As a big sister, I’ve had the privilege of mentoring my 10-years-younger little brother as he went through high school, college, several internships with my company, and eventually joined my company. He is now on a full-ride scholarship in grad school at Notre Dame. I couldn’t be prouder.
I’ve also worked with a number of younger professionals throughout my career, and I remember keenly being one of those young professionals—as a journalist, I was usually the youngest person in my newsroom (by far). There was so much I didn’t know, and wasn’t taught to me in college, about how to succeed in the business world.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the advice that I, at 35, would give to my 25-year-old self or other young professionals in their first few years of post-college employment. I don’t always follow this advice, but the results are infinitely better when I do. Here are 25 tips for success for young professionals under age 25:
- Take initiative. This is the most important thing you can do in any job, in any role—in life. Don’t wait for permission or a request, just see a need and propose a solution…better yet, start working on the solution!
- Dress for success. Senior professionals want to see you as an up-and-coming professional, not stuck in your college gear (and they’ll assume, your college mindset). Invest in a wardrobe that mirrors the executives (and by shopping sale racks and seconds stores like Nordstrom Rack and TJ Maxx, you can do this on your current salary). Don’t imagine “casual Friday” equals jeans and sneakers—choose better-than-casual shoes, slacks and a casual jacket to demonstrate your professionalism.
- Be polished. A dry cleaner and tailor will help—and don’t wear anything that is revealing, too tight/ill-fitting, or dirty/stained/torn. Iron your shirts, shine your shoes, file and polish your nails, get a good haircut. Carry a high-quality bag. Each small detail adds up. Look like the kind of person an executive would be proud to introduce to a client.
- Be polite. Manners count in business lunches, in thank-you notes and in small interactions. Read a book on modern manners—seriously! When flustered, keep your cool and be nicer than necessary.
- Polish your communications. Send emails that are properly capitalized, spelled and signed. (Don’t lower-case your name or the letter i—this reads a juvenile chat-room behavior.) Double-check documents and communications before sending—a small grammatical error or typo will make you look less smart than you really are, especially if you know better.
- Show up on time. Don’t miss meetings. Don’t be late. Be unfailingly accountable to the expectations for time, so in the few instances you are delayed you have built up good work karma that will make senior managers that much more understanding.
- Think big-picture. When proposing ideas, start with the most important nugget or thing that will have the most impact. This helps managers see you as a strategic thinker, not just a doer who is mired in the nitty-gritty.
- Read what the executives read. If they mention a business book, go get it and dive in. This will help you literally be “on the same page” as senior managers and will demonstrate your interest in professional growth and development. Harvard Business Review’s blog network is a great start, and it’s free.
- Put in the time. At this point, you probably don’t have a spouse, kids or a dozen other engagements that require you to punch out once office hours are over. So come in early, stay late, make the extra effort and do it cheerfully. Your hard work now can accelerate your career path, making it that much easier to take your foot off the gas (just a bit) when other things in life require your attention.
- Separate work and personal—to a point. Ensure your friends are sending jokes only to your personal email account. Don’t surf the web for personal stuff while at work (even if you’re technically on a break, you’re at your desk, and someone might raise an eyebrow). Don’t let personal engagements and calls interfere during your workday—take a break and make the call from your mobile phone out of the office. But one caveat—people are still curious about you and your life, so share a few details, put up a few pictures at work, and demonstrate the fact that you have a life away from work… and that’s where it stays.
- Be social, but beware. What you say in social media is a reflection on you personally and professionally. Choose to stay positive in whatever you post, limit any comments about work only to positive things, and don’t say anything that would offend/embarrass your grandmother or CEO. “Private” comments (and bachelorette party pictures, and cranky snark) have a way of going public. While I strongly oppose companies looking at your social media accounts prior to hiring because of the potential for civil rights abuses, you should safeguard your reputation by only putting out there what you are willing to share with the world—including your employer.
- Stick up for yourself and your colleagues. Choose your battles wisely (consider whether the issue is a matter of your values and professional goals, or an annoyance you can tolerate), and demonstrate to your teammates and boss that you’ll support them and never throw them under the bus. Accountability breeds trust.
- Can’t say something nice? You can still say something—privately. If you have an issue, never air it in a group. Speak to the person privately, dispassionately and constructively; give yourself time to cool off if you’re really steamed before bringing it up. And never, ever put angry, negative or critical comments in writing. Tone of voice is everything, and even if you’re in the right, you need to have a conversation about a negative situation—not a one-sided diatribe.
