Lessons Learned from My First Decade of Work - Align, don't hustle

Updated: Jan 23

I turn 29 this month….a milestone for me as I realise that I’ve been on my own career journey and some reflection on what’s happened feels timely.

I’m in the process of planning a workshop for early careerists who are navigating the next steps of their professional future. Some of what I share may resonate with some readers and for others it’s just not on your radar yet; that’s fine as we all start our journey at a different point. My most profound realisation is that I’ve completed the first decade of my professional life.

What a journey that has been!

I have worked in a range of industries: Private Sector, Non-Governmental Organisations, Third Sector, Social Care, Education (Schools), Education Consulting, Coaching and Social Justice. These experiences on reflection have given me a profound sense of gratitude & humility. I’ve had the opportunity to experience organisational culture in a number of ways whilst in learning and development mode; Small Medium sized Enterprises, cash & resource strapped Third Sector to Global Businesses.

My ten years has not been wasted and I’ve learned more than can be captured here in this blog! Here; I’ll focus on some of my 'stand out' learning moments and hope that it sparks a light in you that says keep going. Earn, learn and move on While this seems obvious to many, it can be easy to sacrifice learning opportunities for the safety of a regular pay check. The lure of high financial rewards that allows you to ‘live your best life’ can be very attractive and seductive. The mundanity of routine, no added value and little opportunity for autonomy or innovation may seem attractive. You need to be careful and consciously think about the degree to which it might restrict what you have to offer to that next career/employer….short term joy long term impact! Keep your learning head fresh! At the beginning, I assessed every single opportunity by asking myself ‘what can I learn here, what skills will this job give me that I can use in the future?’ My strategy of focusing on transferable skills has worked very well and has allowed me to make steady progress in my professional development; each job being a step forward in my personal and professional development. Everything and everyone is your teacher. It’s easy to get caught up in the frustration of underperforming and unsupportive colleagues and poor management. It was incredibly difficult to navigate, however these experiences provided me a point of reference to acknowledge and understand the power of encountering great managers and peers. At the end of those ‘not so great’ experiences I had much greater clarity and knowledge about what I didn’t want to repeat in my own practice and importantly where I needed to go to get the skills/experience I needed to add to my toolkit. Diversify your work experiences While I started my career in education and social care, I did joined 4 different SMEs. These organisations helped me to identify my work tribe, grow my skills and find my work passion. As a new graduate we are more interested in rushing directly to put into practice what we’ve spent the last 4 years learning about. Building a diverse career experience will not only prepare you to be change oriented but it may just bring out a strength, skill set and passion you never would have known you had. Using myself as an example, Social Care has always been my career path of choice but I’ve found myself leveraging my partnerships and communication skills for organisational stakeholder engagement, in ways that make my experience and perspective unique and valuable; I created my own niche skill set. I would never have been able to embark on my freelance journey without being open to those diverse career experiences early on. I also believe the diversity of cross functional experiences I’ve had, have also made me more successful because I have empathy and an informed perspective from different areas of the business and how they connect or are co-dependent. The last 16 months spent freelancing, have been be one of the best moments of my professional life, despite the challenges of doing so in the midst of a pandemic. When I experienced a covid19 redundancy at the end of being furloughed, I was forced into being open to new challenges, to shake things up and take some calculated risks. I’m glad that I did take those risks - they have propelled me into my now, and will I believe become easier as I progress in my career. Why; because I’ve learned how to be flexible and responsive to what’s going on around me early, rather than purely reacting…let’s face it though, from time to time things just happen outside of your control and we have to exercise resilience and with good support; press on. As we get older, our responsibilities increase and the stakes get higher so it’s normal that we become more risk averse. Starting young helps to make challenges less daunting later. Gaps vs strengths. We can spend a lot of time working on our weaknesses to close developmental or skills gaps that we have. Although I agree this is important to establish a well-rounded and successful career, I think it’s even more valuable to not only fine tune your strengths but to force yourself to use them in unconventional ways. Relying solely on your strongest skills can be risky in a world of work where their usefulness is linked to your sector, the job and your own personal growth; generally estimated at 5 years.

Stephen Covey Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, talks about sharpening the saw! Seek to achieve balance and invest in all of who you are as a whole person. Actively look for opportunities to use your strengths in slightly new and unexpected ways or more specifically in new roles or departments is a great way to differentiate yourself and build a strong career profile, that allows you to move between different functions, locations etc. with only 1 degree of separation. Don’t reinvent the wheel from scratch, just look for different ways to use the same tools; embodied in you. Values. Don’t sacrifice your personal values for anyone. It’s easy sometimes for career driven people to mimic behaviours and values of those who are successful, whether they are desirable or not. We often think if they are successful, I have to be like them to get there. Although mimicking is human nature and leaders are strong examples and inspiration, it’s important to stay true to your style and your values. Find other things to mimic like processes or tactics and approaches but don’t change who you are. Personal and professional Integrity is often hard won, easily lost and hard to repair - so be clear and honest about what your hard borders are; particularly with yourself. Use your voice. I’m not one to shy away from uncomfortable conversations, especially when I’ve seen injustice at play. There are still times where I reflect; I didn’t speak up enough for myself as much as I did for others. There’s always a professional and acceptable way to approach even the most intimidating or difficult conversations provided you are respectful, professional, and you limit emotion. If you have a solid business case and you focus not only on what you want but what’s in it for the business, your manager, or your team, there’s virtually nothing you can’t ask for. Go in to every discussion or negotiation prepared for both the desired outcome and the undesired outcome. I wish I had learned this earlier in my career whether it was securing recognition or being considered for promotion, these are conversations that will only get easier with time.

Consider your path forward. Don’t shut the door on opportunity Keep in touch! Whether you are in a contract or permanent position, there will come a time when you have to say good bye. Leaving a company should never be seen as complete departure. In the future, they may one day be your customer or supplier. Therefore, it is important to stay in touch with all the companies you have been part of. It’s important to know where you want to go but reflecting on what you leave behind is key to establishing natural leadership.

When you experience challenges, consider how you can impact greater change to create opportunity for those behind you. As you progress, use your experience and seniority to leave a lasting impact. Leverage your privilege to raise other people up. It will, in the end be your greatest legacy. Ten years down and plenty more to go but it’s been one hell of a ride and I’m better for it. I can only hope my next 10 years will offer greater learning and challenges.

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