Getting Your Career Off to the Right Start

Every year, around this time, we get a new class of bright, eager IBMers who have just graduated from undergraduate studies and are ready to start their new careers. They are excited about their futures and want to know what they need to do to succeed in this new environment.

In so many ways, these IBMers are no different from any of us who are starting a new career, moving to a new position, or faced with a new challenge. We all want to know how to hit the ground running and demonstrate that we are capable of being successful. And sometimes, the new position seems daunting because, above all else, we do not want to fail. There have been many articles on the subject recently (I like this one from Business Insider), and I wanted to add what has worked well for me in the past.

Find a mentor: Most mentorships develop organically, without the formal “Will you be my mentor?” ask. Instead, look for people who can be influential and inform the career decisions you need to make. Surround yourself with people who are insightful; people who think differently than you or who have been successful in their environment can have advice that you would not have considered. These people can be peers, subordinates, or leaders in other areas. The most important thing is for your mentors to be willing to be candid and helpful. Eventually, your mentors may even become your strongest advocates as you progress through your career. But don’t forget, mentorship is a two way street and you must bring as much to the relationship as your mentor does.

Get involved and get to know your leadership: Attend town hall meetings, networking events, and other activities that will allow you to interact with leaders. Within the first month or two, try to have sit-down, informational interviews with all of the mid-level leaders in your area. These interviews need only be fifteen minutes, but they are excellent opportunities to find more information about the opportunities that exist and the career paths that are available. Ask the leaders about their passions and if they are involved in any special projects or initiatives in the organization. Most leaders will also want to know more about you, in return.  Knowing your leadership is beneficial to both parties; your leadership can volunteer you for projects that meet your interests, and you can continue to get involved in the organization.

Be open: Be willing to go outside of your comfort zone. Try new projects, build new skills, and be open to opportunities that you have never tried. Ask questions and share your informed opinion. You have a seat at the table for a reason, use it! Being open also means accepting feedback and constructive criticism.  Being open can be one of the scariest things in a new career, especially when we do not want to fail. Instead, look at these opportunities as ways to grow and develop.

I think it benefits all of us, whether we have been in our careers for two months or 20 years, to reflect periodically on the things I mentioned above.  I would love to read the best career advice you have received, so please share your thoughts in the Comments.

Career Planning: What Not To Do

Planning out your career can help you to determine what skills you need to build and where to invest your time. However, there are a few things you shouldn’t do when developing and implementing your plan:

Assume that things will remain constant – Life can be very unpredictable, as can be careers – independently or because of each other. You may switch companies, decide to start a family, or market factors may shift dramatically, as we saw with the dot com bust. Ultimately, if your environment doesn’t change, it’s likely you will. We are constantly evolving and learning new things about ourselves and our interests. Imagine yourself ten or even five years ago; are you the same person today as you were then? If your plan is too specific and dependent on today’s reality, which, of course, it will be, because unfortunately we can’t predict the future, you may find yourself closed out of opportunities.

Stick by your career plan no matter what – In the same grain, don’t get caught up in the details of the plan, insisting on doing exactly what it says and nothing else. That lack of predictability I mentioned means that career planning requires flexibility. “Instead of envisioning the perfect job and planning out the perfect path to get there, begin with a direction, based on a real desire, and complement that with a strategy to discover and create opportunities consistent with what you want you want to do,” advised Forbes contributor Paul B. Brown. Focus on the outcome and realize there are many paths to get there.  When things veer off course, don’t panic. Good career planning involves having back up plans, the flexibility to improvise when things change, and the realization that it’s just a plan, not a contract.

Not know yourself – The best way to find out what you are good at and most interested in is by experience – trying, failing, and succeeding. It is through these experiences that we may discover that the things we thought we liked, because someone told us to do it or because we were good at it or because it was the only thing we had done before, are not actually the things that we are passionate about. Creating a meaningful career plan takes deep self assessment. Skill and interest are not the same thing, and both need to be considered. But if you aren’t sure of where your career path is headed, start by just being willing to try new things.

