Film: Life Lessons from Working Girl

It's graduation time again, and a lot of shiny new people will be emerging from the collegiate bubble into the "real" world. That is, the world of the work-a-day week, timecards, lunches at the desk, sneakers to commute and heels in the bag, and rows and rows of cubes. Okay, so maybe it's not so bad as all that, but when the real world hits for the first time, it hits pretty hard.

I was surprised to learn that one of my recent co-workers (who had recently graduated from college) had never seen the film Working Girl by Mike Nichols from 1988. I cannot conceive of someone NOT having seen this film when I watch it at least once a year, if not more often than that. From the moment the snare drum snaps to a shot of the Statue of Liberty, this film has me. The anthemic, soaring voice of Carly Simon on "Let the River Run" almost brings tears to my eyes in anticipation. From the first second, this movie goes right at the heart of the American spirit of capitalism and makes it exhilarating, despite its dirty backroom machinations. The writing is sharp, the cast is tremendous, and you'd be hard pressed not to love every one of these utterly flawed, delightful characters.

For me, Working Girl is sort of an I Ching of the business world. It gives lessons, makes you laugh, breaks your heart a few times, and still you come out with a happy ending. So, in my opinion, the film is an essential for anyone entering the working world.

So, here are my favorite lessons learned from Working Girl...

You don’t get ahead in this world by calling your boss a pimp.

“Never burn bridges. Today’s junior prick – tomorrow’s senior partner.”

Even if your boss is a pimp, a bitch, a pain-in-the-ass, or the company’s own dirty embarrassment, NEVER let them know that you know that. You don’t want to be the clean-up crew, but you can probably handle being a good cop to your boss’s bad cop. It’s called being nice.

People who are cavalier about burning bridges “so they’ll light my way” are just being stupid. You never ever know who can and will help you in your future career. Believe me, on day one people are already noticing your work ethic, and they aren’t likely to forget how much grace you have under pressure. They also aren’t likely to forget the good work and favors you’ve done on their behalf. You make them look good and they will always remember you, even years down the line.

They’ll also remember the nasty phone call, the shit attitude, the curt email response, and the oh-so-ferocious way you light that match and set that bridge on fire.

Never trust a bitch that has a weight machine in her office.

That’s just on principle.

Never trust a bitch that says “trust”.

Remember that guy at the frat party in your freshman year of college who wanted to take you out his window onto the roof because you could hear the band better from up there? Remember how the whole proposition didn’t seem to set quite right with you? Yeah. Hear that voice.

If your instinct tells you that someone is phony baloney (especially if it’s your boss,) then you aren’t likely too far off from the truth. Again, you don’t need to bring this to their attention, but just know where you stand and trust your instincts.

And just in case you forget: anyone who tells you to come to them with YOUR ideas should be a suspicious character no matter what. Do not trust them, ever.

Remember your first taste.

(As the chandelier lowers.) “Why does it do that?” “For cleaning.” “Are you kidding me?” “No.”

A Warhol quartet, Louis XVI desk, orchids… Your first time behind the curtain of affluence will always make an impression. Remember it well. The textures, the fragrances, the flavors, the service…the world is very different behind that curtain and that’s a good thing to know first-hand. Absorb it through your very pores so that you’ll know it when you get back there some day.

Dress like a woman.

“It’s simple, elegant; it makes a statement – says to people: confident, a risk-taker, not afraid to be noticed. Then you hit-em with your smarts.”

Dressing up always makes an impression. It’s important not to be overdressed nor intimidating, but to always be memorable. The success of the black sequined dress Tess borrows lies in it’s juxtaposition to every other outfit in the room. Remember, before Donna Karan, women didn’t know how to go from work to cocktails as seamlessly as they do today. It’s clear that all the women at the party have come from work, which is why they all look drab and frumpy.

“You dress like a woman, not how a woman thinks a man would dress if he was a woman.”

Today our wardrobes are much more versatile – especially when it comes to the transition between work and play. But even if you’re leaving right from work to go on to a social event, never forget the power of a quick freshen-up. New makeup, a spritz of perfume, and a quick hair re-dux will make you look and feel pretty. And pretty is always powerful.

Fringe times ARE crucial, but meet like human beings, for once.

“I promised myself that when we met we’d drink tequila. No chardonnay, no Frog water. Real drinks.”

Someday some guy will surprise the hell out of me by NOT talking about work within the first five minutes. Hopefully that same guy will know how to order a good brown liquor, and will also have a solid knowledge on the finer points of flirtation. Not everything needs to be “business cards and you must know so-and-so”, and it’s refreshing when it isn’t. The best relationships, romantic and platonic, are founded on things other than a business connection. The man that knows this is the one you want to keep.

The mantra “Don’t fuck up” is as good as any.

The point is, before heading into any important meeting, luncheon, conversation, or whatever, it’s always a good idea to visualize and prepare. Set the intention before heading into the room, conversation, whatever. The more you see yourself succeeding in a difficult situation the more likely it is to happen. Think of and process as many possible outcomes as possible, exploring the situation from every angle.

Know what to do with the surplus cash on the balance sheet – it may be the only time you’ll have to get this creative, but it will be worth considering.

Be able to play secretary AND boss…and give yourself a promotion.

“You’re up against Wharton and Harvard grads.” “Christians and lions, Tess…”

The art of being both secretary and boss is the art of the fake-out. Maybe it’s illusion, maybe it’s just plain fraud, but when handled with grace it’s just plain smart. Imitation is the highest form of flattery and observation is the best way to learn and master (and surpass) someone’s skill set.

