The Greatest Lessons of My 10+ Year Career

Do you remember what you wanted to be when you grew up?

“Career” is not a word I knew when I was growing up. Everyone in my world talked about “having a job”. In school, teachers would ask us what jobs we wanted when we grew up. I knew my parents had jobs that involved dressing up everyday in “work clothes” and driving to an office. As I got older, I learned what my parents’ jobs entailed - my dad was a CPA and auditor in state government; my mom started out as a secretary and later progressed to an analyst role. Through my parents I learned little career nuggets, but my true learning began when I got my first job at 16, as a cashier at McDonald’s.

I transitioned from having jobs to having a career when I graduated from Georgia Tech and began my first full-time role as a laboratory chemist. That first corporate role was over 10 years ago - I think about how completely green I was when I first started, but I learned quickly and took a lot of mental notes. In the years since that first role out of school, I’ve worked for three Fortune 100 companies, and pivoted to my second career as a retail data analyst. I’ve experienced so much - promotions, bonuses, bad reviews, terrible managers, layoffs - you name it, I’ve probably seen it

Here are the biggest lessons I’ve learned in my almost 15 year career journey.

 
Career Lessons Blog Graphic.png
 

Loyalty To Yourself Is Most Important

My mom has been a state employee almost my entire life, and when she retires, she’s going to enjoy a fully funded pension as well as healthcare benefits. My paternal grandmother was a longtime GM employee, and she also retired with a full pension and nice benefits, after years of service. My generation is not so lucky - pensions are virtually unheard of, benefits continue to be scaled back, and too many of us are working as contractors instead of full-time employees. Add on wage stagnation and the constant threat of layoffs or corporate bankruptcies that can leave us without a paycheck at any moment. Our parents and grandparents made career decisions knowing that their employers would be loyal and hold up their end of the bargain, but my generation doesn’t have that luxury.

I got an up-close and personal lesson in why loyalty to oneself is so important in 2015, when my company held enterprise-wide layoffs. Approximately 10% of the entire company was let go in one single day, the biggest layoff they’d ever had. There’d been smaller, more targeted layoffs before, but nothing this massive or wide ranging. I saw people who had devoted decades of their lives walk out of the building with a stack of white boxes, filled with the contents of their hastily packed desks. I heard from so many people how they never expected that they’d be the ones to be let go, how they’d devoted so much of their time to their jobs. They’d worked so hard and given up so much and yet ended up with a severance package and a quick thanks.

As I’ve moved through my career, I’ve seen what can happen when you put loyalty to your employer above loyalty to yourself. I’ve seen people develop health problems due to work stress, or sacrifice their family time for work commitments. I’ve kept those scenarios in my mind as I evaluate my options and make decisions in my career. Not every move has been perfect, but I know that I’m the only one who truly has my best interests at heart, and I have to advocate for myself if I’m going to get to where I want to be in my career.

You Are Your Best Advocate

There are tons of books and articles out there about how you need to have a mentor, a sponsor and an advocate in the office to help you move ahead. All those roles are important, and can help you, but the biggest way you can boost your career is to simply learn how to advocate for yourself, instead of waiting for someone else to do it for you.

One of my favorite blogs is Ask A Manager, where the author Alison Green answers work questions. Almost everyday there’s a letter from a writer that boils down to needing to advocate for themselves, whether it’s their manager asking them to do something sketchy, or dealing with a chatty coworker who distracts them from work. Advocating for yourself starts by understanding what you want and then sharing that with people who can help you get it. Sometimes the what you want is a raise, or a promotion, or just a different role. Other times you want to not participate in the company rafting trip, or to not have to share a hotel room on that company trip. Sometimes advocating for yourself doesn’t work but it’s important that you try. As they say, a closed mouth doesn’t get fed.

I’ve been fortunate to have great mentors throughout my career, but ultimately my career is what I make it, so I had to learn to ask for what I wanted, and make moves to make it happen. Most recently, I knew that I wanted a new role with a new leader, but I also wanted to stay with my company. Waiting for a new role to fall into my lap wasn’t an option, so I turned to my internal network to help me find a new role. I talked to everyone I could, both to learn about new opportunities but also to sell myself and my skills. After months of searching, I successfully transitioned to my current role. I have the skills for the role, but my network and advocating for myself definitely helped me land the role.

Relationships Matter More Than You Think

It’s important to be good at your job and have the right skills, but the relationships you develop as just as important to your success. I’m sure you know someone who is technically excellent but just can’t seem to get ahead, or move up in their company - many times it’s because the person is missing the relationships piece. Relationships are critical in almost every career - it’s rare to find a career where you can be successful all on your own, and you never interact with anyone else. You don’t need to be best friends with everyone, but you should be able to connect with different people and find those who can vouch for you. People are going to talk about you and your work, and you want to have strong relationships so those people say great things about you and your work product.

