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.
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.