Nothing worth having comes easy, never mind naturally. As a coach I help people succeed at work, and this is the advice I give most often.
My journey hasn’t been straightforward.
I didn’t grow up wealthy and I didn’t go to university. Hitting my twenties, I was rebellious, directionless, cocky, and in dire need of polishing up.
But when I found myself living in a state of chaos with nothing to show for it but empty beer bottles and dirty ashtrays, I realised I wanted more. I wanted to have something to show for my life. I wanted to “make it”. I got a temping job, threw myself into every passing opportunity, impressed as many people I could, landed my first management role by 24, and have been leading teams, projects and people ever since.
Well, that’s the short version of what happened, because this post isn’t about me. My point is, I was by no means naturally gifted, nor handed opportunity on a plate. I had to learn and work at getting here.
Along the way I’ve collected a wealth of cringe-worthy memories, from mistakes and insults to telling-offs and tears. I’d like to think I’ve also achieved a lot: I’ve led large teams, I’ve been responsible for implementing organisational change nationally and globally, I’ve been trusted with millions and I’ve helped companies make millions.
But I’m most proud of having helped individuals on their own career journey.
This post recounts the career advice I’ve handed out to people most often. It’s pretty hard to give general guidance when everybody’s journey looks so different, but I’m confident each of these tips will hold for the vast majority.
1. You don’t have to rush – in fact, you shouldn’t
All too often I meet young, talented people desperate to get to whatever’s next. They want to learn something new, try something new, move to the next pay grade, secure a new title, get exposed to a new environment … and they want it now.
That kind of ambition is impressive, and I admire it, but it’s not the right way to play the long game.
If you try to move up too fast, you may succeed in the short term, but you’ll crash and burn before long. You’ll have missed out on practising and developing the essential core skills that everyone needs, as well as some specialist skills for your role.
I see this happening a lot in startups. Because these companies are often working with lower budgets than other companies, they’re open to hiring (and promoting) less experienced (aka less expensive) talent. This invariably leads to one or more of these outcomes:
- The person who has been hired/promoted eventually crumbles from the pressure.
- The company grows and realises they need a lot more than what the person is capable of, or has had the time to learn. They’re replaced with someone more experienced.
- The person – emboldened by their rapid progression – moves to another company, which expects a lot more than they know how to deliver. They fail to deliver in their new role.
Resist the temptation to climb the ladder quickly. Be patient. Seek to develop skills vs gain a speedy promotion. It’s better to have five years of minimal pay rises and become eligible for much bigger salaries in the years that follow, than it is to have lots of pay rises for the first few years of your career … and then get stuck.
Use the start of your career to practise, learn, observe, develop character and build resilience. There’s no escaping the fact that these things take time. Remember, it takes 10,000 hours to master a new skill. If you haven’t invested the time, you won’t have mastered the skill.
2. Make yourself known
How would the CEO describe you? Right now, your answer might be “I don’t know” or “they don’t know me”. My advice is to make yourself known.
Take this advice with caution – you don’t want to become somebody who always dominates the conversation or doesn’t consider others. It’s not about being the loudest person in the room, it’s about letting people know who you are.
That way, when the senior team starts thinking about what comes next, you won’t be forgotten.
I wish I could say we live in a world where merit alone gets you everywhere, but it’s not the case. The quality of your work will always be the most important thing, but if you want to progress you need to be known and taken seriously.
So how do you get noticed without taking centre stage? You can volunteer to take on a project, offer to help others, pass on feedback, listen actively and ask questions when people present, express your viewpoint via Slack, show and tell something you’ve been working on at home, share project learnings … and so on.
If I’m a senior manager somewhere and a department head puts one of their team members forward for a promotion, I expect to know who that person is already. If it’s someone I’ve rarely seen contribute, or that I didn’t even know existed, my first reaction is going to be “… Really? Why?”
I’m not saying that’s right, but it’s what happens. If you fly under the radar, you will be passed over for opportunities.
3. Job titles don’t matter as much as you think
I want to start by saying: I get it. Everyone wants to feel valued, to have a goal to work toward, to know where they fit in, to hit a career milestone, and to be able to show all of that to the outside world.
But if it was up to me, I would remove terms like “senior” and “junior” from job titles altogether, and find better ways of giving people all the above. I know from experience, however, that it doesn’t roll with everyone.
