About a year ago, a young professionals group within my organization asked if I would come and speak to their group about the key lessons I’ve learned through my career to this point. In particular, they were interested in the kind of tips or rules of thumb that a person early in their career could follow to accelerate their success. This sounded like a fun request, so I sat down and made a list of the things I felt I had learned through trial and error in my career. Ultimately, that list was far too long to share, so I narrowed it down to a list of eight things. I called the list the “8 secrets to career success that they didn’t teach you in college.”
Apparently, these lessons resonate with young professionals because over the past year, I’ve been asked to present these secrets nearly 20 times to different groups both within my organization and in the local community. It seems that something in this list is helpful to people, so I decided to share it with you here as well.
The 8 Secrets to Career Success (that they forgot to teach you in college)
- Invest in yourself. Particularly early in your career, you should be greedy about your experiences and any opportunity to learn. Every thing you learn or are exposed to early in your career builds part of the foundation that helps you perform in your current and future jobs. So, put down the Xbox controller and volunteer for a big project at work (or read a business book).
- Get self-aware. Knowing your own strengths and weaknesses, passions and frustrations is critical to being able to build a great career. This awareness provides the framework to be a leader. It also empowers you to make intentional career decisions to find work that you love. Use assessments like Myers Briggs, Strengthsfinder, Keirsey Temperament and Leadergrade.com to get objective feedback. Also, for the bold, send out an email request to those who know you best, asking them to give you feedback on your strengths and weaknesses. Great exercise to do for anyone. However, if you ask for feedback, don’t punish someone for giving it to you by arguing with anything they tell you. Just say thank you, then give yourself the time to absorb the feedback they gave you. Chances are, it’s more true than you think.
- Have a plan. When most of us take the time to think about it, we spend more energy planning our vacations or even our weekends than we do our careers. And yet, we spend the majority of our days and our lives working. It’s critical to sit down and give some serious thought to what kind of job you want in the future and how you are going to get there. The simple act of making these decisions makes it more likely that you will succeed in making them happen.
- Find some guts. Those who get ahead the fastest take the most risks. There’s no way around this. There isn’t a safe way to the top. For young professionals, even having a thought out opinion on key business issues can be courageous if you are asked to share it by leaders within your organization. The key here is to step into situations professionally that feel like a stretch and where you feel like you might not be up to it. That’s where your breakthroughs will happen.
- Deliver the goods. Low performers don’t get promoted. Even if your boss is a moron, you hate your coworkers, you work is boring, and you don’t have the resources you need to get the job done. Get it done anyways. The most successful people find a way to make things happen in spite of their situation.
- Look the part. It’s easy to say that your appearance shouldn’t matter when it comes to getting ahead in your career, particularly if you perform, but it does. Early in my career, I was in a phone sales job where I was crushing the numbers. We never saw a client face to face, but were required to wear ties to work. I thought that was stupid, so I intentionally dressed down out of protest. Since I produced big numbers, I didn’t think it should matter. One day, the owner of the company took me to lunch and told me that he’d like to promote me to management, but he couldn’t because I dressed like a slob. To be a manager, I had to look like management material. Learned an important lesson that day. Appearance matters.
- Build your network. The better your network, the more valuable you are to your organization. Your network is like your entourage, where you go, they go. Having a broad, powerful network of connections with people helps make up for your weak spots. If you don’t have a particular expertise, but you know someone who you can call and who will help you, the fact that you lack in that area won’t be an issue.
- Lead in the community. Leadership and management experience is hard to come by until you get promoted and some times you need it before you can get into the jobs where you will learn it. The best way to close this gap is to find community organizations involved in causes you care about and volunteer for leadership roles at the organization. There’s four benefits to doing this. First, it feels good to volunteer and you are giving back. Second, if you can learn to lead volunteers, you can easily lead people who are paid to follow you at work. Third, volunteers are much more forgiving when you make mistakes as a leader and they will give you feedback. Finally, by leading successfully in the community, you will build your network and increase your visibility within your community–both good for your career.