As a seasoned professional (read: old guy with scars earned through experience), with a fancy title, working in a cool area, at an extraordinary company, I am asked for career advice by those in the early days of their business journey. Although I’m not really an expert, people figure I might have some insight to offer.
And it’s true, on a certain level. Over the course of decades, I’ve done a lot, seen a lot, made plenty of mistakes, fallen into good luck, had several great bosses and a couple of lousy ones. I’ve weathered broad macro storms of economic downturns, flat-out recessions, sudden market transitions, and bursting bubbles.
I’ve also made it through micro disturbances like hostile acquisitions, too many rounds of layoffs and downsizing, and a few instances of company restructuring. I’ve observed and emulated some brilliant people, learned what not to do by watching others, worked with many great do-ers and leaders, led or worked within some impactful teams, and have toiled to make positive and lasting impacts on several great companies. Along the way, in the end, I have experienced a measure of success.
For those just starting your careers as new grads, recent MBA’s, or others in the early season of your professional life, I humbly offer the following collection of thoughts as I reflect back on 30+ years… some of which you might find relevant and valuable.
- Find a mentor or two – however, choose wisely and be thoughtful where you “hitch your wagon”, preferably to several stars in various areas.
- Have a mix of patience and impatience — cultivate the desire to go faster and do more, but also recognize that many things have to align in order to make a lasting impact and may take longer as a result.
- Dig deeper for an understanding – there will be inevitable frustration due to the frequent disconnect between ‘how things are’ and how you’d like them to be; recognize that the people above and around you are not stupid, they do things for a reason, understand better by digging deeper
- Stand out from the crowd – give 10% more than is expected and note that it’s a lot of work to sustain that extra 10% over time. Build it into your own rhythm early, as you will then have a huge advantage in standing out from the crowd as special, committed, willing, and productive.
- Change roles – move around within the company, horizontally as well as vertically and take a non-linear approach to your career path, especially early. It will provide you the opportunity to gain experience in many different areas as you meet many people in different departments.
- Look for the “next big thing” — always look for innovative ways to improve projects, processes or what you are working on and help bring it to reality and especially keep an eye out for big shifts ahead.
- Commit to lifelong learning — read, watch, listen, observe, learn from both the positive and negative, adopt both style and substance from what you see and learn.
- Disagree and commit – if you don’t agree with an approach or solution, offer alternatives; but once the decision has been made, don’t undermine the work, support it with everything you’ve got.
- Be nice to others – and learn to work with them. True teamwork and selflessness are rare and people want to work with people they enjoy. And you never know when you will run into these people again – you may need their support or recommendation.
- Set an example – lead through your behavior; actions speak louder than words; be slow to commit but once you do, then over-deliver.
- Be an early adopter – take risks and innovate, try new things, don’t cling to the past or old ways of working, push the envelope.
- Connect and Network – with customers, partners, employees, colleagues, and thought leaders. Continue to grow your network, it will serve you for years and decades.
- Be accessible – be present, visible, available, engaged. Make your presence known and your impact felt.
- Be human – be friendly, empathetic and authentic. Expect to have successes and failures, ups and downs, and some spectacular public mistakes. Recognize the humanity in others and cut them a break when they inevitably mess up or disappoint.
- Share the good work – celebrate the successes of others and you’ll be shared/ referenced by them in return.
- Be among the first to know – and to dive deeper to understand fully.
- Build your own personal brand – stand for something.
- Be influential – tweak and augment other people’s thinking, even by subtle means.
- Be transparent – and share with others, however don’t have selfish ulterior motives.
- Advocate an opinion – even if it proves to be wrong. Be in the mix rather than acting as a bystander or spectator.
- Meet new people – get out of the comfort zone of a small, tight circle.
- Be interesting – show some personality; quirky is OK (flaky is not), especially if you can deliver excellence with a special unique style all your own.
Bonus: Take More Risks and Have More Fun
You’re going to spend a LOT of time and energy on your work and career in the years ahead. It’ll be part of what defines you (but it’s not everything that defines you), it’ll present you with opportunities and adventures, friends and connections, a source of pride and accomplishments and the ability to live a terrific life. It’ll also be a source of frustration, long hours, disappointments, surprises, and unforeseen twists and turns. There’s no way to plan it all out in advance, but that’s okay. Take risks, make big bets, try new things.
Approach your career as an adventure and as a journey to be enjoyed, and experience it to the fullest with bold curiosity and fearlessness, with confidence in yourself, and with the expectation that the right things will happen when and how they are meant to unfold.
I wish you a fantastic journey and great success ahead!