- Take the blame. When a boss is angry or disappointed with an action or project, don’t be defensive. Accept the accountability, apologize and discuss ways you can improve. That doesn’t mean taking the blame for what you didn’t do, but consider how being accountable and responsible actually benefits you: even if you are responsible for a poor project, the point is—you’re responsible. And increased responsibility is the path to greater roles and leadership.
- Be a cultural asset. Companies are looking for two things in an employee—people who are commercially successful (productive, useful) and people who are cultural assets. The latter is a person who emulates company values and demonstrates the kind of corporate culture the executives intend. When you have both going on, you’re an A player, and your job is infinitely more secure than those who are negative (but produce well) or those who are positive (but aren’t doing well at their jobs).
- Participate. Whether it’s a potluck, a birthday celebration, a charity volunteering day, or an “optional” meeting, be a part of it. Every interaction that shows your full engagement further enhances your image in the minds of managers.
- Find a mentor. Choose someone at least one level above you who is not your manager and ask for advice, coaching and ideas. Tell them about your long-term objectives and what you think you need to learn. Then be open to what they tell you—don’t judge the advice as good or bad or get defensive, just accept it as one (respected) person’s perspective on how to succeed.
- Get over yourself. You might think you’re the best writer/marketer/programmer ever, but I assure you you’ll be a bit embarrassed by the quality of work you’re doing now when you have another decade of experience (and mistakes) under your belt. Simply aim to do the best work you can, given your current skills and experience. Humble yourself to learning, believing absolutely that the work you do now will be the worst work you’ll ever do in the future.
- Aim to be the dumbest person in the room. Surround yourself with smart people, celebrating the fact that you’re the most junior person on a project or team. Figure out what other folks are doing well and learn from them. This is critical for executives, too—the best ones surround themselves with a team that is smarter than they are in each functional area of expertise.
- Practice, practice, practice. Some say mastery comes with 10,000 hours of practice—so don’t imagine you’re a master of anything until you’ve actually logged that many hours on the job. Some say mastery in a subject area means reading 19 books on the topic area—so dive in, create your own curriculum, and ask mentors what they think you should be reading. Experiment as much as possible, such as trying out software, taking online tutorials, researching on your own time or asking your boss for the latitude to try a new approach to a familiar project.
- Invest in yourself. Sign up for the company’s 401(k) plan if possible. Live beneath your means, which typically means 20% of your income to savings or debt reduction (such as credit cards and student loans), 50% of your income for necessities (rent, utilities, car, food), and 30% of your income for everything else (clothing, entertainment). The way you lived at your parents’ house (or even in college) is probably a more comfortable lifestyle than you’re going to be able to afford on your first salary. Get used to it and figure out how to make it work.
- Balance your health. It’s too easy to get sucked into the “I don’t have time to work out/ eat breakfast/ pack a lunch” vortex that packs on pounds that will be increasingly hard to shed the older you become. Finding your rhythm with a workout routine and nurturing a passion for healthy eating (which means learning how to cook well) will last you a lifetime.
- Break habits. Whether it’s biting your nails, hitting your snooze alarm, smoking or staying up late to watch the boob tube, keep in mind that your habits today won’t get you where you want to be tomorrow. Cultivate the habits you want to keep decades from now.
- Tidy up. Drive a clean car. Keep your desk organized. Don’t let dirty laundry or dishes fester. These things erode your state of mind and also speak to your overall health and ability to manage your life. Managers tend to see a messy desk as a sign of a disorganized employee, so taking the time to create a sharp work space (even if that means spending five extra minutes to file papers before you head home for the evening) will communicate more about your professionalism and polish.
- Expand your network. Join a professional organization (many companies will pay for all or a portion of your dues), make contacts and follow up with these people. Volunteer with these organizations to grow these relationships. You won’t know many people in the working world after just one or two jobs in your first years out of college, but those you do know are your ticket to the next opportunity.
BONUS: “Everything said after you break a promise is an excuse; everything you say before you break a promise is an explanation.” If you’re going to miss a deadline or be late to a meeting—anytime you are going to fail to meet expectations—it’s far better to approach the person immediately, give them a reason and a new promise of when it can be done. Then stick to that new deadline as if your life depends on it.
So that’s it – my 25 tips for professionals under 25. What would you add to this list? What has helped you succeed? Leave a comment below to share your knowledge.