When you have a career that has spanned a couple of decades, people tend to assume that you know one or two things about the workplace. It’s not always an accurate assumption. Sometimes, the more you know about work, the more you think there must be a better way to make a living.
Jokes aside, there are a number of lessons I’ve picked up from the roles I’ve had along the way – and several more from recent research. Many are lessons I wish I'd known when I started out – and a couple are things I learnt the hard way. That’s how life goes. Hopefully, it gives you a few handy tips too.
When you start out, many assume they need a ‘big brand experience’ as some sort of quality assurance. Sometimes it works out, but just as it was for the new intern in the 2006 film, The Devil Wears Prada, big brand companies can be acutely aware of their brand cache. Instead of training and development, they may work you to the bone, safe in the knowledge you're replaceable. Ultimately your job will be a success if you're stretched yet supported. For your first year or two, invest in a company with a great team spirit, fair play, and the chance to do meaningful work. A passionate team with a shared sense of mission will ultimately serve you better than if you disappear into a 'name' brand.
Your job description (or JD) will have multiple categories and items listed on it when you start out. Human nature is to attack those you find the most interesting, or the easiest ones. This can be a mistake. Instead, work out how your role will be assessed, agreeing early on with your manager the top three priorities, and their relative weighting in terms of percentage. Once you've a list of the top priorities that add up to more than, say, 60% of the role, draw up a path to fulfilling these tasks first. This plan should be your priority in the first 90 days of the role.
You are no longer at school – and as such, your success won’t lie solely in whether or not you’ve delivered the goods. You also need to add value to the team. So play nice, and don’t swing your weight around too much right away. Likewise, you may come across individuals early on who drag the team down. While these individuals can be high in charisma and refreshingly frank, toxic people can pull others down to get where they want, and in subtle ways, should be given a wide berth. Pair up instead with high-energy team players – particularly those with skills that will complement yours.
On arrival, your biggest asset inside any company is curiosity. Those with experience can be a prime resource to you – especially in identifying how to act commercially, and ways to make an impact within the business. After a year or so in the role, identify those with qualities you aspire to, and learn the steps you need to follow to progress. A mentor can deliver you real-world knowledge on the challenges faced by the leaders, and lend insights into how you’re progressing along the way. They can also prove invaluable to help you out when you screw up – which invariably you will at some stage.
Be careful about promises, and ensure you can deliver on the ones you make. Push yourself: and take on tasks that will extend your comfort zone and test your mettle. While it’s natural to seek advancement, what matters more initially is the exposure you're gaining, and your chance to do your best along the way. The fast track might not be what you need – instead you likely need to put in the necessary hours that demonstrate you've 'done your time'. When you look back, it’s often these initial stages when the work proves the most satisfying. Focus on showing up motivated and prepared, and using the chance to learn new tools and processes, and there’s a good chance that either within this job or a future one, advancement will come.
With the above in mind, you do want to monitor whether you are moving forward in terms of the work you do. The major difference between university and here, is that in the workplace some people do stand still – and others who aren’t particularly ambitious. Advancement won’t automatically come through tenure alone: daring to step up to carry a project can be key. Your ultimate success will lie in managed risk-taking. So you got burned along the way? Dust yourself off, learn your lessons, and get back in the ring. In the long run, these scars will often deliver you the best career lessons.
Bad clients or tricky managers will happen. When faced with someone difficult, ensure that you stay factual, cover your tracks by keeping careful notes, and ensure you get the job done in decent time. Remember, you don’t need to own these people's drama: only to learn from it. In a high-stress environment, tantrums can happen – and certain people will see their title or client status as an excuse for poor behaviour. It often loses these people widespread respect: you can learn from the mistakes you observe. Where possible, try to understand the pressure the person is under. Their reaction may be unwarranted, but nor does it mean you need to fight battles that aren't yours.
In an attempt to get through the week, it can be tempting to develop a ‘no’ reflex. Yet remember that by adopting a growth mindset, and embracing opportunities to learn, you'll likely create more chances like these. Future leaders are often the only ones who are brave or crazy enough to try when others are running for cover. If you take the right people along with you, and build the 'impossible dream' into a project with a clear sense of mission, the attempt will be fun. And where the odds were against you, even an initial failure may not be viewed as the worst result.
You do see many in a professional environment who seem to change their ethics or behaviour according to the seniority of those they speak to. Where possible, don’t do this – be nice to everyone along the way. Likewise, despite what others may do around you, avoid a temptation to be indiscrete about your company outside the office. While you may not hear about it, people may judge you as being a risk not worth taking.
Lost motivation or signs of prolonged stress can be a signal that it’s time for a change. If you think you might be ready, seek independent advice outside your company. When it’s really time, resist the dramatic exit. As you prepare the ground for a change, think carefully about what you’ve learned to date – and what specifically you're looking for from the next role. Telling this story will be one key to acing the upcoming interviews. And when the time comes, thank people in a genuine way for the opportunities – gratitude will be good for both you and them. Plus, out in the real world again the champions of your work and attitude can ultimately provide you the perfect path to your next adventure.
Do have any of your own career lessons? I'd love to hear from you. For more job opportunities, take a look at our current job listings – your next adventure may just lie in wait.