Students frequently come to me and say, "I have a job opportunity in this new field, but I don't know anything about it. What should I do?"

My answer is invariably, "Go to the library and look at about eight or 10 issues of the trade newspapers of that field."

Every field has a trade newspaper. And once you get over the parochial nature of the stories (like "Ribbed Smoked Sheets Plummet" in a rubber journal), you find that the basic economics and day-to-day decisions that have to be made are pretty much the same from industry to industry.

What separates the insiders from the outsiders is the knowledge of the vocabulary of the field.

Look at us in financial services. No one would say "a hundredth of a percent." It would be "1 basis point."

Wall Streeters will not talk about "a 16th of a dollar;" it's "a teeny."

Investment bankers' term for bidding against another investment banker on a deal is "a bake-off."

Learn the vocabulary and use the same brain power and logic you used in one field, and you soon can make it in another.

But climbing the corporate ladder also requires an additional language skill - interpreting what the boss says.

There was a famous price-fixing case in which the subordinates testified in court "Our bosses said, 'Don't collude with the competition,' and we thought they didn't mean it, that it was just for show."

The bosses, however, testified in the criminal trial that took place, "We never meant anything more definitely in our lives."

Community bankers certainly face this type of language uncertainty. Does the boss mean what he says or not?

Some staff members at one bank got together a while back and did something about it.

The bank was the Depositors Trust Company of Maine, whose chairman, Wally Haselton, was well recognized as a power in the state, a pretty good wit, and someone not to be crossed.

I remember Wally telling me that Maine has so few people that if he saw three people standing on a corner in Augusta talking, he would apply for a branch on that spot.

Well, in 1981, a memorable volume was published, "The Immortal Sayings of Chairman Haselton," with interpretations by the aforementioned employees.

Here are a few of the items in that book, which staff members found not only amusing but useful if they wished to keep their jobs:

*"We did everything we could to guarantee the success of the project." (Interpretation: "We did everything wrong.")

*"Listen, that's just my opinion. The reason we have these meetings is to get everybody's input." ("Let's keep the discussion going until more of you agree with me.")

*"Participative management is the wave of the future." ("The future is after I retire: meanwhile, I'll manage - and you will participate.")

*"I want babies, not labor pains." ("One of us is going to agonize, and guess who.")

Culture

Understanding the corporate culture is a major hurdle to new employees and even newly promoted people. Think of the fate of the conservative lender at the now defunct Bank of New England who told the CEO there was nothing worth lending on in Worcester, Mass. The response, which I am pretty certain was not apocryphal, was "I hate pessimism: My motto is: "Quit your moaning; get out loaning."

And consider the fate of the employee who, when told by his New Jersey bank's new ownership to be at his desk by 7:30 a.m., responded "We came in at 9 in the old bank, and I intend to continue that procedure." Needless to say, his employment was "discontinued."

Maybe more banks should have volumes detailing the "wit and wisdom" of their top officers. It seems hard to get ahead unless you know what the boss means as opposed to what he says.

Mr. Nadler is a contributing editor of the American Banker and professor of finance at Rutgers University Graduate School of Management.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.