This is my penultimate post for the Workforce Institute! I’ve distilled 42 years of mistakes into my top five career lessons learned. I hope they’ll help you save time and prosper.
Over the years, I’ve been asked for career advice or assistance many many times. How do I find my first job? I hate my job, how can I find a path to something else? I just got laid off and I don’t know what to do. I’d like to work for your company, can you connect me there? My boss is great, but not helping me advance. My boss is terrible and sucking the life out of me. I’m only staying in this job because I need the money. How can I get a job like yours? The list goes on and on.
I’m retiring in five days, and have been thinking a lot recently about my own career highlights and disappointments. Everybody’s different, but I think the following five lessons are relevant to most people. Like eat less, exercise more, they are both obvious and often hard practices to implement. Moving on to lesson 1…
You are in charge of managing your career
I know you have bills to pay and a boss to answer to. Those aren’t reasons to remain unhappy indefinitely at work. Every job has its boring, routine, or downright unpleasant aspects. However, if you never feel excited or optimistic at work, it’s worth it to figure out a different path.
BTW – I’m not saying that making a change is easy. You may need to go back to school. You may need to sacrifice compensation or perks. You may need to sacrifice a title. I experienced all of these and lived to tell about it. Don’t let fear or ego stop you from doing what you need to do to get to a better place. In fact…
A little fear is healthy
Progress has a price tag in every aspect of life, but especially at work. New jobs, better projects, acquiring new skills, promotions, increasing responsibility and the other good stuff should stretch you to learn new things and operate outside of your comfort zone. Don’t let yourself get stuck because you’re afraid of appearing incompetent. One of the best ways to become more competent is…
Ask lots of questions
For me this was never hard, because it’s in my nature to ask a lot of questions. I also started my career in science, and so was trained to ask lots of questions. I’ve noticed, though, that this can be hard for a lot of people.
Question why you’re doing something before you do it. Ask lots of questions to make sure you understand the objectives and how success will be measured. Ask why “we’ve always done it this way”. Ask others outside your firm how they do it. I can’t remember a single significant example where I suffered negative consequences for asking questions. I can remember things that didn’t go well when I failed to ask more than I did.
One of the most important questions to ask is to make sure you understand who needs to be part of a project or process before you start changing it. The human element is the most powerful of all in any organizational system. Which brings me to lesson 4…
Put yourself in the other person’s shoes
I mentioned that I was educated and even worked for a few years as a scientist. In science, you think in terms of systems. You seek to understand the interdependence between the players in a system. That skill has always served me well.
We’re all part of larger systems. Our decisions and actions affect other people for better or worse. Putting yourself in others’ shoes isn’t just about the Golden Rule (though you should practice that too), it’s about stepping far enough back from a situation to understand the goals and constraints of the other players.
This technique is one I learned from Getting to Yes, a terrific book on negotiating. In the book, the technique is referred to as “stepping to the balcony”. From the balcony, you can assess how your behavior and assumptions are helping or hurting your case with others.
Speaking of the needs of others…
Don’t neglect the life part of work-life balance
My last lesson is one that I often struggled with. My husband and I were fortunate to have challenging and rewarding careers. We got to travel the world on somebody’s else’s nickel and meet so many smart and accomplished professional colleagues. We were able to give our children the gift of an undergraduate education with no student debt. That all had a cost.
In the olden days, putting family first wasn’t typical company policy in most places. You were expected to show up and do your thing. I was a working mother when that was still a somewhat novel concept. I missed events that were important to our children or friends and family for work stuff I can no longer remember. I never wanted to create the impression I wasn’t completely on board.
The good news is that many (not all) leaders have come to understand that they get better results when their workers have the time and flexibility to invest in themselves, their families, and their communities. They understand that they are “borrowing people from their lives”, a quote I love from Charlotte Lockhart. If your employer doesn’t see the world that way, find one that does.
I hope some of these ideas will help you. I wish you good health and great adventures. Take care of yourselves.