Limit your development to on the job – Once you do determine the direction you are headed, you will want to start building your skills and expanding your experiences. However, it is a mistake to think the only place to do that is at work. In our interconnected and mobile world, you have access to many, enriching opportunities outside the office. Whether you decide to join a professional association, participate in a regular tweetchat, or take classes online, you will benefit both your career and personal development in ways you couldn’t do only on the job.

It’s not fun to admit, but we don’t know everything. We don’t know where we will be in five years or what we will be doing. That doesn’t mean that creating a career plan is pointless. Instead focus on broadening your plan, taking it step by step, and allowing room for personal growth. It’s ok if your path leads somewhere unexpected; those are often the best experiences.

For Sale: Me! How to market yourself at work

Most of us get a bit shy when asked to talk about ourselves. Even completing year-end reviews can make us feel like we’re gloating. But in today’s world of “personal branding,” progressing your career, no matter what your profession, requires marketing yourself.

Become a go-to person: The first step is to be someone worth bragging about.

  • Start by assessing your personal strengths and weaknesses. What are your skills and interests, and how do they relay into your job? Do you find there is something you are better at or know more about than most of your coworkers? How can it help them to do their jobs better?
  • Once you discover your niche, become an expert. Build up your expertise both at and beyond work. It is great to take advantage of training available on the job, but taking it a step further to learn through associations, reading, communities of practice, and other opportunities outside work not only shows your dedication to your practice, but is really where true expertise is formed.
  • Offer to help. You are an expert; you have an informed opinion, share it… that’s why people have you sitting at the table. There will be two types of opportunities for you to demonstrate your knowledge: The first, more obvious opportunity is when someone seeks out your help for work related to your expertise. The second is less obvious and requires you to proactively identify opportunities where your expertise could be of use. And don’t let that hard work go to waste, keep a log of what you’ve accomplished, evidence of your work, and emails where you’ve received thanks and praise.

A little gloating goes a long way

  • If you did something great, let it be known… at the appropriate time. A year-end review or a promotion conversation is no time to be shy. Prepare a list of your accomplishments and be ready to answer the question, “Why should you be promoted?” Much like on a resume, your accomplishments should be tangible and meaningful to the audience. For example, “I developed a new process, which contributed to our team spending 20% less time working on administrative paperwork and instead dedicated that time to our clients who reported increased satisfaction.”
  • Too much is too much. There is an appropriate time for boasting, but otherwise humility is something everyone will appreciate. Take the time to compliment others on their hard work. Give credit where credit is due, and focus on doing great work that others can see instead of hear about.

Be visible: No matter how great you are or what amazing things you can do, it doesn’t matter if no one knows you.

  • Take time to get to know your leaders and for them to get to know you. Put 15 minutes on their calendars to tell them about your background and to learn from their experiences.
  • Expand your network beyond your immediate department. It’s nice to build deep relationships with your closest coworkers, but often opportunities will exist beyond your department. If you have the chance to work on a side-project or have lunch with someone new, take it. Don’t forget to drop them a note from time to time too. This is something I have to continue to remind myself to do, but is valuable for maintaining your network.

If you’ve found something you are great at that is helpful to others, there is a good chance people will take notice. Unfortunately, they’re not always the right people or enough people, especially if you work for a large organization where someone other than your immediate boss has a say in your progression. While it may seem unnatural, some “strategic self-promotion,” as Eric Rudolf referred to it, is critical. So take a moment to assess yourself and be prepared to brag a bit when the time is right.

Career Development is Not About Promotions

Often leaders wrongly think promotions and career development are the same thing. However, career development is about much more than climbing the “corporate ladder.” Career development is about knowing as much about your employees as they do about themselves. It is about developing a person as a professional, helping them to achieve their career goals at all levels, and retaining them within the organization by providing opportunities to do work that matters to them.

