Most of the best career advice isn’t learned in school or discussed during formal annual reviews. They’re the priceless nuggets of wisdom you tend to learn through the school of hard knocks instead – sometimes too late. One of the best gifts that seasoned leaders can give to college graduates is practical, candid feedback on what they really need to know to succeed in the “corporate jungle.”
In classic David Letterman style, here are my top 10 career advice tips for college graduates and early career professionals:
#10 Build relationships before you need them
Don’t wait until you need something to have a substantial discussion with your team leader or other key executives. A crisis is a real buzz kill for relationship building so avoid building relationships in the midst of a crisis and instead build them before you need them. Director of Columbia University’s Negotiation and Conflict Resolution Programs, Beth Fisher-Yoshida discusses the importance of relationship building in 5 Ways to Develop More Meaningful Relationships at Work.
#9 Learn your boss’ communications preferences early and adapt to them
When you adjust your style to better fit your manager’s communication/work style preferences, you become easier to manage – and that’s a good thing! This becomes even more important when you encounter that unavoidable “difficult boss” which research shows will likely happen at some point. Learning effective managing up techniques can mean the difference between success and failure when faced with a challenging boss personality.
#8 Don’t hide your awesome
Inexperience can be an asset so use it! Don’t hold back on sharing a completely different idea or approach, or questioning if there might be a better way. Your lack of “experience” could be the key to innovation so leverage that. If you’ve developed a template for tracking incoming orders or have used an amazing app for researching vendors, share that with your team. If there’s momentum around an area where you have expertise, don’t be afraid to volunteer to lead the effort. Remember that you don’t have to know everything to take lead on a project or task.
#7 Become the go-to person for something valuable
I like to say it’s not just “what you know and who you know” but also “who knows you and what you’re known for.” Becoming known as the Prezi, Slack or Sharepoint expert not only builds your organizational credibility, but it also creates demand for your participation in a wide range of projects that you may not have otherwise had exposure to. Stay attuned to the high demand skill sets in your industry or organization and develop deep skills in an area that is highly valued. If you become known as the resident Prezi expert in the company, you might find yourself working directly with the EVP on her upcoming board presentation and that one on one face time can prove invaluable. Over time you’ll want to be careful not to become pigeon-holed into one particular skill set, but building extreme competency in a few areas early is virtually always a smart move.
#6 Fiercely manage your personal brand
Just as the brands Tiffany, Coke and McDonalds evoke very specific sentiments as you think about them, your name has the same impact when others hear it. Decide what you want people to think about when your name is mentioned, then get about the business of building and managing your personal brand. Whether it’s your dress, lunch buddies, cell phone ring or email syntax, remember that with every choice you’re reinforcing your personal brand. Joseph Liu’s 5 Ways to Build Your Personal Brand At Work insists that brand building isn’t just for executives; it’s for everyone.
#5 Don’t be a diva
While you may be asked for preferences for minor things like lunch venues, meeting times, etc. unless you have an important conflict, responding “I’m flexible” is probably just what the organizer wants to hear so keep that in mind. For example, if they’re leaning toward scheduling the weekly staff meeting Mondays at 8:00, but you bike to work and usually shower at the office gym around 8:00, just leave 20 minutes earlier. You’re part of a team now so try to deemphasize individual, personal preferences when you can unless the issue is truly important.
#4 Learn early on how to manage a project, design a deliverable, and deliver a presentation
These are three skills with broad applicability, and in most environments it will be hard to progress far with significant deficiencies in any of these three areas. Invest in some training early and consider finding an expert who might be able to informally mentor you in these areas over time. Throughout your career, there will be innumerable situations where strengths or deficiencies in these areas can have a significant impact on how you’re perceived in the organization. Deficiencies in these areas can also cause tremendous anxiety so just get ahead of the curve and build competency early. These three skills are ones you’ll use over and over. If you invest some time developing competency in these areas, the dividends over time will be huge.
#3 Activate the automatic spell/grammar check on your email application
Inc.’s article Do Typos Matter? reminds us of the embarrassment the Mitt Romney campaign suffered in 2012 when they launched their iPhone app with the banner “A Better Amercia”. The negative press generated by a simple typo seems hardly worth the additional time required to prevent it. While nine out of ten people may not think less of you when you send an email with typos, one person likely will, and you can’t afford to diminish your credibility with 10% of your recipient pool with every email. Regularly sending emails or deliverables with typos are just unforced errors you don’t need. Remember that the tagline “Please excuse typos sent from this device” may do nothing more than confirm to others that you’re not willing to take the additional time to proofread.
#2 Get in the habit of arriving 5-10 minutes early to everything
This is such a simple way to distinguish yourself in the workplace, and it makes a real impact on others. It’s so easy to become that person who is 5 minutes late to everything. It seems harmless, right? Not necessarily. When I’ve encountered people who always show up to the meeting or call 5 minutes late with an apology and an excuse, I can’t help but think, “Why can’t they just start leaving 5 minutes earlier?” Instead of falling into this tempting trap, do the exact opposite–arrive 5-10 minutes early to everything. You’ll stand out for all the right reasons.
#1 Be relentlessly responsive
When you receive a request, get in the habit of always responding within a few hours. If you don’t have all the information or need additional time to complete the task, that’s fine, but at least respond to let the sender know you received the email, you’re working on it, and when they should expect a full response. If you are extremely consistent, this one simple habit will raise your stock with most senior leaders. Responsiveness decreases stress and anxiety. For many not knowing is worse than getting bad news so if you’re always circling back to provide confirmations and updates, that’s priceless.
For additional tips for college graduates see my article “3 Reasons Why College Graduates Should Learn to Manage Up.”