The thing I want you to understand is that it will not matter in 10, 5, even 3 years’ time. Just like whatever degree (if you have a degree) you got probably won’t matter, or already doesn’t. What counts are the skills you develop through experience, and the way you reflect on, talk about, and apply those skills to future situations. Adding the word “senior” to your title won’t necessarily make you senior. More often than not, it’s relative to the skill set in your company, and has little meaning beyond that. Equally, if you don’t have the word “senior” doesn’t mean you aren’t senior.
I’ve worked alongside Project Managers who earn £1500 a day because of their long track record of successfully managing high-profile projects and complex stakeholders – but don’t have the “S” word in their title. Trust me, they don’t lose sleep at night over it.
4. Start investing in your network
Honestly, I wish I had done more of this when I was younger. I’m easily consumed by the task at hand, so when I’m in a role, I put my head down and focus on it 100%. I also hate small talk, or dedicating my “off” hours to professional events.
But you kind of have to. Thankfully, most other people hate it too and you can learn to be good at it. I spend a lot of time coaching people on their networking strategies.
Here’s my three-pronged approach for starting to build your network:
1. Networking isn’t just mingling at events. Attend virtual talks, join LinkedIn groups, sign up to round tables, go to breakfast panels, start a MeetUp group … there are so many mediums and means of building a network, for all personality types. It just takes a bit of thought, research and time.
2. Focus on giving, not getting. You won’t build a relationship with someone if they think you’re just in it to take. With each interaction, see what you can share, learn or give. You’re probably not going to get anything from your network at the start (hence why you need to start now), but in time, the universe will give back … so focus on creating a meaningful connection. I get people wanting to “pick my brain” regularly, and I find I’m more willing to offer up my free time to those who have given me theirs, or who taught me something, or who are simply interesting and enjoyable to be around.
3. Build your own database – a personal CRM of sorts. Start with a Google Sheet, and each time you meet someone, record details (date, role, company, name, location, topics discussed, observations, ways in which you may help each other etc). Make a point of going through your sheet regularly to ensure no one has gone too long without a check-in. You have to nurture your network if you intend to rely on it later.
Having a strong network comes in use in so many ways – countless times I’ve found myself in a tricky business situation and I’ve needed to ask external people “Help, has this happened to you, what should I do?”. But equally, as well as knowledge, you’ll also rely on your network for sales, introductions, jobs etc. It takes a long time to build up a network, so start now.
5. Your own development is ultimately up to you
One of the biggest gripes I hear from employees is that they don’t get enough training and development. Although it’s true some companies aren’t very good at developing staff, it’s also true that a lot of that responsibility sits with the individual.
As a manager, there’s nothing that frustrates me more than having an employee demand training, but then observing that they’re not taking any steps (in their personal or professional life) to develop themselves. It’s not that I think it’s their job alone, or that I’m holding their training to ransom. It’s that if someone hasn’t demonstrated that they have initiative, that they’re naturally curious and motivated, that they stick things through, that they respond well to development … then I know for a fact they aren’t going to be a high-performer, and so I’m hesitant to invest time and money in them.
Compare that person with someone who does one or more of the following: completing an online coding course at night, teaching themselves a language, going to industry events or masterclasses, self-funding their own coach. That person is instantly more impressive. You bet I’m going to invest in them – I have evidence to suggest it will pay off.
Not only are you sending managers the wrong message by not developing yourself, you’re also shooting yourself in the foot. When you get to a certain point in your career, there won’t be anyone there to develop you, yet you’ll be expected to stay at the top of your game. You will have to develop yourself. If you don’t learn how to do it now, you will struggle later.
6. Act with integrity
This captures a lot, and I’m not going to beat around the bush here:
- Don’t gossip.
- Don’t discuss salary with anyone.
- Don’t bitch about colleagues.
- Don’t take cigarette breaks with colleagues because people will think you’re bitching even if you aren’t.
- Don’t make a fool of yourself or act inappropriately at work events.
- Don’t become so friendly with colleagues that you can’t maintain professional boundaries (definitely don’t shit where you eat).
- Don’t be rude or disrespectful, even if someone deserves it.
A lot of tough love here, but it’s important. I will do and give anything to my employees – I make it my mission to help them become as successful as possible in their careers, and I’ll even be there for them after they move on elsewhere. But if they do one of the above? Best-case scenario I’m no longer invested in them; worst-case scenario I will let them go.
