I think I was lucky. I didn’t start my career in the corporate world until I was 26 because of grad school, so I think I got into the working world a little more matured and a little more ready. Maybe I was more ready to become, shall we say, a #GirlBoss?
But thrown into the midst of the workplace without much experience, I was facing a steep learning curve and some real growing pains. Like my manager told me on the day I started, “Be ready to drink from the fire hose.” She was not exaggerating. And this was how my career in biotech marketing began.
It wasn’t just the workload or the new processes and jargons I had to pick up. It wasn’t even the fact that I was hired to fill a position that required at least 2–3 more years of experience than I had. It was the fact that this is now a new environment where things operate based on completely different rules. I came to learn that the work place is a complex ecosystem with hidden intricacies. From what you casually mention to your boss, what you use as desk decor, to what perfume you are wearing; everything adds to or detracts from your reputation. And reputation, as I’ve come to know, could mean the difference between promotion and layoff, getting visibility and never being noticed, moving on and up and staying static in your position.
So here are a few things that I have learned from 5 years of working in the corporate environment. If I could go back in time and chat with my 25-year-old self, I would tell her:
1. Choose your work friends carefully
Your work friends are people you eat lunch with, seen going on coffee runs with, people that you actually directly work with (which you have less control over), and people that you do happy hour with. This is simple: birds of a feather flock together. If you associate with people that are lazy, overly casual, “loose”, and careless, you will be perceived as the same.
2. Don’t be labeled as “The Young One”
Even if you are the youngest on the team, don’t ever settle for a label as such. Labels like this often come with the association that you lack experience or even skills. Just because you are younger in age, doesn’t mean you don’t have more to offer. Labels like this are also very hard to get out of once you have it. What’s worse, is that “the young one” is often used as a psychological crutch that hinders people’s growth. Stay away from it, for your development’s sake.
3. Know your core competency, and find ways to make it shine
In the early phase of your employment, try to find out why you were hired. Is it your analytical skills, sales experience, or technical know-how that got you your job? Find it out, and stick to what you are best at. Are you good at Excel? Add data to your presentation. Are you really good with PowerPoint? Create a presentation even when you don’t need to. And in your spare time, develop other missing skills. Not great at presentations? Volunteer to present. Not good at Excel? Find a co-worker who is, and ask nicely or bribe them – do whatever you have to do to have them teach you.
4. Know the job after this one
This doesn’t mean you start looking for the next job as soon as you find one. This means that the job you are interviewing for and preparing for should pave the way for your next one. Never leave “figuring out what my next thing is” till after you get a job; you should do that prior to your interview. The reason is that so you negotiate terms that allow you to develop skills you are lacking (refer to the last point) and make you more prepared to go for a more senior, but similar position, or switch to a tangential kind of function.
5. Find a mentor
A good mentor can guide you through uncertain times and difficult decisions. They may have been in your shoes and know the consequences of taking certain directions But finding a good mentor is not easy. Mentors are not floating around waiting to teach you the ropes or how best to climb the corporate ladder. Mentorships have to be sought out, fostered, and maintained. But mentorships could also come from places you least expect. If you’re lucky, your boss could be your mentor. Or our co-worker could be your mentor. The best mentor is the kind that is personally invested in your development.
Whichever direction you go in to look for a mentor, know to always prepare questions before you meet with your mentor. Your mentorship is as good as you make it out to be. It takes work.
6. Your boss is not your buddy
Don’t get me wrong – friendship can certainly exist between you and your boss. You can even have a friendship outside of work. Your boss is there to make sure, as a team, you deliver results. Your boss may even be there to motivate you, encourage you, and help the team be efficient. What they’re not required to be, is to be your friend. They may look out for your benefits and crack jokes with you and that would be great, but they’re certainly not obligated to. The point is to never default your boss to be your friend, or worse, your equal. Because they are not.
7. If you think you are being underpaid… prove it
Rather than complaining about being underpaid, spend your time investigating your “worth”. Simply put, in the working environment, your “worth” is equal to what an employer is willing to pay you. Different employers may have different opinions. So if you think you are being underpaid, prove it by looking for other jobs and seeing if others are willing to pay you your ideal salary. If you do, you either have found a new employer or solid evidence that you deserve higher pay at your current job. If you don’t find an employer willing to pay you your ideal salary, then maybe it’s time to explore options to enhance your value and skillset, so that eventually you can find offers with your ideal salary.
So what do you think? I used very specific examples that related to my particular experience. Do you have anything else that you’d share with your 25-year-old self if you could go back in time?