August 26, 2013
This past spring I celebrated the 30th anniversary of my first day in the work world.
On May 23, 1983, I walked into 128 Cannon House Office Building next to the U.S. Capitol. That day, I started my job as a receptionist for Congressman Robin Tallon — after he hired me, sight unseen, over the phone three weeks earlier. It had been nine days since I crossed the stage at the University of South Carolina to receive my journalism degree (and paid some $300 to settle my parking tickets).
I had a head full of big permed hair, big expectations and little idea of what I was supposed to do as an employed and fully responsible adult.
Looking back, I didn’t have specific career goals in mind at that point, but I did know what I was good at and the type of work that I wanted to pursue. Thirty years later, I’ve been fortunate to have a rewarding career that combines my love of writing, communications and politics with my curiosity about people and places.
In 1983, I never dreamed that my jobs would give me the chance to travel with a congressional delegation to Taiwan; raise money for causes that I believe in; lobby the legislature and Congress for millions of dollars; bike the Golden Gate Bridge; get published in national magazines; pick tobacco; work with great South Carolina mayors; take photos with famous people like Tip O’Neill and Mr. Rogers; visit 38 states; stand at the podium in the White House press room; or be in the State House Dome the day the Confederate flag came down.
I’ve figured out a few things along the way that I wish someone had told that 22 year-old on her first day on the job. And, I’d like to thank my bosses, mentors, co-workers, friends, family and colleagues who I have had the privilege to work with for teaching me these lessons.
Here’s some advice that may be helpful to others who are just starting out:
Establish your own personal brand.
Decide what you want your reputation in the workplace to be and let your actions define you. Keep promises and make deadlines. Under-promise and over-deliver. Avoid behavior in your personal life that could reflect negatively on your professional life (even more true today with all the risks of social media in the mix).
Find a mentor.
Many busy professionals say, “I don’t have time to be a mentor.” But most mentor-mentee relationships happen naturally rather than have someone formally establishing them. Be on the lookout for them. I bet my best mentors probably don’t know they even served that role.
Keep up with the news every day.
Read the paper, check websites and blogs, listen to NPR on the way to work. Know what the news is saying about your organization or industry before your boss or client asks you.
Get away from your desk.
Walk outside at some point during the day. Even if it’s just to walk around the block or grab a sandwich, your brain needs natural light and a whiff of fresh air, and your body needs to stretch.
Plan the work before you work the plan.
Plans will change either by force or by circumstance. Be flexible, but have a plan regardless of whether it’s a work project, a trip, a major purchase or an important life decision.
Don’t pass up a chance to learn something.
Find out what your boss or leaders in your profession are reading (books, publications, websites, etc). Seek out professional development opportunities. Join organizations and get involved.
Provide your boss with a solution, not with a problem.
Your boss is solving problems all day. Make his or her life easier by also presenting a solution when you present a problem. Even if it’s not the solution that ultimately solves the problem, it keeps your boss from dreading seeing you at the door.
Write thank-you notes and follow-up notes (handwritten, not email).
Collect cards from people you meet at events, meetings or just out and about. A handwritten “nice to meet you” note will set you apart and help people remember you. Technology is good, but personal touches still matter.
Travel whenever you have the chance.
Travel to small towns in your home state as well as big cities around the country. Travel internationally if possible. Don’t put off travel. You’ll never tell your grandchildren about that great trip you didn’t take because you were too busy at work.
Be interested and inquisitive.
Ask good questions and ask them often. Young professionals have a great deal to offer a work environment. Speak up when you have something to share, but remember to balance your enthusiasm with respect for senior-level colleagues’ experiences.
Be sensitive toward your peers.
You never know what type of personal issues the co-worker who missed a deadline is dealing with at home or with his family.
Create your own personal style.
That doesn’t mean that you should wear flip-flops in a formal, corporate environment. However, you can set yourself apart from the pack with a twist on the ordinary, even if you aren’t a style maven. Find your own look.
Stay on top of what’s going around the office, but avoid gossip.
Be a “boundary spanner.” People in all parts of the organization and at all levels respect and trust this type of person.
Look out for opportunities with “reverse mentoring” situations.
Then, you can be a resource to your older colleagues. Veteran professionals can learn a great deal from their younger peers.
Know that pretending to be busy isn’t the same as being productive.
The co-worker who always discusses his/her heavy workload and long hours is probably less productive than the organized co-worker who prioritizes his/her days.
Understand that a good editor will make you shine.
Don’t think about someone editing your writing in the same way that you would think about a teacher correcting a paper. Editing is a collaborative process, and there’s always room for improvement in your writing.
Don’t come to work sick.
No one appreciates a stuffy-nosed martyr. That’s why you have sick days.
Network outside of your office through church, nonprofits, alumni groups, friends and professional organizations. You next job lead will probably come from someone who is already in your network.
It’s OK to mess up occasionally. No one can expect perfection. You can often learn more from mistakes than from successes. Yes, really, you can.
Strive for work-life balance.
The balance will probably fluctuate daily, but creative outlets, exercise and hobbies make you a better employee.
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