As young, inexperienced adults, we are expected to make choices that will impact the rest of our lives and pave the way for our future careers, all while trying to socialize, eat healthy, go on little sleep for days at a time, and manage our finances – no pressure there! Once we graduate, it can feel like the choices we made were permanent and by making the “wrong” choice, we’ve eternally screwed ourselves over. I am writing to tell you that this is not the case. What I’ve learned since graduating university and the specific choices that I made for myself will hopefully provide some advice that will help you navigate through these scary, post-graduate years.
I graduated from the University of Toronto in 2009 with a BA in History. I didn’t give much thought into what I declared, I was just excited to be an 18-year-old living on my own for my first time. I enjoyed the Humanities as a subject so I decided to study what I liked – not the most practical long-term choice. During my last year of undergrad, the terror of entering the workforce and finding a job with a Liberal Arts degree sunk in. As someone trying to find a job during a global recession that included some of the highest youth unemployment figures in history, it was hard to avoid feeling helpless.
I looked around at my peers and instantly recognized that I was not alone, and that this helplessness was generally universal. After four years of undergrad, I had felt that there was a concerted effort by parents and educators to withhold the sad truth that life was actually going to be an uphill battle. While graduating from high school imparted students with the feeling they were on to bigger and better things, graduating from undergrad was an acknowledgement of hard times ahead.
While many of my friends bypassed the recession by continuing school, I tried to find a job. I graduated in June 2009, and continued working my summer job at a bar while I hunted for “real” work. The hunt lasted 5 months. Those 5 months of looking were disenfranchising and I found myself progressively lowering my expectations. First to go was salary expectations. Next was that my job would be in ‘my field’ (not a lot of work in history). Finally, I “settled” on an entry-level bank teller job.
I could write a novel on those first few years grinding up the corporate ladder, but it would be pretty boring so I’m just going to fast-forward. I’ve been working in business for almost 7 years now and gradually, year over year, I’ve moved up in both compensation and title. I never thought of myself as someone who would ‘go into business’ (much less succeed) but that’s where I’ve landed and I am pleased that I see this now as my destination career. I look back on my career to date and in the same way that I can identify some key moments of success, I can also understand where I made the occasional misstep. From the wins and losses, I’ve been able to isolate some maxims that (I hope) can be helpful to others at the beginning of their respective careers:
Take Risks the Right Way
“Taking a risk” can be scary, and often a recipe for disaster. Instead, “take a calculated risk”. Make an informed decision and try to be self-aware enough to understand your own risk tolerance. In the way that you shouldn’t take your $10,000 OSAP loan to Vegas and bet in on red, you also shouldn’t shy away from challenges out of fear of failure. Too often people tend to handcuff themselves to their own insecurities.
The workplace is a competitive space and opportunities to shine should be exploited whenever possible – opportunities won’t come up every day, so it is important to take advantage of them. In taking calculated risks, you need to weigh the risk of failure against the potential for success. Try to avoid the tendency to ‘play it safe’ – it’s boring and you miss opportunities to stand out and make an impression.
Also, consider challenging yourself by not staying in the same job for too long just because it is comfortable and safe. It’s hard to think about starting somewhere new and needing to prove yourself all over again to so many new people. Don’t let that anxiety deter you. There are a lot of great opportunities out on the open market and one of the best ways to move up in your career is to move out of your current organization.
Lastly, even if there’s a chance of failure, there is also a silver lining. Some of the best professional development arises from self-reflection on these experiences. So with a calculated risk, there is more likely to be some kind of reward.
Attitude is (almost) everything
There is an old expression in HR, “Hire for attitude, promote for aptitude.” While this expression is somewhat dated, attitude can be (almost) everything, so if you’re going to do something, do it great!
There is both an objective and subjective way employers look at performance: what the employee does & how the employee does it. A person’s attitude in the workplace can alter how their peers and superiors perceive their contributions, and the optics of your performance is very important in a corporate environment. If you have a job to do, no matter what it may be, do it great and do it with a smile on your face. It’s really easy to look at a job or a task and think it is beneath you. This mistake can hurt you greatly in your career. Don’t put yourself in a position where your employer may dismiss your contributions because of your perceived (or legitimate) attitude problem.
Be a Visionary Leader (or at least be seen as one)
A visionary is someone who sees a future filled with opportunities – a visionary leader is someone who possesses the qualities to make that future a reality by bringing people together to make it happen. If you want to be a leader that people want to follow, sometimes you need to disrupt the status quo to demonstrate forward thinking and goal setting that other people can’t (or won’t) imagine. There will be times throughout your career when the best play is to go with the flow and not make waves, but if you want to lead, you will need to prove that you are worth following.
People in corporate hierarchies want to follow someone who can inspire them to be the better version of themselves. Let your imagination run wild and come up with ideas and goals that will push limits. Demonstrate your leadership skills by inviting your peers, subordinates and superiors to share in your vision, but be adaptable to their ideas. A visionary leader must be open-minded and inclusive, so welcome feedback and use it to create compromise and consensus. Remember, this is about bringing people in because no matter how smart or talented you are, you can’t do it all on your own.
Develop your Network of Silent Supporters
When people think of “Networking”, they often imagine cocktail parties and galas. While these types of events do exist, your best networking opportunity will likely be the office where you spend 40+ hours a week. Your day-to-day interactions with your peers, direct reports and managers will not only help you create your networks’ foundation, but it will also open doors for you within your current organization. I usually think of a network being comprised from two major categories:
Vocal Supporters – these are your closest allies and the people who you have worked with that publically provide unsolicited support and advocacy on your behalf.
Silent Supporters –these people may not be your loudest cheerleader, but they are someone who, if asked about you, would provide a great reference and positive feedback.
Navigating a corporate hierarchy will require a strong network of both vocal and silent supporters, and often the silent supporters will make the difference. When being vetted for a job, you never know who is going to be asked about you and it will likely be people you don’t expect. A ringing endorsement from a silent supporter often holds more value than the endorsement from someone squarely in your camp. A lack of silent supporters or even worse, a detractor (silent or vocal) can significantly hamper your ability to advance in an organization. It is important to have sponsorship on all levels, so be extremely conscious of how others perceive you – the greatest danger is when you burn bridges unintentionally and unknowingly. Just like in The Hawthorne Effect and Panoption, your potential silent supporters are always watching and you don’t always know who they are.
It’s your life, do it your way
I am also going to end this post by saying I don’t have all the answers and anyone who claims that they do are likely wrong. There is no right or wrong way to live your life, manage your relationships or navigate your career. While I can give you some guidelines, you need to make the choices that make sense to you and reap the successes from those choices. You are your own person, with your own dreams and aspirations, so do what works for you!