After working in Corporate America for over 15 years at 8 different companies and now working as a Director of Finance I have learned a lot about careers and how to be successful. This article shares 10 pieces of career advice I’d give my younger self.
1.) Prioritize Building Relationships with Coworkers
My younger self was so focused on finishing work for upcoming deadlines and trying so hard to prove myself I’d sometimes not prioritize networking and building connections. The first job I had out of college was with one of the big four accounting firms and they would often have happy hours and sometimes I would skip them and keep working. In hindsight those were some of the most precious times where I could get to know people like myself and build connections for the future.
Not only is building relationships fun, it is also better for your career development as those same people may one day be able to help provide career advice or even help you get a job one day.
Some of my current best friends are prior coworkers. Additionally when you make friends at work you are able to lean on them in times of stress and they can even boost your morale. We are all social creatures and it’s nice to have a friend to celebrate successes with and help pick you up when something doesn’t go as planned.
Over time it’s also interesting to watch how your friends’ careers evolves and you may even find both of you in the same industry many years down the line helping each other out.
I personally enjoy connecting with people, in fact, it is one of the most enjoyable parts of my job and I prioritize my relationships at work.
2.) While Working Hard is Important Sometimes Working Smarter is More Important
When I was younger I thought that working long hours was like a badge of honor and showed that you were committed to your job. I thought that people would notice the long hours and I would get recognized for all the self sacrifice. While in public accounting I would work the weekends and sometimes not bill my hours just to make sure I did a great job and when starting out as a financial analyst I remember staying up until 2:00am sometimes.
In hind-site it is important to work hard, meet or exceed your deadlines, and deliver great results but it is important to also work smart. This means can you ask someone if the level of detail you are working on is really necessary? Certain tasks do require a low level of detail and some do not. It’s important to differentiate between the two.
Sometimes getting something finished is more important than getting it perfect especially if it means it’ll take you another five hours.
Ask yourself, are there other ways of getting the task done but in different ways, either by process automation or by trying a new process entirely. Try to be innovative. Sometimes you may need help from others to see the best way to complete tasks and asking for help can be smart.
3.) Embrace What You May Be Afraid Of
There were many times in my career I was nervous or thought that my skill-set may not be an exact fit for the role. Instead of stopping I kept going, leaning in, and tried my best. For example when I started my first sales finance position, when I switched careers to Marketing, when I was first promoted to manager, and even when I started my current job as a Director of Finance. If I listened to any of my self doubts and didn’t dive in then I wouldn’t have accomplished nearly as much as I have accomplished today.
It’s human nature to have some fear when starting new things. Embrace that fear and keep going. It’s pretty amazing what we are able to accomplish when we put our minds to it. Sometimes having a little nervousness or fear is okay and it is best to give it your all.
If you ever have doubts just remember even if you may not have the exact background on the job description the whole reason you were hired is because they believe you can do the job and do it well. Now it’s up to you to prove that to your company and yourself.
I spent a lot of my younger years thinking about things I may not be qualified for or have the exact skill set for but I wish I knew that with determination, perseverance, and resources we can accomplish so much.
It’s really a matter of selecting a path and trying your best then adjusting along the way. We rarely get it right from the beginning but it is journey that counts and embracing what you learn along the way.
4.) Take Ownership of Your Career Development
For many years I waited for my manager to bring up what do you want to do in the future and how can I help you get there? For some reason those questions are rarely asked at least from my experience. It would be great if they were asked and really great managers / companies do ask those questions.
But I have found that being a manager has a lot of responsibilities and you are so focused on getting your deadlines met that there is often little time for these important conversations. That means it is up to you, the employee, to take ownership of your career development.
If you want to be a Director in five years then plan out what experience you need to get there and how you may get that experience. You can ask your manager or others to advocate for you, but ultimately it is up to you to own your career.
5.) Asking Questions and Asking for Help Can be a Sign of Strength Not Weakness
For a long time I was hesitant to ask certain questions as I thought I was supposed to know everything. I mean that was why they hired me for many of my positions. It can take a lot of courage to say you don’t know something or that you need help.
It can demonstrate strength and courage that rather than getting so far into the work and only later realizing you may not be able to finish it by the deadline, raising your hand and asking for help you are being proactive. Of course you’ll want to try to provide recommendations on how to fix the situation, but asking for help and a second opinion is smart.
By having discussions and collaborating with others you are more likely to come to better answers than if you try to complete everything on your own. By involving others and asking questions you can find better ways of completing tasks.
Now frequently I am pleased with how many great ideas coworkers can bring to the table when asked. This ultimately leads to a more efficient execution that is also collaborative and a win win for you and your company.
6.) It’s Okay for Your Career to Not Be Linear
It is the long run that matters for your career. That means if you take a lateral position, take a year off, or even switch careers you can still be successful. In fact I have done all three of these and still believe I am successful.
Media may portray or certain successful people may have direct career ladders but it is okay to try different things to find out what you like and what you are good at. Gaining diverse experience can also make you a better leader as you will understand different aspects of business.
