Great news! You landed the job ― perhaps your first or second job out of school ― and you’re excited to start your career. But in a turbulent time when many companies are still remote, and even your managers may be experiencing burnout ― how do you stand out as a top performer?
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Focus on your strengths
As a negotiation trainer who works with thousands of professionals every year, I often encounter women who introduce themselves by apologizing for what they don’t have. “I’m new here, and I don’t have experience, but…”
Short on experience? Perhaps. But that doesn’t mean you’re short on value. Even at the beginning of our careers, part of our success is learning to tell the story of who we are and what kinds of problems we solve in the world.
When I interviewed for the job I hold now, as a Columbia Law School clinical professor, I was one of the youngest people in the candidate pool. So I didn’t focus on my experience; instead, I talked about my long-term vision for the program. I told the committee that as someone who had very recently been in the students’ position, I would know best what they needed and how to deliver it. And I sold them on my energy.
So instead of apologizing for a lack of experience, focus on what you do have. You bring fresh eyes to a problem. You may have leadership or management experience from leading student organizations. Your education is more recent in certain areas. You may have sharp technology skills.
Build from your strengths, and you’ll set the stage to bring value from day one.
As a junior person in the workforce, you may be given a smaller piece of the puzzle to work on: for example, instead of setting company strategy for a product, you’re walking into individual stores and seeing how it looks on the shelf. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn about the bigger picture. It all comes down to asking good questions.
As a junior food and beverage employee, Sherri didn’t spend a lot of time in the boardroom – instead, she was in the car and in local stores talking to managers. She didn’t just look at her product on the shelf. She also asked a lot of open questions. How did stores make decisions about which products went where? What did they like and not like in a product? What was performing for them, and what suggestions did they have? Every single one of these interactions helped Sherri learn data points that she fed back to senior management. And now, as a VP of Business Development, she uses what she learned in those stores every day to make deals and set strategy.
Be curious and ask questions. You never know where it will take you.
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Make yourself visible and offer value
Remote work can be hard on junior employees. It’s challenging to build meaningful connections ― and in some cases, even to get the work we need to advance.
Ayisha had been working at her company a year. She started remotely, and wasn’t being fully utilized. There were days when she didn’t have much to do. But she kept reaching out and offering her help. Every week, she would send her manager a note saying, “I have time; please let me know what I can do for you!”
One day, she changed her strategy. She emailed the manager and said, “I see this piece of business just came in. You’ll probably need someone to write the background memo. Why don’t I do that this week?” This time, she got an immediate positive response. She got specific about the value she could offer and made it easy for her manager to say yes.
The fact is that even senior managers may be struggling to balance everything during the pandemic – including forming relationships with their newest employees. So you may have to help them by making yourself visible. If your company has informal events, show up and get to know people. And if you’re looking to work on a particular assignment, or with a particular team, figure out what you can offer and ask.
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Pay attention to the details
Leaders pay attention to the details ― and that starts from the moment you arrive at your first job.
When you arrive, pay close attention to the people around you. Learn your manager’s style. What matters to them? And how do they like to communicate? As a junior employee, Jeeyoon noticed that at the start of meetings, her manager often spent a minute searching email to find the document they were discussing. So she made a practice of sending it once again right at the start of the meeting. Her manager noticed this and appreciated her initiative. Eventually, Jeeyoon was helping her manager run their meetings.
And pay attention to the details of what you produce. No matter how great your ideas, they won’t receive the proper credit if they’re delivered with typos, or after the deadline. Reserve an hour before the deadline to look over what you’ve produced and make sure you have the details right.
Build your committee
Finally, every woman in the workplace should have what I call a “committee.” Your committee is your sounding board, your small group of advisors that you can count on for wise counsel. And contrary to public opinion, you shouldn’t just listen to the people “above” you. Yes, I would find at least one senior person who you connect with and start building a relationship. You also want to find someone who’s at the level right above where you are. In my first job out of graduate school, I asked management who the superstars were at the level above me. I got to know one of those people – his name was Owen – and picked his brain from time to time. He made my work significantly better.
But also recognize that you have a lot to learn from everyone, including those at your level and those whom you supervise. Get to know your colleagues and be generous in helping them when needed. Be the person who amplifies the voices, ideas and accomplishments of others – it helps the team and it will reflect positively on you. And if you have an assistant, chances are that person has been at the company far longer than you. They are an expert with a wealth of knowledge, and they can help you shine in your job. Respect them, solicit their advice, and help them when you can.
Start your career by creating strong relationships at every level ― with managers, colleagues, assistants and clients. In doing so, you’ll stand out as a leader, because knowing your value is about solving problems while helping others around you succeed, too.
Alexandra Carter is a professor at Columbia Law School, a world-renowned negotiation trainer for the United Nations, and the Wall Street Journal best-selling author of Ask for More: 10 Questions to Negotiate Anything.