Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Advice from a big-haired career rookie

(I wrote this as an email on May 23 to close to 100 people who have influenced me during  my working years. I was so excited it got picked up by several professional publications.)

May 23 marked the 30th anniversary of my first day in the work world.

That day in 1983, I started my job as a receptionist on Capitol Hill after a local congressman hired me, sight unseen, over the phone three weeks earlier. I had a head full of big permed hair, big expectations, and little idea of what I was supposed to do as an employed and responsible adult.

Looking back, I didn't have specific career goals in mind at that point, but I did know what I was good at and the type of work I wanted to pursue. Here, 30 years later, I've been fortunate to have a rewarding career that gave me 10 great years on Capitol Hill and took me back to my home state of South Carolina for jobs that combined my love of writing, communications, and politics with my curiosity about people and places.

In 1983, I never dreamed my work would give me the chance to travel with a congressional delegation to Taiwan; raise money for causes I believe in; lobby the legislature and Congress for millions of dollars; ride in a fire truck; bike the Golden Gate Bridge; get published in national magazines; pick tobacco; work with great South Carolina mayors; have my picture taken with famous people like Tip O'Neill and Mister Rogers; visit 38 states; work on national, state, and local campaigns; stand at the podium in the White House press room; or be in the State House dome the day the Confederate flag came down.

I've figured out a few things along the way that I wish someone had told that 22-year-old with big hair walking into her first day on the job. Maybe the thoughts below will help others just starting out. I write this with huge thanks to all the bosses, mentors, friends, family, and colleagues I have had the privilege to work with and learn from over these 30 years.

1. Establish your personal brand. Decide what you want your reputation in the workplace to be, and let your actions define you. Keep promises, and make deadlines. Under-promise and over-deliver. Avoid behavior in your personal life that could hurt your professional life (even more true today with all the risks of social media in the mix). Remember that details count, especially when getting the details right sets you apart from others.

2. Seek out a mentor. I'm guessing many busy professionals may say, "I don't have time to be a mentor," but most mentor relationships happen naturally rather than being established formally. Be on the lookout for them. I bet my best mentors probably don't know they even served in that role.  

3. Keep up with the news every day. Read the paper, check news websites and blogs, listen to NPR on the way to work. Know what's in the news about your organization or industry before your boss or client asks.

4. Get away from your desk, and walk outside. Even if it's just to walk around the block or grab a sandwich, at some point during the day your brain needs natural light and a whiff of fresh air, and your body needs to stretch.

5. Plan the work before you work the plan. Having no plan gets you nowhere. Plans will change either by force or circumstance. Be flexible, but have a plan regardless of whether it's a work project, a trip, a major purchase, or an important life decision.

6. Don't pass up a chance to learn. Find out what your boss or leaders in your profession are reading (books, professional publications, websites, etc). Seek out professional development opportunities; pay for them yourself, if necessary. Join professional organizations, and get involved.

7. Go to your boss with a solution, not a problem. Your boss is solving problems all day. Make her life easier by presenting a solution when you present a problem. Even if it's not the solution that ultimately solves the problem, it keeps your boss from dreading the sight of you at the door.

8.Write thank-you and follow-up notes (handwritten, not emailed). Collect cards from people you meet at events, in meetings, or just out and about. A handwritten "nice to meet you" note will set you apart and help the people you meet remember you. Technology is good, but the personal touch still matters.

9. Travel any chance you get. Travel to small towns and big cities across the country and around the world. Don't put off travel. You'll never tell your grandchildren about that great trip you didn't take because you were too busy at work.

10. Be interested and inquisitive. Ask good questions, and ask them often. Young professionals have a great deal to offer a work environment. Speak up when you have something to offer, but remember to balance your enthusiasm with senior-level colleagues' experience.

11. Remember that everyone carries his own sack of rocks. You never know what type of personal issues the co-worker who missed a deadline is dealing with at home or with his family.

12. Create your own personal style. That doesn't mean wearing flip-flops in a formal corporate environment. However, you can set yourself apart from the pack with a twist on the ordinary. To each his own, but just find your own.

