Self Development

My Top 5 Pieces of Early Career Advice

Early career days can be tricky as you learn to navigate the corporate world. Here are my top 5 lessons learned.

A few months ago, I took a train to Rotterdam with some friends and we happened to sit next to a young guy who was reading “The Culture Map” (I recommend that book for people working in big multinational companies).

We then started chatting and found out he was a few years younger than us at the beginning of his career. Fresh from a British university, he caught the opportunity and got into a big Dutch bank’s graduate program.

He was uncertain, like all of us at our first job experience. But you could tell he was enthusiastic about the future of this career and willing to push for it. Somehow he connected some dots from our conversation and found me on Linkedin. Today, I’ve seen that he got promoted to a permanent position.

This took me back to remember my first promotion from a contractor position to a permanent employee. Oh my, the joy!

Rachel from Friends happy shouting oh my god.

I was a bit older than average (it took me a while to find my way around life after uni, but that’s a story for another post). I had just moved to a new country and took a 3 month fixed-contract job in a call centre. Not my dream job but I was starting to run out of money, so… 🤷

They hired 30 people and told us that there were only 5 permanent contracts available after the 3 months. The pressure was on.

I was the second person to get swtiched to a permanent contract one month later. So there I was, answering calls about pension products for a huge multinational bank but working as a contractor. When the “real employees” of the bank would visit or email us, they acted so superior and cocky.

A year and half later, I got offered an official job to become a “real employee” of the bank and move to the headquarters office. You can imagine my excitment and extreme sense of accomplishment. That’s the feeling I imagine the boy on the train was feeling today.

My Top 5 Lessons Learned

So here are the top 5 things I learned from those days in hindsight. And I hope anyone starting a career could benefit from them.

1 – Raise Your Hand for Any Opportunity

Of course, I’m not talking about offering to bring the coffees everyday or doing someone else’s job. I’m talking about exploring as many areas as possible.

Don’t be afraid to jump in on projects that might be great learning experiences for you. You will meet people (networking is key, see point 4) and you will learn what are the things you hate and the things you love. What are you good at and what needs improvement.

If you stick to the one thing you were hired to do or you feel comfortable with, you will miss out on so many opportunities and on your own self-discovery.

2 – Invest in Your Mind

I know you’re out of uni, you wanted to throw your books out the window so many times and you think that from now on you’ll never have to study again. Wrong.

If you don’t like reading, listen to podcasts. If you don’t like classrooms, opt for webinars and on-demand learning platforms such as Coursera or Pluralsight. But do not lie back and relay on that fresh degree. It will become outdated really soon. Specially on today’s world where technology develops at the speed of light.

Also, the skills you learn in the academic world are often not in sync with the skills you need on the professional world. I know the temptation to spend those first paychecks on a vacation or a new phone is strong, but make the wise choice and invest in your knowledge.

3 – Be Patient

You may feel unique and special. Yes, you are unique. However, in the corporate world you are another person in the race. There are others who have been running for longer, and often there are politics, budgets and orders from higher management that you are not aware of.

The way promotions are decided is a mystery. What I learned as an almost certainty is that you most probably won’t get promoted when you feel you’re ready. You’ll get it way later. If you think you’ve mastered your work in 9 months to a year, and maybe you actually did, start discussing next steps but don’t despair and be patient. The recognition might come a year later.

I don’t know why our generation is always in a rush. I am very impatient, and will start browsing job offers on Linkedin the moment I don’t feel appreciated or bored. But really, an older manager once told me “your career is a marathon, not a sprint” and he was right. I don’t recommend hopping on and off companies just out of impatience. Moving is good but not every year, as you will have to build all of your network and reputation again.

We have plenty of time, someone who starts their career at 24 years old is expected to work until 67 (maybe more), that’s 43 years! By the time they are 30 they will have worked only 14% of their career. Put it in perspective when getting impatient and do not compare with others as it will never be a like-with-like comparison. We all have different skills, personalities, capabilities and backgrounds.

4 – Relationships are key

If you’re an introvert shy person, work on overcoming that. You have to be out there, you have to be seen and you have to be likeable to the point that people trust you or want to work with you. You never know how teams might get re-organised , who could become your next boss or what will be the next role you want to move into. So, keep that network as broad as possible and maintain good relationships with everyone.

Next time you get that happy-hour drinks or corporate party invite, accept it and wear your warmest smile. (If you are really an introvert who would socialise against your will, then pick these ocassions wisely and check if management is attending before accepting 😉).

Another great option is to find a mentor. If there is someone more senior that you admire, drop them an email and schedule a chat over coffee. They’ll be most likely flattered and willing to have a chat. They can give you insights on the organisation and, if both of you “click”, they might even want to sponsor you and introduce you to other key people.

5 – Be Ready To Make Sacrifices

Most people want to have a cool job and financial independence. But not everyone is willing to suffer through 60-hour work weeks, long commutes, obnoxious paperwork, to navigate arbitrary corporate hierarchies and the blasé confines of an infinite cubicle hell. You need to put this into account. You won’t “make an impact” every single day. Some days you will type emails all day, for example. Other days you might have to get a silly presentation ready because your boss said so. It’s normal. It’s part of the game.

People don’t know the many risky decisions you need to take (this may even mean relocating to a new city or country for some of us; or planning a career switch); they don’t see the sacrifice, and often don’t understand the delayed gratification necessary to achieve goals. Don’t expect anything to fall on you magically just because you are you and that’s your power. Every thing you’ll achieve, you’ll have to work for.

I understand that this might not be advice for everyone. I’ve spent my career working in big banks and multinational financial institutions. And althought not everyone wants to work in the big grey corporate world; still I hope at least 1 or 2 tips resonate and help. 

What is your main struggle navigating the early career days? And if you already climbed the ladder, what would you do differently?

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