I try to approach relationships in an authentic way, meaning that I’m not doing it because I know I need to network or share what I’ve been working on. I genuinely like people and I love connecting with different people and collaborating. I’ve also been involved in various Employee Resource Groups throughout my career, which provide an avenue to meet people you normally wouldn’t work with. In my career, I’ve had so many instances where my relationships have been instrumental to my success. My relationships have been key to finding each of my last three roles. Even when I’m not looking for a new role, I make sure to keep up a connection with former teammates or key partners, even if it’s just a social connection. With current partners or teammates, I like to get to know them a bit on a personal level, and I’ve found that it’s easier to get the work done when you all know a bit about each other, understand your motivations, etc. You don’t have to be best friends and braid each other’s hair, but having a rapport really helps in the long run.


What have been your biggest lessons in your career? Share in the comments!

Career Stagnation To Career Progression

career chart In my life, I have been blessed with both a gift and a curse. I have above-average intelligence and a strong desire to learn and understand new things. I also am both lazy and a procrastinator. Remember when we were all taught in school that hard work pays off? I was that kid who things either came easy to, or I was looking for way to cut the amount of hard work I had to do. I think it was my father who clued me in on an important lesson – it’s more important to work hard, than to work smart. Time and experience taught me that he was right. People say you need to work hard, but working hard without having some sense behind it can be wasted effort.

I grew up with the type of parents who wanted me to have what they had and even more. That meant that college was not an option, it was an expectation. It was never explicitly said, but I assumed that I’d follow the path everyone else does: go to college, graduate, get a corporate job and kill it. 17-year-old Jubi just knew she would be a VP of R&D for a Fortune 100 company one day, it was just a matter of time. I mean, it’s super easy to make it up the corporate ladder, right?

After college and grad school, I jumped into the corporate world full force. I’d read the books and the articles, I’d attended the career office sessions, and I was armed with lots of advice from my mentors. I had lofty goals to make my mark and zoom up the ladder to success. My first job was with a defense contractor, and I was the first new hire in the labs in 15+ years. I was also the only woman, the only person of color, and the youngest by at least 30 years. I jumped in with both feet, and I worked hard. I volunteered for everything I could, from community volunteer events to the corporate recruiting team. I asked for stretch assignments and my eagerness and desire to learn was rewarded with challenging assignments that a new grad probably shouldn’t have handled. I mapped out a career progression plan with my manager, and I set my sights on becoming the lab group supervisor in 3-5 years, knowing that the current supervisor was soon to retire. What I didn’t know was coming was the housing crisis in 2006. Central Florida was hurt hard, and that meant there was no movement – people who planned to retire were staying at work, given the uncertain outlook of their retirement accounts.

I took all of that experience and excitement and moved to a new company in a new industry. In that role, I had to work hard AND work smart. It was a very challenging role, in an industry I was learning, and I was expected to perform as if I’d been working there all my life. The standards were high, and I felt as if I’d be thrown into the deep end of the pool when I’d barely mastered treading water. When you’re drowning (or you think you’re drowning), you’re trying to not panic but inside you’re freaking out and trying not to die. The first 12-18 months in that role was a perpetual feeling of drowning. I tried to act like I had it all together and I knew what I was doing, but inside I wanted to cry every day. Some days, I did cry in the lab, or at home after work. I worried that I was failing, and that I couldn’t cut it. But somewhere in there, I realized that I learned a lot. I realized that I had learned to swim, and I was doing more than just treading water. I was providing value! I was learning and growing and figuring things out! But…I was not enjoying what I was doing. My company was not known for work/life balance, and it would only get worse with each promotion. That’s not the life I wanted, and I was also tired of life in the lab. I wanted change and so when the opportunity presented itself, I took it.

I changed careers and industries three years ago. In that time I’ve gone from loving my job, to hating my job, to wanting to walk out and never come back to my job, to loving it again, to now. At the present moment, I’ve settled on indifference, both towards my company and my career. I come to work, I do a few things, but the passion is gone. My attitude as of late has been “well, I’ll just keep showing up until they tell me to stop coming.”

I’m still not sure if the leap was a good move. After three years, I’m still at the same level in my company, despite my attempts at promotions. I survived some less-than stellar managers, including one who refused to promote any of the women on his team. I also survived several layoffs and three reorganizations, and 4 different managers in one year. I look at a few of my former teammates who also started around the time I did, and they have made more progression in their careers at our company. Some of it is strictly “right place, right time” but I wonder how much of it is me. Is this truly the right place for me?

Looking back, I’ve learned a lot about how the working world works. I know that my career progression isn’t going to be a straight line. I also don’t want to wake up and see another 5 years have passed, and I’m still stuck at the same level. Even if I do stay at the same level, I’d be happy if I found a challenge in my work, and I felt that my work added value. Right now, I feel neither.  I feel “stuck” and I worry that I will wake up five years from now, still in the same position, at the same level, in the same company. That is my greatest fear and so, all my energy is devoted to preventing that from happening.

Any tips for me?