Have you ever thought about what you’d write to your younger professional self about your vocational journey? After 25 years in the communications field, there are dozens of things I’d pass on, but here are 10 I feel are most important.
This exercise was prompted by a young friend of mine who is transitioning from his first job out of college to his second with a different company. He’s talented, a team player, productive and meets deadlines. A good steal for his new company, and provided the job fulfills expectations, it will be a good move for him. Here’s what I’d tell him and definitely what I would tell my younger me.
1. Grow up. I mean this in a positive way. It is one thing to be that “kid” out of college landing an entry level job, but it is another to have experience under your belt moving to a second job. Nobody sees you as a kid any more and you shouldn’t either. Have fun and maintain a sense of humor, but don’t be silly if you want to be taken seriously. (The serious people running organizations don’t give promotions to silly people.)
2. Act like a leader. The first person you need to convince of your leadership is yourself, and the first person you need to learn to lead is you. If you’re not convinced, nobody else will be either. And if you can’t lead yourself well, you won’t lead others well. Yes, you may still be the low person on the totem pole, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t act as much like a leader as you can. First impressions really do matter and you’ll either build on them or spend a significant amount of time overcoming them.
3. Be confident. Similar to leadership, but different. Confident people are certain in their abilities and not threatened by others. Know your limitations, honestly assess yourself and be open to constructive criticism. There is a difference between confidence and arrogance. Confidence will enhance your leadership because it will supply the moxie you’ll need to make tough decisions.
4. Be prepared. Preparation is the rebar of confidence. You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room but there is no reason why you can’t strive to be the most prepared person in the room. Part of preparation is anticipating what others may ask and having answers ready. You’ll be surprised how much people will equate preparation with leadership,
5. Be a learner. Get this if you don’t get anything else: The day you stop learning is the day you begin the journey toward irrelevance. The world is changing too fast, and you’ll be sacking groceries at Kroger if you stop learning. This means diving into new software and technology that hits your field. It means learning financial processes and how they fit within an organization. It means going back to school to get an advanced degree if necessary. Developing a curiosity about everything ensures you’ll always be a learner, so always be curious.
6. Be a reader. Closely related to learning, but different. See every book as a mini college course ready to teach you something, which means you need to pick books wisely. Don’t worry, it comes with practice, but read books related to your field, about leadership and personal development, biographies, and books about organizational processes and effectiveness. Focus on books that solidify your foundation and minimize the number of “trendy” books you read. Over time you’ll spot the difference.
7. Practice discretion. No one can be trusted who can’t keep a secret, and leaders must be people who keep secrets. The quickest way to become a person of immense value is by proving that you can be trusted with sensitive information. The quickest way to devalue yourself is to violate a confidence, especially one entrusted by those “up line.” You’ll almost never get that trust back in that organization so you might as well start looking elsewhere.
8. Understand your boss and your CEO and help them achieve their vision. Some may think this is “brown nosing.” It isn’t. Brown nosing is flattery lacking performance. I’m talking about understanding where your leaders want to go and you adding your value to help get there. If you help the CEO succeed, you succeed.
9. Invest in others. This is pretty simple. Are you helping the people around you get better? If you add value to people you help them grow personally and professionally and they will give you their best effort.
10. There is life beyond work. Work is a black hole; you will never complete everything that needs to be done. Learn to prioritize and get the most important and most strategic things done…then go home. Never, ever sacrifice your family on the alter of work.
11. (Bonus) Be bold enough to cut your losses and move on. Not every job turns out as promised or expected. Life is too short to stay in a dysfunctional situation. If you find yourself in that situation, make a change. No, it won’t be convenient or easy and it may cause financial hardship for a while, but in the end you will be glad you left it behind.
You’ll spend most of your adult life at work and more than likely helping someone else achieve their vision for an organization. Make sure it is a vision you can support and invest yourself in that position as if it is the last one you’ll ever have. You’ll know when it is time to move on, and when that time comes, you’ll have left in your wake a legacy of someone who cared about his work while caring about others — and you will have been a success.