The 15 Biggest Lessons I Learned In The First Year Of My Career
As I approach my one year anniversary at my very first corporate job, I’ve reflected on the lessons I wish I had known before I entered the professional world.
No one talks about it nearly enough, but the early portion of your career can be really difficult. I’m one year into my career, and I’ve gained what feels like a lifetime of knowledge surrounding the industry that I belong to and the type of work that I do, but more broadly, surrounding my personal preferences, strengths, and weaknesses that will shape the remainder of my career development.
Keep in mind that every industry, role, and company is different from the next. The information that I wish I had known before starting my career is less about industry-specific knowledge, or even role-specific knowledge, and more about existing in an entry-level job in a corporate workplace.
1. Seek Out Environments Where You Can Grow
When you begin anything for the first time, growth is an inevitable byproduct of being new. However, it’s important to note that there’s a difference between growth due to being new and growth due to belonging to a healthy, motivational work environment. You should never stop growing in your career – no matter what experience level you have. If you’re not growing, you’re putting yourself at a disadvantage. Companies, relationships, the market, and the industry are constantly in motion, so you should not only be developing, but you have to be for your professional success.
A large part of finding an environment where you can grow is surrounding yourself with high achieving, intelligent people who are invested in your development. The type of people who value you and know your worth. It’s not enough to simply surround yourself with more experienced or more knowledgeable colleagues. Seek out senior-level colleagues who want to help you grow and ask them to be your mentor. Remember that just because you’re in an entry-level position does not enable anyone to take advantage of you, waste your time, or belittle you.
2. You Have To Be Your Biggest Advocate – No One Else Will Be
If you’re anything like me, you may dislike speaking highly of your accomplishments or bragging about your prestigious educational background. But advocating for yourself is a crucial part of crafting a successful career, especially when you’re in an entry-level position and especially as a woman.
Make your voice heard and speak up if you feel you are being undervalued or taken advantage of. Make your voice heard if you need help or have a question about a task assigned to you. Make your voice heard if you have a good idea or suggestion that you believe could benefit the whole team. Make your voice heard if your workload is unbearable or, on the flip side, if you have free time to take something off a coworker’s to-do list. If you don’t speak up, nothing will ever change. This mantra applies outside the workplace too, but nobody is a mind reader, so expressing your thoughts, opinions, and feelings openly and professionally is important.
Whether you’re just starting out or you’re well into your career journey, it’s important to make sure your voice is heard so you can amplify your accomplishments and get the help you need to improve on your weaknesses.
3. Become Familiar with the Granular Industry Details
Another thing I had to get used to when I began my job was realizing which responsibilities were mine and which were not. Naturally, I wanted to be involved in the concept creation, client conversations, and all the big picture problem solving that my bosses were doing day in and day out. But what I quickly learned is that it takes years of experience to get to that level of expertise. In order to understand the big picture, you first must gain a solid foundation in industry-specific details and the inner workings of the company’s functionality. Having experience working with all the little details that contribute toward the larger mission will enable you to have a better understanding of the work that you do later in your career. So, get familiar with the granular.
4. Learning To Work with Different Personalities Is Invaluable
Due to the nature of my job, which I realize may not be the case for every job, I interact with lots of different people on a daily basis from departments across the company. Because of this, I have learned to adapt to others’ communication styles and work preferences – some people prefer email, others prefer that I walk up to their desk to communicate with them. I’ve also learned to juggle different personality types and change my communication accordingly – some people want topline information delivered to them quickly and simply, while others could want a more detailed, full explanation.
And, of course, another layer of this is learning to manage relational conflict. For example, figuring out that Tom and Jerry disagree on everything from the color of the sky to where to allocate resources is important. What’s even more important is learning how to juggle conflict in a professional manner. I was put in a unique situation in the first year of my career where my two managers disagreed on most matters and would talk badly about the other in front of me. Learning how to manage this dynamic while retaining a professional manner (despite my bosses’ lack thereof) was a difficult but necessary skill.
Have a list of the tasks you complete and an explanation for why they’re valuable.
5. Keep a Running List of Your Responsibilities and the Value These Add to Your Team
At one point or another, you will apply and interview for another job. When that time comes, it’s important to have a list of the tasks you completed in your previous job and an explanation for why they were valuable. Make your list concrete so that your worth to the team is indisputable.
