the people around us. As I got older, I saw how that environment could quickly become toxic and superficial. In this case, I learned from a large organization by observing both its best practices and its dysfunction.
Today, I am deliberate about how my company culture is formed. For example, we host an internal book club every two months. The company buys a book on a business or personal development topic, then we buy pizza for everyone and chat about our key takeaways. The goal is to get people — regardless of whether they’ve actually made it through the book — talking about ideas and takeaways from other companies that could be meaningful for our organization. Little things like that have helped us build a sustainable, thriving company.
I’m not saying you should put your entrepreneurial dream on hold to earn your stripes in a corporate office. If you have a brilliant idea and the tools to execute on it, then go for it. However, don’t force yourself to jump into entrepreneurship right off the bat, either. You can learn a lot by spending some time in the corporate grind. After you’ve absorbed learnings from a challenging corporate environment, you’ll have great confidence and a deeper understanding of what it takes to start your own successful business.
A version of this article originally appeared on SUCCESS.com.
Alex Song is the CEO and cofounder of DojoMojo, the one-stop home for partnership marketing where businesses of all sizes can connect to grow their audiences at a fraction of the cost of traditional paid channels. With a passion for early stage growth, Alex is also the founder and CEO of Innovation Department, a tech-enabled consumer brand-building platform. Prior to launching these companies, Alex worked at Goldman Sachs and Pershing Square Capital Management.
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