Psychologists and career experts, Timothy Butler and James Waldroop, referred to career development as “job sculpting.” Job sculpting, they said, “is the art of matching people to jobs that allow their deeply embedded life interests to be expressed. It is the art of forging a customized career path in order to increase the chance of retaining talented people.” They warned it isn’t easy; it requires a manager to know more than just what skills an individual excels at, but aligning a person’s work to their interests is critical to job satisfaction and retention.

So what should managers do to properly develop their employees’ careers? Start by getting to know your employee beyond their day to day tasks.

  • Ask key questions, such as: What are your goals? What are your interests? What drives and excites you? What has been your favorite task to work on?
  • Observe: Take note of which types of activities seem to energize them, those that they seem most passionate and interested in versus which activities they seem to do just to get done or even seem to make them unhappy.
  • In order to get the most out of your observations, you need to give them opportunities to take on new types of tasks and projects. Test them in different positions with different challenges. Often younger employees, in particular, need these opportunities to learn about what really interests them.
  • Develop an individualized plan for growing their career. Plans should include future position options and the training needed to excel in those positions. Don’t just move the employee into the next available position. Think about the types of positions that would best align with their interests and then determine the skills they need to develop for those.
  • Realize that the best place for your employee might not be with you. The important part is to keep top talent in your organization, not necessarily in a particular department. If you recognize you have a strong performer, but it’s not possible to line up their goals and interests with the positions within your department, help them to find other opportunities elsewhere in the organization.

Promoting an employee should not be the goal of career development – it should be a result of it. Instead focus your career development efforts on getting to know your employees and what makes them tick. While not as simple as just determining what they are good at, true career development will allow you to retain top performers and will mutually benefit both your organization and the employee.

Taking on challenges

No one can be 100% prepared for anything. Take parenthood as an example. You could carefully plan when you want to have kids, read all the experts’ books on being a great parent, and spend ample time around kids before ever having your own, but really there is no way to be fully ready to be a parent. Like everything else in life, personal experience has no substitute. That is why, as a professional, you have to experience new things; you have to take on challenges in order to grow your career.

So what stops us from doing that? It is human nature – We are comfortable doing what we know. Both economists and psychologists have discovered that humans are risk averse. More specifically, psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, determined that people are risk averse in choices involving gains, whereas if we know that there is a potential for loss, we are more risk-seeking. In most cases, taking on a challenge professionally doesn’t come with an obvious loss. Typically, no one is telling us to try something new or else be negatively impacted. Of course, there could potentially be gains from trying something new, but we’d rather stick with what we know we are good at.

But taking on new challenges is critical to our career growth. It provides us the opportunity to learn and develop in ways we couldn’t have without that experience. For example, imagine you have just signed up to run a marathon for the first time. This is indeed quite a challenge. It requires training, not something you can do automatically (“Oh, I think I’ll just go run a marathon today!”). It is unlikely you will win or run your personal best time the first go around, but the experience makes you a better runner. You’ve learned things through the experience, such as how fast to run, what to listen to on your ipod, what to eat before and after, what your body feels like during and after a long run, etc. The experience, though challenging, though not automatically successful, has helped you to grow.

There are many ways you can take on challenges at work:

  • Ask your boss what else they need help with.
  • Get involved in activities outside your immediate project.
  • Accept challenges offered to you. Be a “yes” person – especially early on in your career.
  • Follow your interests and passions, even if you aren’t good at them yet.
  • Get to know new people and what they are working on. Have a work dinner coming up? Don’t just sit with the people you work with every day.
  • If you recognize an issue impacting your organization, offer to take it on and create a solution.

The key is to recognize your own stagnation: Are you still learning something new every day? Is the work you do hard anymore? Are you bringing innovative ideas forward? If not, it may be time to take a risk and try something new.

Be challenged, be uncomfortable, make mistakes, fail a little. That’s how you grow and become truly successful in your career. Yes, it does require some risk, venturing from the known, what you are good at, to the unknown, but that is how great leaders develop.