Surviving and thriving as a young professional in a 40-something world

career-growth-metaphor

Most graduates get a bit of a shock when they walk into the office for the first time. Your place in the hierarchy and way of relating and communicating to people fundamentally changes, as does the criteria and attributes required to be successful. I was lucky enough to have an extremely senior, supportive direct manager who gave me opportunities, made things happen and helped me make the transition from loud mouth university student to loud mouth working professional … without stepping on too many toes in the process.

After a little more than a year as a graduate, I was promoted to a fairly senior sales role – leading mid-size ($5-$20m) deals with strategic clients. This involved being the face of the deal on the client side, developing and executing the strategy, leading the bid team and ultimately being accountable to my organisation for the closure of the deal. I was thrown in the deep end, floundered for a bit, and then with the help of the networks I had developed, starting swimming. Nowadays, I mentor some of the young professionals who are facing the same challenges I did. Some of the key learnings I had are below:

Show up differently

People love authenticity, and it’s an especially valuable attribute  in client facing roles. Unfortunately, authenticity is sometimes bred out of us and replaced by a bland faceless corporate personality. In one of my first engagements, I was successful against some much more experienced competitors. I asked the client why they had chosen to work with me, and I got a simple answer, ‘you were good to work with, a bit of enthusiasm can go a very long way.’ Be genuine, be enthusiastic and be authentic; you’ll differentiate yourself from a lot of the workforce.

Just because you are a grad, doesn’t mean you have to be the grad

When someone thinks of a graduate, they think of someone who is there to do low-value tasks — get the coffee, please — and hopefully learn something in the process. Lots of people have subsequently low expectations of how a grad will be behave and the value they will provide.

When you are given a task to perform which requires action from more senior members of your company, getting output from them can be difficult. Because the request came from you, the grad, it is often therefore deprioritised. This can put you in a difficult position of not wanting to keep bothering someone above you in the hierarchy but still having a requirement to complete the task you’ve been given. Your job title does not mean you need to be a rug to be walked over. Push people at the right time, make them commit to timelines and don’t be afraid to escalate. My favorite technique when asking for something to be done was to offer a timeline for the task to be completed and ask them if there were any issues with this, and if so get an alternative commitment from them for a completion date. This has two positive impacts – you’ll get your work done with less stress and more efficiency, and people will start to treat you differently. Don’t just be the grad, know your worth and own it.

Lead with value

One of the biggest challenges you have as a recent graduate is imposter syndrome. As you don’t have much in the way of experience or domain knowledge, you doubt the value you can add to the organisation. Lots of young professionals fall into the trap of shadowing and watching rather than doing. Lacking confidence, they observe in the hope that they’ll learn and can then do.

However, in many industries, opportunities don’t just fall into your lap – you have to reach out and take them. With the diversity of skills young people are bringing to the workplace, there is almost always something you can find to bring value to the team; for me, it was writing and presenting. I worked out I could immediately add value by helping teams with sales proposals and client presentations, and I sold my value to the execs to get assigned the most interesting projects. Ask for opportunities, but back them up with the value you will be able to provide.

Find your champions

I have rarely met a senior executive who doesn’t get a kick out of seeing a younger employee in which they have a personal investment succeed. At a minimum, most people are more than willing to provide casual feedback after a piece of work. For example, even now when I’m a leading a team, I like to ask a few of my more experienced colleagues for feedback after we’ve presented.

I’ll say, informally, “I haven’t been doing this all that long, what do you think I did well and where do you think I can improve?” In addition to getting what can be super valuable feedback, this demonstrates several things:

  • You’re constantly trying to improve and develop. There is no such thing as good enough.
  • You are confiding in them enough and demonstrating respect for their experience.

People often tell you to find a mentor and learn from them. While that is important, what you want to do is make as many people as possible your mentor, with each invested in your success. Outside of the immediate benefits of learning from their experience and feedback, this expands your network and ensures you’re top of mind for promotions and new opportunities.

Conclusion

Your first year or two in the workplace will be exciting, scary, rewarding and frustrating. It’s luck of the draw whether opportunities will fall your way – so be brave, take them and throw yourself in the deep end. Respect yourself, your value and believe that your authentic, genuine self is good enough to do the job.


Sam-Clarke-headshotSam Clarke is a Client Executive at DXC Technology. In 2015, he made the leap from university student to a graduate.

Comments

  1. Chris Ellenby says:

    Great insight Sam. Taking initiative and being a self starter is essential to demonstrating the value you can bring to the organisation.

    Like

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