I took one year off to spend time with my younger son and while I was pregnant with my second son. This time was some of my most precious time. It also made me realize how hard it is stay home and take care of kids all day. It made me even more appreciative of teachers and other caretakers.
While I enjoy Corporate Finance I also enjoy being creative and helping people which is one of the main reasons I switched my career for a few years into Market Access and Marketing. To me it is important to try new things and continue to learn.
While I eventually returned to Corporate Finance the years I spent in Marketing were invaluable as I learned so much about myself, how to communicate, and about Marketing which I can apply to many facets of my life.
What I have learned is that your career path does not have to be perfect or linear, as long as you are continuing to learn, grow, and challenge yourself then have faith that you are headed in the right direction.
7.) Prioritize Time For Yourself, Family, and Finances
For many years I thought the harder I worked the better worker I was. Sometimes I wouldn’t exercise as much as I should have, spent as much time with family as I should have, or didn’t prioritize my personal finances as much as I should have. I placed my job above everything else in my life and thought that it would automatically pay off.
While it is important to do a great job, it is also just as important to make yourself, family, and personal finances a priority. That means make sure you are taking time to eat healthy, taking time to exercise, and to relax. Or if you have a certain hobby that you love, make time for that! We are all so much more interesting and pleasant to be around when you have a passion outside of work and are able to bring your best self to work.
Whether you have kids, a spouse, friends, or a new relationship, you should make time to prioritize those relationships. I’m amazed that I’m already almost 40 and how quickly my kids have grown.
I’m not sure I believe in the term work life balance as the two are so closely integrated. Especially as women our careers tend to pick up right when we are most needed at home by our kids that it may be best described as work life integration. Either way it is important to prioritize time for your family and relationships just as you would prioritize work meetings and work deadlines.
I spent a lot of my twenties building my career and doing what I “should” be doing to climb the corporate ladder that I de-prioritized focusing on learning about and maximizing my personal finances. While I still was careful with spending, consistently contributed to my 401(k) while working, I did not prioritize how to invest. Not until I was in my thirties did I really learn how to invest.
I want you to learn sooner than me and take control of your finances. Read blogs like this one, read books, and talk to friends and family members who have been able to build their wealth. Most importantly try it out for yourself. Start with smaller amounts and learn what is best for you. Make the time and take the initiative because no one else will.
Don’t rely others to tell you what to do, do the research yourself or seek appropriately trained financial advisors to help you maximize your personal finances. You’ll be happy you prioritized your financial health in the future.
8.) Be Radically Open to Feedback: Treat Criticism as Information, it’s up to you to Choose How to Act on it
We all handle taking criticism differently. Some of us are defensive when provided criticism, some of us are naturally open and welcome it, and some of us are somewhere in-between.
It is typically best to be radically open to constructive feedback as that is the only way you’ll know about your blind spots and be able to improve yourself. Please do keep in mind that just because one manager or business partner provided certain feedback it doesn’t mean that it is true, it could be their perception and up to you to accept it.
For example, as I am in Biotech it is important to understand science even though that is not what I learned in school. It is up to me to use that feedback to study science more and get better at it. It’s great that I am given honest feedback.
In summary be radically open to constructive criticism and decide how best to act upon the feedback.
9.) Come to Meetings with Speaking Points Prepared
Some of us are blessed and able to think quickly on the spot and process information during meetings. Some of us, like me, are more productive if we prepare points in advance to share during meetings. For many of my more important meetings, as time allows, I’ll make sure to prepare points in advance especially if I am presenting.
By preparing in advance I know I’ll be able to contribute to the meeting and won’t have to think of something on the spot. This leads me to relax more and be more engaged.
10.) Know and Leverage Your Strengths
We all have strengths and weakness and that is perfectly normal. No one person is perfect. What is important is being able to know and leverage your strengths to compliment your weaknesses. For example my strengths are connecting with people and being diligent and hardworking. I can leverage these strengths to help others and make our team stronger.
I used to think that if I was weak in certain areas that I would not be able to move up. That is not necessarily the case, by being passionate in my career, in helping others, and in wanting to do the best job possible I am able to leverage my strengths and ultimately help others be more successful.
Continuously learning is important, but it doesn’t mean you have to be an expert in every facet of your job. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses are key to being able to progress in your career.
In summary if I could share career lessons with my younger self I would tell encourage myself to:
1.) Prioritize building relationships with coworkers
2.) Remember while working hard is important sometimes working smarter is more important
3.) Embrace what you may be afraid of
4.) Take ownership of your career development
5.) Asking questions and asking for help can be a sign of strength not weakness
6.) It’s okay for your career to not be linear
7.) Prioritize time for yourself, family, and finances
8.) Be radically open to feedback, treat criticism as information it’s up to you to choose how to act on it
9.) Come to meetings with speaking points prepared
10.) Know and leverage your strengths
What are some of key lessons you have learned in your career so far that you would want to share with others? I certainly welcome any input as I have lots more learn!