Today is the 24th anniversary of my first day at a proper, full-time job. My career began Jan. 16, 1989 at Landscape Ontario, a horticultural trade association that employed me as its national magazine editor. (I’ll spare you an explanation for why I recall the date.) As a young man with a rather severe allergy to grass – not to mention a complete lack of familiarity with how trade magazines did business – the irony of this first post was not lost on me.
In fact I’d say the first career lesson I learned was that things weren’t going to go the way my guidance counsellor and I planned. That’s not an unusual conclusion to come to in today’s economy. Professionals in this tough, competitive environment understand that their career paths are bound to include a few detours. Take whatever opportunity comes your way, and work the heck out of it.
That’s been my approach, for what it’s worth. Here are seven lessons I’ve learned along the way:
1. Keep your eye on the big picture
One of the things that makes leaders stand out is an awareness of economics, politics and other external factors that affect the field they’re in. If you’re not yet in a leadership position, your ability to speak to these issues will impress those who already are. It’ll also provide you a stronger foundation from which to make decisions.
2. Communication skills matter even more than you think
If you can write a succinct email, deliver a decent speech and make small talk with the CEO, you’re ahead of more than half your colleagues. It’s not all about style of course, but if your written and verbal communications skills are weak, even your best ideas will be ignored.
3. Never stop being entrepreneurial
No matter how secure you feel in your role, keep working it. If you’re in a big organization, look for great projects and find ways to make a contribution. If you’re with a smaller company, find ways to do the same thing within your industry. Join a trade association committee; volunteer to help organize a conference. At the end of the day, successful people look for ways to help other people succeed.
4. People around you will get emotional, and it doesn’t matter
It’s unavoidable. Coworkers are going to fly off the handle every now and then. It’s not your problem. Just because someone comes at you aggressively doesn’t mean you have to adopt their tone. Your ability to remain calm and focused ensures that you control the exchange. That’s powerful.
5. Stop trying to figure out if change is good
Your opinion almost certainly doesn’t matter. Get over it. Before I started my full-time career, I volunteered as the assistant program director of a community radio station. That meant I spent a good deal of 1986 thinking about whether or not we should switch from vinyl records to compact discs. Needless to say, I wasn’t consulted.
6. Get close to — and stay with — the smartest leaders you can find
You’ll know them when you see them. Find ways to work with or near the best and the brightest. Judge the organization you’re with by the quality of its leadership and by who gets the promotions. Learn as much as you can from them and find ways to win their support.
7. Never let them see you sweat
Sure it’s a cliché. But it has served me well. Stop talking about how busy you are. Stop complaining. Everyone’s got more to do than they can manage. It’s a matter of prioritization, mostly. Do what you have to do to meet the hard deadlines, and maintain an open dialogue with your superiors about what you can deliver and when. If they don’t respect that, refer to step six.
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