USC’s graduation this weekend makes me realize it’s been 40 years since my graduation with the best speaker possible for a journalism school grad – Walter Cronkite!
Several days after graduation, I packed my car heading to DC to start my first job as a Congressional receptionist. In looking back, I tried to remember if I was concerned that my first job mainly involved answering phones, giving tours and driving my boss to the airport. After all, I believed my resume illustrated strong leadership skills, solid job experience and good writing samples (and yes, it was appropriate back then to include age and marital status on a resume).
As best I can remember, I was thrilled with that first job. I knew turnover was high in Congressional offices, and young staffers could move up quickly if given the chance to prove themselves. I had my sights set on being a press secretary, after all.
That newly minted young professional had no idea what was in store for the next 40 years of a winding 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 for a group of college seniors. Since then, I like to revisit and update this list annually as a way to reflect on the past year.
Lessons from diploma to today
Read on for this year’s updated list of career lessons. Hopefully seasoned and new professionals alike will find a nugget or two here.
1. Take risks. Look for the unexpected opportunities. No one can expect perfection. It’s OK to be a beginner. You can often learn more from mistakes than successes. Yes, really, you can.
2. Cultivate strong writing skills. Solid writers are the people strong leaders want around the leadership table with them. Be the one 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 and communicate concepts on paper.
3. 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.
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. The connection to one of my first clients came from a former intern.
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 – use your vacation days. 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. Sharpen your speaking skills. A strong speaking presence doesn’t come naturally to everyone, but practice can help anyone improve. Seek out opportunities to speak up in meetings, identify your pain points, practice in front of a mirror, watch speakers you admire. Learn to be the one in the room who can catch – and keep – people’s attention.
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.
Following my own advice
Over the past couple of years, I’ve realized it’s never too late to follow my own advice while launching into my latest professional adventure as a business owner at The Medway Group. I’ve connected my love of writing (#2) and editing (#16) with the relationships I’ve developed over my career (#4, 15).
I’ve 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 plotting advocacy strategy around legislative issues and leading media training through my work with the Buckley School of Public Speaking.
I’m grateful for the opportunities today that let me share my strengths and do the type of work I enjoy. (Read more about the work The Medway Group is doing.) 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 travel (#9). And I keep sending those hand-written thank you notes (#8).