The Big Decisions that Impact Your Career
One of the best things about being a young professional is the limitless number of possibilities that lie ahead of you. Especially for those in the earliest stages of your career, there are so many options available — so many industries and interests you can potentially tap into. But, at the same time, this can feel pretty overwhelming. How do you know which direction is the right one to take? While some people argue that your first job doesn’t really matter, I’ve found it surprising just how often the choices people make in their early 20s impact their job paths in the longer term. That’s why, before you make any big decisions, it’s worth taking a step back and being strategic. A career is a marathon not a sprint — and yours will benefit from a good strategy. I recommend you start by making these four choices that I’ve seen prove successful for my clients throughout their professional journeys.
1) Work at companies that specialize in your skillset. There is plenty of good advice out there around how to make yourself shine on a CV, no matter your role. But it is because of this plethora of advice that it can be difficult for hiring managers to distinguish if you will be successful once hired, or if you’re just good at presenting yourself on paper. Having a couple of recognizable brand names on your resume — specifically brands that have a strong reputation in your sector or area of specialization — can help you stand out from the crowd. This is especially true later on in your career when you are more likely to be competing for executive or leadership positions. What do I mean exactly by “brands”? These are companies that people in your industry have heard about and respect. I’m not necessarily referring to big and elusive organizations like Apple, Amazon, or Google (where the acceptance rate is a mere 0.2%). My advice is a bit broader and more realistic: Look into organizations that people in your profession, or in your future dream job, will probably recognize and have positive associations with. For instance, if you work in IT, you are better off having a niche (but innovative) technology company on your resume than a well-known consumer goods business. Likewise, if you work in marketing, it looks better to have experience at a consumer-facing company than to have spent five years at a huge tech start-up. In my experience, when you focus on roles in an industry that value your particular kind of work, recruiters and hiring managers will assume — rightly or not — that you have learned from the best, or from people at an organization where your skills are highly valued and important to the business.
2) Choose to work with people whom you want in your network. As I’m sure you’ve heard before, the majority of roles are found through networking. In fact, a recent study found that this is the case 85% of the time. Networking comes from building relationships: working with people, being helpful to people in your network, and staying in touch. Before choosing any new role (whether it is your first, second, or third), it is a good idea to look at who you will be on your team, as these people could become important contacts and references down the line. Work with the best people that you can: people who have impressive experiences, people with a track record of success and promotion, and people with whom you have good chemistry and you can see yourself keeping in touch long-term. This applies to your seniors, but also to your teammates. Connect with peers who are as ambitious as you are and will think of you when future opportunities arise.
How do you find these people? Sometimes it will be intuitive. There will always be certain co-workers with whom you immediately connect because of shared values or goals, and these relationships usually have the potential to last longer term. When it comes to your seniors, look for leaders who have a track record of giving people in their networks good opportunities. Oftentimes, this may be a manager who has brought a former employee onto their team after changing roles or companies. The fact that they have stayed connected suggests that they value loyalty and are willing to support people on their career journeys.
3) Look for opportunities to grow and stretch yourself. If you’re an ambitious employee, you may be eager to get promoted as quickly as possible. But there are times when it is more useful to make a strategic lateral move that is related to your current role and a bit outside of your comfort zone. The first decade of your career is a great time to take risks, build transferable skills, and develop some technical expertise. For instance, if you work in marketing and you have an opportunity to make a move into sales, think of it as a way for you to acquire skills in an adjacent field. Likewise, if you work in consumer goods, where brand and product development are critical, consider spending some time in a marketing position to get a better perspective on how marketing activities turn products into revenue. Stretching yourself may seem scary at first, but remember that we all need to experience challenges, and even failures, before we can build resilience, learn, and develop new and better skills. It’s best to do this earlier in your career, when mistakes are less visible, and when there is plenty of time to learn from your mistakes and come out better for it. If you use your first few jobs to gain a deep understanding of the roles and departments that exist within your sector — and how they work together to meet their collective goals — you will be a more competitive candidate for leadership roles down the line. Once you move into a senior role, you will likely have less “hands on” responsibilities and oversee more of the employees who do. This is when that foundational knowledge you’ve been building will come into play. You’ll need to know how different teams function, as well as what they need from you as a leader to do their jobs well.
4) Don’t get distracted by shortcuts. There are so many ideas about how you can “short cut” the hard work of gaining good experience and building your network over time. Some people suggest focusing on your “personal brand” by making cosmetic improvements to your CV and growing your social media channels. Others suggest taking the start-up route for a fast track to the top. There are caveats with both of these suggestions to keep in mind. First, when it comes to personal branding, remember that people can see through hot air. The truth is that there will never be a substitute for doing great work and building out strong experiences. When you are promoting yourself there needs to be real substance behind it — and if there is, hiring managers will see that. Second, when it comes to start-ups, remember that there are definitely great companies out there but pursuing a start-up role is a high-risk, high-reward decision. Even if you are lucky enough to join the next Amazon, there will be long hours, worries about failure, and lots of pressure. Before accepting a role in this world, be sure to ask lots of questions about the business and their future plans. Check out the experience of the management team to see if you are confident in their leadership skills. If you see or hear something you don’t like, then think twice. When it comes to larger roles that come later in careers, employers are discerning and selective. This is when they rely on the power of corporate brands and references from well-known people to separate out candidates with verifiable experience. The strongest way to secure these high-profile roles down the line is to put in the work right now: Grow your skills, take on lateral responsibilities, and work at companies and with people who will build up your credibility.