What were the best things you learned on your first job? originally appeared on Quora: The best answer to any question.
Figure Out What Your Job Really Is
I've always thought success is like making money--much easier when you already have a lot of it. So how do you quickly get to a point where each success naturally brings more and more opportunities for you without you having to work quite so hard for it? Most people just let nature take its course. They work diligently on whatever is assigned to them and eventually get more prestigious assignments that allow them to have a larger impact on the organization's success. That's the "textbook" progression of a career, but besides taking too long, it leaves too many things to chance. Generating real momentum for yourself doesn't happen overnight, but you have the tools you need accelerate this process right now. Rather than hoping to someday be in the right place at the right time, there are a few things you can do to find what the right place is and just go there already.
Three Steps to Career Momentum
- Learn why your role exists and how your work creates value for others
- Find out the most difficult or important challenges facing the business
- Become an authority on something that allows you to solve problems for people
Once you understand how your role really adds value to your organization, it will become clearer how you can be part of the solution to the important challenges facing the business. Of course, you'll have to find out what those are first, which will require some digging. And lastly, you need to make sure that all of the great work you do really does translate into the next good opportunity. That means making sure that the skills you're building are relevant and in demand.
I also want to point out two principles that underpin my philosophy for building career momentum. In fact, if you take nothing else away from this post, it should be this:
- Every organization, no matter how successful, is constantly tackling big challenges
- The bigger the challenges you address, the more valuable you are
If you want to be important, then do important work. It's that simple. Senior management usually address the largest challenges and opportunities, because that's their job. But as I've hopefully made clear, I believe solving big problems is everyone's job. It is not something you want to do on an empty stomach, though. First things first, you need to understand why you're even in the building.
Something you may have noticed about people who are well into their careers is that they frequently talk about their roles in abstract terms. A customer service representative says, "I talk customers off the ledge," or the IT Manager might say, "I make sure people can get work done." That's usually the mark of years of someone who has spent years observing how their work really benefits others at the end of the day. Aside from the rhetorical flourish, that understanding of actually makes these people better at their jobs. How? Because they understand in a deep way how their work adds value, these people make better decisions when it comes to making tradeoffs. This person doesn't need to be told what to do. On the contrary, their compass lets them set a vision for what they should be doing (that's one of the things that makes people good leaders). You may not have years of experience yet, but with some critical thinking and imagination, you can absolutely reach a similar level of understanding about your role.
Now, pause for a moment: have you ever asked why your position exists? Does it seem painfully obvious? It may sound strange, but the first mistake most people make in their careers is not knowing what their job is. Hint: there is always a more nuanced answer to this question than you initially think. The first thing you should understand is that your role and the responsibilities associated with it represent a management decision. Specifically, your job represents a decision the organization has made about how a specific set of activities should be accomplished, as opposed to all other possible ways of accomplishing them. The decision may have been thoughtful, misguided, or even unwitting, but every job represents a decision, and you need to understand how and why it was made.
Master the Unwritten Aspects of Your Role
When it comes to increasing your payoff for all you invest in work, many companies spell out to their employees the official formula for advancement within the organization. A career path document, sometimes presented as a chart or table, is basically a document that says, "If you have met the following conditions by the time we review your performance, you will advance to the next level with increased compensation and responsibilities." Do A, B, and C, and in return we will entrust you with responsibilities D, E, and F, for which you will receive $X in additional income. When you read the document early in your first real job, it seems so comfortingly...algorithmic. You don't need to solve for x, because they've already told you the answer.
I remember looking at the career road map chart for research analysts during orientation on Day 1 of my first job out of college. After reading the flow chart that told you what you needed to do to reach each stage, I was already thinking about how quickly I could make my first promotion and what came after that. I think a lot of people experience this. But before you get carried away, there are a few things you should understand that you almost certainly won't hear when your career path and performance review criteria are first explained to you:
- It is impossible to distill the entirety of your job's demands into a checklist on a page.
- Whatever else happens, your professional advancement still occurs when those more senior to you decide it will.
- Despite all of objective criteria laid out for you, some percentage of your evaluation is still subjective.
- The exact performance review criteria matter less for advancement than whether you make the organization more successful and make managers comfortable trusting you with more responsibility.
I'd love to shake the hand of any manager who explains these realities to their new hires on day one. I think it would prompt people to think about their careers in a more realistic light from the beginning.
Some people feel uncomfortable when subjectivity is introduced into what otherwise seems like a predictable process for success. If you are such a person, try to remember that subjective is not the same as "unfair". It simply reflects the reality that human judgment is inevitably involved in evaluating your performance. This is especially true when comparing your performance with others, because that simply has to involve subjectivity. Regardless of title or expectations, no two people do exactly the same job in the professional world. There are always some different circumstances or contexts to factor into a comparison that require people to make a judgment call. You and a peer may get different opportunities to demonstrate certain skills throughout the year because you worked on different projects, for example. That brings subjective judgment into the picture. On top of that, some of the things that have significant influence on the perception of your work quality, like your communication skills, are unavoidably subjective. All of this is actually good news for you: not only can you influence the subjective criteria as much as the objective ones, but the fact that most of your colleagues will fail to do this means opportunity for you.
Building Trust Is The Key Ingredient to Rising Fast
The last point, that what matters most is whether you make the organization better and earn peoples' trust merits special consideration because it's easy to miss the point. In a sense, performing your listed responsibilities should be thought of as the minimum requirement for doing your job, not the entirety of it. Making the organization more successful is the ultimate measure of your performance--and not because that's what someone in your role is tasked with. It's the case because that's just what people who are great at their jobs do, period. As for building trust, I think most people intuitively get that gaining others' trust is important in a role wherein your promotions and opportunities are controlled by people more senior than they are. But I also think that most people not only under-appreciate its importance to their immediate advancement, they also don't realize that earning managers' trust actually helps the business too.
How earning your managers' trust helps you is fairly obvious. The more managers feel they can rely on you, they more important things they'll ultimately give you to work on will be. The more opportunities you get to work on critical projects, the more you elevate your stature, creating a virtuous cycle of opportunity, recognition and reward. But the business actually benefits in a way that is a bit subtler, but no less important. Senior managers need employees they can count on at the junior levels to effectively accomplish tasks down the chain from themselves. If a senior manager doesn't trust that the work will be done effectively, it keeps them from focusing on things like growing the business, hiring, and other things they need to do. That's a major problem for the business, because its more expensive resources are spending time on things that they shouldn't. When you become a go-to person who gets the job done without too much oversight, you have solved a problem for the business, in addition to relieving stress for your managers. You've given them one less problem they have to worry about and made it easier for them to do their jobs. Problem solvers get remembered, and they rise fast.
So the million-dollar question is: How do you earn the right peoples' trust when you're still so new to the job? Answering that question will be a theme that I return to again and again. From my experience, you do it through the following*:
- Helping them solve important problems
- Showing that you understand in a deep way how your role adds value to the business
- Understanding how important decisions get made
- Communicating in a way that organizes peoples' thoughts for them
- Understanding the weak points in your company and what causes them (see
- Becoming an authority early in something important
- Bringing big ideas to the table (see )
- Finding leveraged ways to keep developing your skills
Sounds straightforward enough, right? Unfortunately it is damn hard to do all of these things when you're brand new and trying to get up to speed on everything. But it can be done, and I don't mean by working twenty-four hours a day either. I’ve written about succeeding without working yourself to death here:.
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