I talk to many recent college grads, and students about to graduate. I encourage all professionals to do so, because it keeps your perspective fresh and gives you insight into changing attitudes. Those I talk to are often looking for insight into what it takes to “get to the top” – and I try to inform them that the road to the top is paved with many bricks. Lay the foundation right and you have a chance, but skip steps and you won’t get far.
So I’ve synthesized my views on early career survival skills into these three tips:
Be able to solve problems
Being able to solve problems boils down to the ability take synthesize disparate and complex information into something meaningful. In the vast majority of cases, problems in one situation are solved by applying learnings from other situations. So as someone starting your career you lack a key factor in solving problems – experience! How do you make up for that missing piece? Two words – Listen, Read.
Listen to those around you. I know you believe you know everything already, trust me when I say you will look back often in your life and realize how little you know. So listen to your boss, your peers who came from different backgrounds. Listening means you are not talking. Let others drive conversation but always be around to hear it and be in the moment.
Read everything you can. Read about current events, stay up on the news; there are real-life problems being solved all the time. Read leadership books to start the process of forming your own leadership habits, then observe those around you and see how you can relate the things you are reading to what you are seeing. Read about history and business, political, and other problems and how they were solved.
Make the most of every situation
I’m not a big fan of jumping around between companies, jobs, etc. There are certainly times when you need to get out of a situation to facilitate career advancement, personal happiness or maintain your ethical integrity. But I like the general idea of “sticking with it.” I don’t like to hear “whining” about a company not giving you opportunities or not utilizing your skills to their fullest. But the truth is you can persevere and come out on top by re-framing your attitude.
I spent a big chunk of my first year in public accounting working the copier machine. I could have moped or bitched about it, instead I took pride in my work, determined to master that particular aspect of the job, and ensuring that everyone knew they could rely on me without the rolled eyes or moaning. And in return all I asked is they tell me what they were working on, what problems they were having, seeing if I could offer anything to help them beyond the copying. Seven years later I was a senior manager, having been promoted early twice. I got to work on some of the most interesting, challenging projects our office had. I don’t think that was an accident.
This sort of goes with the first two – because I don’t mean work long hours for no reason. You should work as many hours as is reasonable to get the particular job done while considering your life outside of work. A single person starting their career will have more flexibility than a married person with children, but that doesn’t mean both can’t succeed. Part of your early career should be spent learning how to manage time, a subject on which there is plenty of good learnings available.
But I believe that whatever time you can invest beyond the basic work week for your job should be spent in the areas above. Spend your extra time reading about other companies in your industry. Find peers or mentors that want to share some of themselves and their philosophies, and invite them to a before-work coffee and listen to them. You get the idea.
Bonus advice for those still in college
I tell kids who are in the first few years of college the same thing every time: “Get a real job!” What I mean is that all the activities one does out of class are at least as valuable as the studying. Learning how to work with others and delegate assignments and hold people accountable – these are skills learned as the officer of a club or being on the school newspaper staff or playing on the intramural broom hockey team.
But the best experience is a job. Not an internship, not working for your dad’s law firm as a runner – a job where you deal with customers, with a boss, with less-than-desirable work. A job in retail or fast food or in a manufacturing plant or at a car dealership or at a bank. A job where the problems don’t always come out as a rounded number or a clean answer. Life is rarely ever not messy – you need to learn to deal with messes.