People think they’re safe from receiving negative references, and it’s not true. The only legal requirement is that the reference is accurate. If I dismiss someone because they repeatedly bitched about a colleague and exposed confidential salary information, I will disclose this if asked by a prospective future employer.
But this isn’t why you shouldn’t do those things. You shouldn’t do them because they are bad things to do! Your character is who you are – nurture and protect it as best you can.
7. It’s hard. It gets harder, but you get better at dealing with it
Sadly, I see a lot of employees dealing with stress and anxiety. Sometimes it’s for personal reasons, sometimes it’s because of how much is thrown at them so quickly and with so little support. It’s why my first point (don’t rush) is as much a message to managers as it is to individuals.
I’d be lying if I told you it gets easier. The further you progress (whichever career path you’re on), the more that’s expected of you. Simply put, the more you earn the more you will be expected to give in return for that money.
I have enjoyed sizeable salaries in my career, but that’s come alongside sleepless nights, bouts of poor health and questionable drinking habits. It’s cost me relationships and friendships too.
Is it worth it? That’s a personal question that each of us must decide on our own.
What I can say is this: although it gets harder, you get better at dealing with it. That’s what I mean when I talk about resilience. Resilience can’t be taught, it comes as a result of exposure to and practice with difficult things. It’s a product of time.
With time you can reflect.
With reflection you gain wisdom.
With wisdom you evolve.
This evolution builds your resilience.
You can’t shortcut this process. Give yourself space to learn, reflect and evolve. Through that process you’ll gain perspective and learn how to do things better and more easily. With repetition you’ll find the things that used to upset you or stress you out no longer have that effect.
8. Worrying about your confidence is a good thing
100% of people I coach have imposter syndrome. I don’t coach anyone who thinks they’re “The Shit” because those people probably don’t think they need coaching (they do).
My post about confidence goes into detail on this topic, so I’ll ask you to read that instead of repeating myself here.
I’m including it in this list because it’s the most common reason people come to me for coaching.
If you are worried about how you’re being perceived, or that you’re being trusted with things you aren’t qualified for, or you feel nervous taking the lead in front of everyone … I’ve got good news. Not only are you perfectly normal, you’re also showing promising signs you’re on the right track.
Early in your career you should be wary of how you’re perceived – that wariness makes you coachable, and will ultimately drive you to build your confidence and be perceived in the right way.
9. You need a good manager
If you have the right manager you can achieve anything. If you have the wrong manager you will lose time and struggle with your development. It’s that black and white.
And you can do something about it.
1. Interview your future managers as much as they interview you. Don’t ask them to describe their management style, it’s a dud question and you won’t get much insight this way. Instead, ask them how they’d develop a core skill in you – and probe for specifics in their answer.
2. Invest in the relationship because it goes both ways. In order for your manager to be a good manager, you have to be a good employee. Your manager can’t help you if you won’t take feedback, or you’re only focused on your salary, or if you don’t prepare for meetings, or speak honestly about things that aren’t working. You need to learn to be a good report in the same way managers need to learn how to be good managers.
3. Cut your losses and leave if you’re working under someone who isn’t a good manager. That doesn’t mean “Cat said to run away as soon as your manager did something you didn’t like”, but if you’ve given feedback constructively, spoken to other senior staff in the company, and then waited it out – and you’re still not getting the development you need – then it might be time to consider moving on.
10. Think about what you’re willing to suffer for
Gone are the days where you took a job for life. Now your options really are limitless. “You can do anything you set your mind to!” comes across as cheesy, but it’s true. And that’s fucking scary because it means if you aren’t happy, if you aren’t succeeding, if you want to be doing X but you’re doing Y … then that’s on you.
I get a lot of people to read this Mark Manson article. I love it. It’s so easy to ask someone what they want from life … to be rich, to start a company, to make a difference, to help people, to be great at tennis … everyone has their own answer. It’s important to think about what makes you happy. But it’s equally important to ask yourself what you’re willing to suffer for. Do you want to be a Founder so much that you’re willing to be poor for ten years, ask everyone you know for money, sacrifice partners and children, or work 18 hours a day for the rest of your life? If the answer is no, then you may want to be a Founder, but you don’t want it enough.
And that’s okay.
Life is short, and each day is a delicate balance between what you want and what you can give. As Mark Manson says, “happiness requires struggle”.
You don’t need to know the answer right away, but you do need to start thinking about it. It will shape your future.