During a recent weekend spent presenting a leadership workshop, I realized I’ve come full circle in my career. One of the participants asked, “What do you wish you had known as a new professional?” At the beginning of my career, I thought I would be teaching special education kindergarten classes now. Instead, I took a different route and have spent most career teaching adults in corporate settings.
Most days, I consider myself successful — which does not mean I did not fail along the way. I failed because I did not always recognize the importance of thinking outside of the box. I failed because I did not always understand the importance of building strong relationships or leveraging those relationships to build a stronger tomorrow.
If any of my experiences make even one person better, then they are worth the price I had to pay to learn them. With that in mind, here are the top seven pieces of advice that I wish I’d had a young professional.
7. Be Nice — Genuinely Nice
My mother used to tell me, “People like nice people.” She was not wrong, but being nice is typically underrated. Over the years, I have earned the reputation as the “nice girl” around the office. My colleagues trust me, because they know I will help them with anything that I can. In fact, being nice also offered me opportunities and skills I would not have had if I had not been “the nice girl.”
6. Focus Your Attention on People Rather Than Electronic Devices
For years now, I’ve noticed that people in elevators bury their faces in their phones and avoid eye contact and conversation. But one afternoon in the elevator at work, I had the good fortune of meeting Ed. After the other riders had left, he said, “I noticed you’re the only person this whole elevator ride that wasn’t staring at a phone screen. I’m new here, and you’re the first person this ride who looked me in the eye.” He introduced himself, and I did the same and offered to show him around the campus if he needed help.
The next day, I went to meet some new senior leaders. When I walked in the meeting room, Ed greeted me. After chatting for a bit, I asked him, “I’m sorry; I don’t recall what your new position is with the organization. Are you here to meet with the new leadership team?”
Ed laughed. “Erin, I am the new VP of human resources,” he said. As it turns out, he was impressed that I paid more attention to the people around me than to any electronic device. Ultimately, that encounter in the elevator led a strong mentor/mentee relationship between Ed and me.
I learned an important lesson that day: Soft skills will always be valuable in corporations, so it is important to put the phone down and communicate with the people around you. People offer you opportunities, not technology.
5. Learn to Manage up
“Managing up” means communicating effectively with your superiors. In my first professional role, my director asked me to work on a project. Being diligent and wanting to do it well, I jumped right on it and subsequently failed to update her on my progress. Two weeks into the project, my director was frantically asking for updates, and multiple people had started working on it.
My director shared some wisdom with me: It is always better to provide information before being asked for it. Now, my work is easier when I communicate my status on specific projects. Giving updates also allows me to ask for help or to seek out specific resources. It also allows my superiors to speak on my behalf when needed. This communication can be basic; sending a simple email saying how each project is moving along is very helpful.
4. If You’re Going to Settle, Settle With Intention
Everyone starts out somewhere. Everyone has bills to pay.
Here is the caveat: If you are going to settle in a position, settle with intention —intention to be better. Intention to learn new skills. Intention to network. Intention to improve your leadership skills.
Do it with passion. When I graduated from college, I could not find a job in my chosen field. In order to pay my bills, I took a job as a unit clerk at a local hospital. I was optimistic and entered that role knowing it was a starting point and an opportunity to learn new skills and polish existing ones.
Sometimes, those starting places are vital to where we end up. They change our perspective. Sometimes, we do not start where we want to, but that does not mean we will not end up where we are supposed to.
3. Seek out Mentors
In my first professional position, I was fortunate to work with women who were seasoned and skilled. How do you compete with that combination? You don’t; instead, you learn to work parallel to it. As a young professional, I had no idea how to search for mentors; I asked my supervisor to be paired with people in the organization who could help me with specific projects or tasks. Then, I sought out people who I thought were living the dream. As it turns out, some of those dreams would not have been fulfilling for me. Some of those people introduced me to others who could help me. I learned from all of them.
2. Sometimes, Opportunities Are Disguised as Tasks That Are “Beneath You”
No task is ever really beneath you. When I was a teenager, I worked for a local restaurant, and one of our nightly tasks was to clean the rotisserie ovens. It was both disgusting and important. I worked with two managers: One refused to clean the rotisserie ovens, regardless of the circumstances, because it was beneath her. The other would grab a bucket and a pair of gloves and clean alongside her team members each night. When we work with the second manager, we not only left earlier but also had the chance to connect with her personally.
Because I knew that the second manager would perform any task that she asked us to complete, I had a great deal of respect for her. She taught me a very important leadership lesson: If you are not willing to go into the trenches and do the messy work, you will have a very difficult time inspiring others to do the same.
1. Take (Calculated) Risks Early and Often
Not taking risks is riskier than taking risks. If you continue to do what you did yesterday, you will grow stale. Learning and growth come from taking risks. People who take risks in and out of their professional lives tend to be happier and more successful. So, the next time you doubt yourself … Go for it!