Every year on May 23, I take a few minutes to reflect on my “work-iversary,” the anniversary of the first day of my first real-life job after graduating from USC. I walked into my Capitol Hill office wearing a thickly shoulder-padded linen suit and a blouse with a floppy bow. I was so excited to start using the skills I’d learned from the USC journalism school, my campus leadership roles and work experience during college.
That newly minted young professional had no idea what was in store for the next 30+ years of a crooked, yet in retrospect, perfectly aligned career path. I also had no idea of the lessons I’d learn along the way.
A number of years ago, I started a list of those professional life lessons to use in a presentation to a group of college seniors. Since then, I like to revisit this list on my work-iversary as a way to reflect on the past year.
This year, I found myself taking some of my own advice as I launch into a new professional adventure as a business owner. Last month, I took a risk (see #1) and formalized the work I’ve been doing since retiring in 2019. I’ve connected my love of writing (#3) and editing (#16) with the relationships I’ve developed over my career (#4, 15, 18) and launched The Medway Group.
Over the past year, I spent a lot of time evaluating my strengths, identifying opportunities, learning all I could about being an entrepreneur (#6), asking questions and seeking advice (#12), and plotting a plan (#10).
Thanks to insight and advice from many professional colleagues and mentors (#15, 18), I’m now busy helping clients with their writing and editing projects. I’m working with organizations to fine tune their communications planning and staffing. I’m producing a video podcast series, plotting advocacy strategy around legislative issues, editing a huge academic study and leading media training through my work with the Buckley School of Public Speaking.
I’m grateful for the opportunities that let me share my strengths and do the type of work I enjoy through my new company. (Read more about the work The Medway Group is doing.) I’m fine tuning my business plan daily. I’m also making sure not to overlook the importance of that balance we hear so much about (#20) by making time for my music, family, friends, and, of course, travel (#9).
Read on for this year’s updated list of career lessons. Hopefully seasoned and new professionals alike will find a nugget or two here.
2. Go to your boss with a solution, not a problem. Your boss is solving problems all day. Make her life easier by presenting a solution when you present a problem. Even if it’s not the solution that ultimately solves the problem, presenting an idea for a solution keeps your boss from dreading the sight of you at the door or your number on her phone.
3. Cultivate strong writing skills. Solid writers are the people strong leaders want around the leadership table with them. Be the one who colleagues seek out to flesh out and articulate ideas clearly on paper with accurate spelling, grammar and punctuation. Even if writing isn’t a priority part of your job, be the one on the team who can quickly break down concepts on paper.
4. Keep up with people. The students you sat next to in class. Your roommates and their friends. Bosses in your entry level college jobs. Lab partners. Professors. The people you met through your campus activities. College deans. They will all have contacts within their professional circles. Stay in touch with them. You never know where a new job contact, sales relationship or your next stellar employee will come from. Every job change I ever made was the result of someone I knew making a connection for me. All of my current Medway Group clients grew out of established relationships.
5. Be interested and interesting. Ask good questions and ask them often. Young professionals have a great deal to offer a work environment. Speak up when you have something to offer, but remember to balance your enthusiasm with senior-level colleagues’ experience.
6. Keep learning your craft. Find out what your boss or leaders in your profession are reading or listening to (books, blogs, professional publications, podcasts, websites, etc). Seek out professional development opportunities. Pay for them yourself, if necessary. Join professional organizations and get involved.
7. Be kind and remember that everyone carries their own sack of rocks. You never know what type of personal issues the co-worker who missed a deadline is dealing with at home or with his family.
8. Write thank-you and follow-up notes (handwritten, not emailed). Collect business cards or contact info from people you meet at events, in meetings, or just out and about. A handwritten “nice to meet you” note will set you apart and help people you meet remember you. Technology is good, but the personal touch still matters (along with good penmanship).
9. Travel any chance you get. Travel to small towns and big cities across the country and around the world. Don’t put off travel. You’ll never tell your grandchildren about that great trip you didn’t take because you were too busy at work.
10. Plan the work before you work the plan. Having no plan gets you nowhere. Plans will change either by force or circumstance. Be flexible, but have a plan regardless of whether it’s a work project, a trip, a job search, a major purchase or an important life decision.
11. Looking busy doesn’t equal being productive. The co-worker who crows about her heavy workload and long hours is probably much less productive than the one who is organized and prioritizes his days.
12. Be a good listener and observer. It’s an old adage, but true – there’s a reason we have two ears and one mouth. Watching and listening to others can bring valuable insights to the words you eventually speak.
13. Stay in the loop, but avoid the gossip. Be a “boundary spanner”— someone who is respected and trusted by people at all levels of the organization. Just don’t be the one who everyone counts on to know “the dirt.”
14. Build your financial literacy. Pay yourself first. If you use direct deposit, set up an allocated amount to go to your savings account from each paycheck. If you get the chance to participate in your company’s 401K, do it! Even that smallest contribution early in your career will help you establish good saving and investment habits. Learn the basics of budgeting, saving and investing. Keep your rainy day fund separate from your retirement dollars.
15. Seek out a mentor. I’ve found most mentor relationships happen naturally rather than being established formally. Be on the lookout for them. I bet my best mentors probably don’t know they even served in that role. Also, look for “reverse mentoring” opportunities. You can be a resource to your older colleagues. Seasoned professionals can learn a great deal from their younger peers.
16. A good editor will make you shine. Don’t look at having your writing edited as you would look at a teacher correcting a paper. Editing is a collaborative process, and there’s always room for improvement in your writing.
17. Move during the day. Regardless of whether you have a desk job, use your lap as your desk while sitting on the couch or work outside of a traditional office environment, moving your body and getting your brain engaged in something other than your work is key to sanity and creativity. Walk around the block, stretch once an hour, or put in your earbuds and listen to high energy music.
18. Cultivate contacts outside of work. Your next job could easily come from someone you know through church, nonprofits, alumni groups, friends and professional organizations. Stay in touch with people you meet along the way. You never know who may be the connection to your next job. One of my first clients in my new business came from a former intern.
19. Establish your personal brand. Decide what you want your reputation in the workplace to be, and let your actions define you. Keep promises and make deadlines. Under-promise and over-deliver. Avoid behavior in your personal life that could hurt your professional life (even more true today with all the risks of social media in the mix). Remember that details count, especially when getting the details right sets you apart from others.
20. Have fun and be creative. Figure out your own version of work/life balance. The “balance” will probably fluctuate daily, and it most certainly looks different after this COVID experience, but keep focused on creative outlets, exercise and hobbies that let you have fun.