Identify the industry that fits you. Industry matters. When I picked my first public accounting firm, I based my decision solely on salary - $1,000 more in annual base salary to be exact. I then spent my first year working in small towns across the Midwest, auditing meat packing plants. As the new staff accountant, it was my job to audit the inventory every month. This involved getting on a garage crawler and scooting under rows and columns of freshly “processed” swinging sides of beef to make sure the counts were correct. I quickly grew to dislike the meat packing industry. A year later, I switched accounting firms for a cut in pay and the opportunity to audit cool technology start-up companies. I loved the experience and have built my career in the technology industry.
Early in your career, talk MORE and listen LESS. Have an opinion, raise your hand in meetings, ask questions, voice your opinion, and take a position. You may not be right. In fact, you will likely be wrong. But it doesn’t matter. You will stand out from others and be respected. You will also become more engaged and have more fun at work.
Later in your career, talk LESS and listen MORE. It can be a tough adjustment, but later in your career you will think you know more than you really do. You will be over confident. You will rely on past experiences and lessons to make current decisions. What was true in the past may not be true today. Also, you will be a better leader if you talk half as much as you listen.
There are no short cuts. Building a career and a professional reputation is a marathon, not a sprint. Your long term progression in a career will ultimately be a function of how others perceive you. Do you show up on time? Do you show up prepared? Do you bring energy to a meeting? Do you meet the commitments that you make? Do you give credit to others? Do you take ownership when you mess up? I grew up in Omaha, the home of legendary investor Warren Buffett. I think he is amazing because of the simple life lessons that he shares. One of my favorite Warren Buffet quotes that I try to remember every day is, “It takes a lifetime to build a reputation, but only a few seconds to destroy it forever.” So, always focus on the long game.
Have a plan. Write it down.
In my experience, half of success in life is having a plan. The other half is actually writing your plan down. I have never worked for a company that does not prepare and document its five-year plan with specific actions needed to achieve the plan. I was a co-founder of Level 3 Communications here in Broomfield, CO. Even when we were a startup with 30 employees, we had a written five-year plan. Today, Level 3 has over 17,000 employees around the world. They still have a five-year plan, but now they have a 30-person strategic planning team that prepares and tracks the plan. It works for successful companies, it will work for you.
Learn and remember the “Rule of 72.” In Finance, the Rule of 72 is a quick way to calculate how many years it will take to double your money at any given interest rate. For example, at a 10% rate of interest per year, you will double your money every 7.2 years. Live within your means. Pay down debt. Start saving now. Contribute to your 401K plan. Why does this matter? Well, some day you may want to retire or change professions. But more importantly, I believe employees that are good personal financial stewards are, on balance, better performers and leaders in their careers over the long term. They are more confident and able to more effectively balance the demands of work and family.
Measure twice, cut once. Learn how to make data-driven decisions. Try to take the emotion out of it. It is usually okay to ask for more data to inform your decisions. For big decisions, it is generally better to analyze data trends over a reasonable period of time before making a big snap decision. One of my favorite questions that I ask new managers is, “how did you make that decision?” Too often, I hear managers say “I think…” or “I thought…”
Take personal responsibility. There is an inverse correlation of career success and your ability to create excuses for failures. Listen to yourself, if it sounds like you are whining, “you may be a whiner!” At Optiv, I have been known to give awards to employees with the best “R.E.G”, Random Excuse Generator. This is also not an award you want to win twice.
Give a pitch or make a presentation at least once per year. It does not matter how big the audience is. It really doesn’t matter what the subject is. Preparing for the pitch, presenting ideas, and communicating and persuading others is a skill that must be developed over time. No one is born with the ability to communicate effectively. It is a skill that must be developed over time. Once you have this ability, you will find yourself moving to the front of the pack.
Develop the ability to quickly identify the most important variable in a problem rather than trying to solve the problem itself. Unless you work for NASA, you likely won’t get paid to solve big, complex math or business problems. That’s okay. If you can identify the most important variables within any complex problem, then you can focus on improving those variables. Many problems in life and in business can’t be solved, but you need to learn to have impact anyway.