A list such as this one will help your future employer understand not only the type of work that you’re capable of doing but also how willing you are to take on additional responsibilities outside your job description. It will communicate to a hiring manager that you are a valuable, hardworking, organized professional who understands the significance of the work you and your team do. Even beyond using this in future interviews, a list like this could be great leverage when advocating for your next promotion or raise.
6. Never Stop Networking – Both within Your Company and outside It
Networking is a critical part of your career development. So know it, master it, and do it daily. If you’re not networking, you’re putting yourself at a disadvantage. The thing with networking is that you can always be doing more. Email a senior manager and ask to get coffee or message a professional on LinkedIn and ask to hop on the phone to get to know them.
7. Designate Time To Refresh Your Resume and Portfolio Frequently
Tools like your resume, website, LinkedIn profile, or professional portfolio are an employer or hiring manager’s first impression of you. Set aside time to refresh these frequently. If you spend a little bit of time updating these materials regularly, when the time comes to apply for a new job or prepare for an interview, your life will be made much easier.
8. Setting Boundaries Is Important for a Healthy Work Environment
Without setting boundaries at work, you could easily put yourself in a position to be taken advantage of. Of course, many entry-level jobs include doing work that no one else wants to do – whether it’s tedious, time-consuming, or even mind-numbing. But if your entire day regularly consists of grunt work, you’re likely not progressing and therefore doing yourself and your team a disservice. It’s also important to set boundaries with your workload itself. If having a good work-life balance is important to you, make that known and be honest with how many responsibilities you can take on.
9. Take Ownership for Your Actions and Apologize for Your Mistakes
You will make a lot of mistakes early in your career. It’s just the nature of doing something for the first time. Get used to owning up to mistakes and, more importantly, learning from them to avoid making the same errors. Having a thick skin is important in many of your first jobs. Try to be kind to yourself and remember that the early career years include a lot of trial and error.
10. Ask for Feedback Regularly
If you don’t receive feedback on your performance, you won’t know what you’re doing well and what you need to work on. In every one-on-one meeting with your manager or boss, be conscious to ask for feedback. You don’t need to strive for perfection; you need to strive for progress. Progress shows your employer that you care about self-improvement and you have a coachable mindset.
Being a team player shows your boss that you’re invested in your teammates and your company’s mission.
11. When Your Team Succeeds, You Succeed
Setting your team up for success is one of the best things you can do in a job of any level. Not all company cultures prioritize collaboration and teamwork, but you always should. Being a team player shows your boss that you’re invested in your teammates and your company’s mission. Make yourself available to help a teammate as often as you can. This collaboration will build stronger workplace relationships, foster morale, facilitate personal and collective growth, and create more productive results.
12. Understand the Difference Between Busy and Productive
Your goal should be to be as productive as possible at work, not necessarily as busy as possible. The difference between being busy and productive is analogous to the distinction between working hard vs working smart. Your work is productive when it is positively contributing toward your or your team’s goals.
13. Be a Sponge – Learn As Much As You Can
If possible, gain as much cross-functional knowledge as you can. Understanding how departments and teams within your company work together will give you greater insight into how to best do your job. It will also teach you what other job opportunities are out there if you ever decide that you want to pivot in your next career move. Ask to shadow other departments or begin networking with colleagues on another team. In any job, there is infinite knowledge to be learned, so each day should bring new lessons and challenges. If you’re not constantly learning, you’re not progressing in your career development.
14. There Will Be Good Days and Bad Days
Just like anything in life, there will be really great days at work and really bad ones. This applies to not just your first job, but for every job you will have in your career. Remind yourself why you took your current job in the first place on those difficult days. And if you don’t have a meaningful reason, remind yourself that every job has its pros and cons. Lean on your teammates if you need help, or reach out to your manager if you find yourself consistently struggling.
15. Your First Job Is Not Your Last
This is not so much a lesson, but a reminder that if you’ve found yourself in a job that you dislike, you can always find a new one. The average working woman holds about 12 jobs in her lifetime, sometimes even more. Write this on a sticky note and slap it on your mirror or desk at home as a comfortable anecdote.
In general, entering the corporate world after spending your entire life in school, being taught all that you need to know in a familiar structure, is in itself an enormous adjustment. Not only does your day-to-day look and feel completely different than anything you’ve ever experienced, but now you’re surrounded by dozens, sometimes hundreds and thousands, of new people of all ages and experience levels. It seems like everything is unknown. Know this, but remember that it will get easier the more time you spend in a role.
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