Over the years I’ve come to believe that adapting to a corporation is a skill, just like programming computers or giving talks. What’s key is learning the unwritten rules. What do companies really want? How are employees really rewarded?
Suits, a memoir by Nina Godiwalla, offers a strong role model. Nina managed to get accepted into a mentorship program two years ahead of schedule, right after her freshman year of college. She had a successful career as an investment banker on Wall Street, navigating past the male-dominated culture.
We are introduced to many worlds –
– second generation Indian family life (her mother had 4 daughters!)
– insider peek into Wall Street
– inside view into thoughts, feelings and experiences of a woman who succeeded on Wall Street
Mostly it’s a story of a woman who was determined to be successful. You can describe her story as calculated or as strategically plotted. You can admire Nina or view her as ruthless and ambitious. Regardless, she figured out what she had to do. She understood the unwritten rules about what to wear, what to say, how to act and even what to drink. She didn’t buck the system or try to make changes. She wanted to maximize what she could gain from it.
In all fairness, Nina’s bosses and coworkers weren’t uniformly cruel. She describes the careful mentoring she received from “Steve.” She reports that her work was recognized on merit, even though she was a minority hire from a public school. And while I’d hardly defend sexism, I note that the events described here took place at the turn of the century – around 2000. Scarcely 25 years earlier, when I was in business school, women were just gaining a toehold in the workplace. Men would make a public presentation and say things like, “Women won’t travel.”
The real sickness comes in the culture, which favors wealthy Ivy League graduates like “Michael,” who “get by” on connections. Even white male graduates get beaten down, as evidenced by the public meltdown of one of Nina’s colleagues.
The company takes talented, ambitious people and puts them to work doing tasks that could be handled by a high school graduate – or, these days, a computer-savvy high school student. Nina gets berated when titles aren’t centered on a page or a graph gets printed with dots instead of stars. The sheer waste of talent can be contrasted to the wasteful spending on food and entertainment.
Although Nina excelled on performance, I can’t help wondering if this culture really rewards achievement. From what I could tell, the key is to survive two years and then use the Morgan Stanley name to move on to doing what these people *really* want to do. Nina’s colleague “Luis” tries to game the system by looking busy without doing any work; her colleague Michael is so well-connected he doesn’t bother to hide. In the end, will their fates be that different? Does Nina get a substantially greater bonus?
I also was taken aback by Nina’s actions when she discovers a colleague was posing without clothes in a magazine that seemed to be targeted to gay men. She wasted no time sharing the magazine with everyone she could find. She and her friends seemed to think there was some law against firing this colleague for his off-duty activities, but she’s far too shrewd to claim she didn’t anticipate negative consequences. She may have been too exhausted to think clearly. Still, I think this episode – which she recounts with unsparing, perhaps naive honesty – shows that she may have been absorbed into the system, and the system’s ethical values. more than she realized at the time.
Nina went on to get an MFA in creative writing and an MBA. She has a consulting company that deals with stress in corporate America.