It can be hard to find that first job, and sometimes you need to take whatever you can get to start your career. But whether it is your very first job or a job search in the first five years of your career, there are three critical things you should not settle without.
1. A great manager
Having a great manager early on will by far create the strongest impact toward your long-term growth. Working for someone who is talented, generous with their time, and willing to teach you can be a powerful jumpstart. And working for a turkey is both demotivating and a waste of your time. Remember, for every way to do something well, there are a thousand ways to do it badly. Every year counts early on, so partner up with a strong leadership team, make sure that you are efficient with time and sponge every skill possible when you are young, hungry and hopefully don't need much sleep. Strong management will steer you onto projects that stretch you and teach you, and catch you when you stumble. Poor managers come in a variety of flavors: micro managers, absentee managers, inconsistent managers, and the list goes on, but they share one characteristic, they deprive you of valuable learning. So pick wisely. Interview your potential manager so you get a sense of how much they will help you grow.
Just as a rising tide floats all boats, finding a thriving environment early on will create an opportunity for advancement. Think about the people who landed early in companies like Google and LinkedIn. Were they any smarter than their peers who joined loser companies? Probably not. But the diligent, hard-working ones took advantage of the extraordinary emerging opportunities to grow their own careers, fast. Even in modestly flourishing/booming times, you will find that growth creates opportunity. Early in your career, you should be alert for new tasks, projects and be sure to volunteer and raise your hand up when companies are searching for aggressive new talent. Take on new challenges, be a problem solver and stretch your skill set. Stagnant companies make it difficult to do this, so stay alert for rising tides.
3. Visibility into the business
Too often I talk with people early in their career, and they don't understand the Profit and Loss principles of their company. Being able to distinguish between decisions that help or hurt the business is pivotal. Insist on acquiring visibility of cash flows from customer reports, sales deals, marketing expenses and product development costs. Looking at the cash trail of a company early on is essential to understanding how the company makes money. Whether you are the egghead designing a new product (which will make money), or you are the inside sales rep selling (bringing money in) or you are the accountant working on the P&L (watching the money) you want to see it and understand it. That way, later in your career when you are making decisions that directly impact the growth, profit or loss of your own company, or the company you work for, you will have a visceral feel for how the financials of a company actually work. And if you don't understand basic finance in the first 5 years of your career take classes until you do. The knowledge is well worth giving up a few evenings for.
Often, I am contacted by people who want a little coaching as they start their careers or who are looking for a change in direction. And so often I am asked my opinion about whether they should go and get an MBA. There are some circumstances where an MBA is worth the time and money--for example if you want to switch from engineering to finance--but in most cases it isn't. It's my belief, after managing so many talented people both with MBAs and without, that in most cases these three things are fundamental: a great manager, a growing company, and getting yourself familiar with the money trail.