On the flip side, I cannot tell you how many Wharton and Harvard grads I’ve known who had no idea how to set up a conference call or schedule a meeting room in Outlook. Never mind the CEOs and brand presidents I’ve known that didn’t know how to raise their hand at the curb to hail a taxi. These are important life skills that should not merely be handed off to some underling because you think yourself too important to be bothered. To quote the great song “Underdog” by Spoon – “You got no time for the messenger/got no regard for the thing that you don’t understand/ you got no fear of the underdog/that’s why you will not survive”. If you can only be a boss with no idea about the secretary part, you’ll always be missing half of the work equation.

As an underling, you can learn a lot from a boss, but chances are they won’t always take the time to learn from you.  (If they do however, hang on to them and follow them anywhere because they’re clearly invested in your success!)

Know that you’re going to get burned.

“I’m not the same pathetic trusting fool I was a few days ago.”

Things fall apart. The one wonderful boss that actually believes in you may get transferred, have a baby, move half way around the world, or any number of things that will take them away from your career. As much as you may plan your own career path, life will happen and catch you up short. Maybe you’ll get laid off (I did, and I still think it was the best thing that ever happened to me,) maybe you’ll get transferred, maybe the IPO will be delayed, or maybe that next round of funding never happens. The only thing you can be sure of is that somewhere, someday, something totally unexpected will get tossed in your direction.

When it does, you have a choice: wallow in despair or make it work for you. Even on your worst day (professionally and personally) you can usually still salvage something or at least figure out a new tack to take. How you recover from these situations will test you, but will also let you show your mettle in ways you won’t even realize.

Knowing how to read a balance sheet is just as important as knowing how to crash a wedding.

“He’s here and we’re here, that makes us…” “Total idiots.” “In the right place at the right time.”

Opportunities don’t always come knocking, sometimes you have to go find them on a dance floor, awkwardly, in the middle of a society wedding at the Union Club. People chalk a lot of things up to being “in the right place at the right time,” but what about camping out in the right place because the right time is bound to happen? By developing your sixth sense – the one that anticipates opportunities – you’ll start to learn where to find them.

Know your pitch.

“I said that the man who in 1971 looked into the future and saw that it was named microwave technology, the man who applied Japanese management principles while the others were sill kowtowing to the unions, the man who saw the Ma Bell breakup coming from miles away… This man did not get to be this man, you, I mean, by shutting himself off to new ideas. Am I right or am I right?”

Research, research, research. This will help you so much more than you may actually think. If you’re heading into a pitch or proposal, be sure to have read up on everything about the person or company your’re going to be courting. What’s their current share value? How did they do last quarter, last year? What are their current plans for growth and how do they expect to do it? Most importantly, what’s the vision you’ve come up with for their grand plans? Even if you’re just the coat check girl sitting at the reception desk, this information should always be fresh in your mind. Know how to take the temperature of a company, a department, a leader… Keep your eyes open and observe: trends, attitudes, moods, the air in the lunch room. It’s all there, you just have to put all the pieces together and start your spin.

You are not steak.

“I’m not going to spend the rest of my life working my ass off and getting nowhere just because I followed rules that I had nothing to do with setting up.”

Remember that you have a voice – in business and in your relationships. Accept the times when you make mistakes (which will happen), but be practiced at the art of gracefully asserting yourself. Don’t be afraid of your own power, and don’t be afraid to break the rules when you feel that it’s the right thing to do. In fact, make your own rules!

I know this is a tricky one when you’re first starting out, especially as you’re learning. But always keep it buried in your back pocket.

Don’t let good people get buried under a little piece of tape.

Have integrity and ethics. Don’t throw people under the bus; take responsibility for things. If you’re wrong, admit it, but if you’re right then know how to back up your position in three different ways.

Business relationships can be fragile at the get-go, but once you’ve made a few partnerships you will start to feel the loyalty. Sometimes you’ll be challenged, sometimes you’ll be an ace, but either way you need a solid team on your side. When you find those talents, remember them and keep in touch no matter where you go. These are the bridges you definitely don’t want to burn.

Wise up and don’t take the whole thing so seriously.

Read the People page. It’s true, you really don’t know where the big ideas will come from, so stay open to all of them by being open to everything. Even the most ridiculous things.

Emerging markets can emerge without you on your birthday. When in doubt, go to a party on Staten Island. You may be the best-dressed person there, but you’ll probably have a very fun, memorable night.  Singing and dancing around the house in your underwear won’t make you Madonna, but it will probably make you laugh.

“Power to the People.” “The little people.”

The first few years will be filled with many lessons. You’ll learn a lot and you’ll climb higher, if that’s what you really want to do. As you get higher and grow in importance, talent, and ability, never forget where you started. Chances are it’ll take a long time to become the biggest fish in the corporate pond, but after a few years you’ll no longer be the smallest either. But know that those years as a small fish may be the most important you’ll experience. They’ll give you drive, ambition, humility, wisdom, street smarts, and all those little skills that the people at the top should always be grateful for.

Gumption, Ms. McGill.

“You can bend the rules plenty once you get upstairs but not while you’re trying to get there. And, if you’re someone like me you can’t get there without bending the rules.”

If things aren’t working for you, you can always move on to something better. If you need to, you can always shake things up. When you’re young it’s a bit easier to do, but age doesn’t really matter. If you want to make something happen you can do it. It may be risky, it may be all-or-nothing, it may mean a lot of sacrifice, but it will probably be worth it in the end.

Keep good records, write down your ideas, and keep your elevator pitch polished and concise. You never know who may be riding with you or if they have a fat checkbook that needs to invest in something or someone. Namely, you.