13. Stay in the loop, but avoid the gossip. Be a "boundary spanner"—someone who is respected and trusted by people in all parts and at all levels of the organization.

14. Look for "reverse mentoring" opportunities. You can be a resource to your older colleagues. Seasoned professionals can learn a great deal from their younger peers.

15. Looking busy doesn't equal being productive. The co-worker who crows about his heavy workload and long hours is probably much less productive than the one who is organized and prioritizes his days.

16. A good editor will make you shine. Don't look at having your writing edited as you would look at a teacher correcting a paper. Editing is a collaborative process, and there's always room for improvement in your writing.

17. Don't come to work sick. No one appreciates the stuffy-nosed martyr. That's why you're afforded sick days.

18. Cultivate contacts outside work. Your next job will probably come from someone you know through church, nonprofits, alumni groups, friends, and professional organizations.

19. Take risks. It's OK to mess up occasionally. No one can expect perfection. You can often learn more from mistakes than successes. Yes, really, you can.

20. Strive for work/life balance. The "balance" will probably fluctuate daily, but creative outlets, exercise, and hobbies make you a more valuable (and saner) employee.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The simple act of thank you

I recently sent out a blast email at work that had several bad links in it (operator error on my part). The email had gone to 146 people, and our tracking program told me 69 people had clicked on the link. All 69 would have found that the link went nowhere.

Only one of those 69 people let me know about the bad link. Fortunately, because of this one person, I could quickly fix my snafu, resend the email and all was well.
Later in the day I shot a quick email of thanks to the woman who had alerted me to the problem. The next day I got a very nice note back from her saying she needed that “atta boy” at the end of a rough day.

It’s that circular world of the simple act of thank you. We all need it whether we know it or not. It never gets old.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Striking a balance between routine and adventure

I've found most people either lean toward routine or lean toward adventure. I'm pretty sure I fall into the routine category. I generally take comfort in many of the consistencies in my life. Saturday mornings are the perfect example of this.

On the weekends when I am in town, nothing keeps me away from my Saturday morning routine of making a trip to the Soda City Market, picking up iced tea with a splash of simple syrup from Drip on Main Street, eating cheese grits with hot sauce from Rosso's market booth, visiting friends Sally and Stuart at their craft booths, and just enjoying the music, food and cool urban bustle that downtown Columbia has created.

After that, I head to my workout with weights class at Jamie Scott Fitness. I claim my same spot in the room knowing one of several instructors I like will be teaching the class. I chat with several people I see only at this class and line up my weights in the same order each week.

However, as I get older, I find that what gives me the most energy are those things that often fall outside of my routine…or activities that often help me find a new, and sometimes more valuable, routine.

Exercise is a perfect example of this. In recent months I've been forced to vary my exercise routine based on work and travel schedules. I've found myself choosing a workout class based on time availability rather than the type of class I prefer.

Because of this forced change in routine, I've upped my number of cardio classes, found out I really do like sweating in a hot room while doing yoga, made several new young friends while taking Pilates, and learned I have the strength and flexibility to do wall yoga with a group of college students.

When I travel, routine and consistency help ensure I'm not forgetting to pack something or do something when I'm on the road. Chargers go in one suitcase pocket, jewelry in another and snacks in another. I try to be as organized and consistent as possible in my packing to avoid late night trips to the hotel shop to buy a new charger.

But when travelling, I've also learned how important it is to break from the routine of my schedule and enjoy what's around me. If I had taken a cab instead of walked in Minneapolis, I would have missed the statue of Mary Tyler Moore flinging her hat in the air and wouldn't have stumbled on the cool mid-day market on a downtown street. If I hadn't ventured out in Seattle I would never have discovered the wonders of chocolate linguine (yes, really...it's great over ice cream!) or seen the original Starbucks.

Then sometimes, adhering to a routine can actually result in something new. I'm trying to learn to play the mandolin – a beautiful instrument that I'll never master without consistent practice alone and with others. I'm reminded of this when I get frustrated at the routine of practicing chords and scales. The consistency of these rote tasks has helped me understand the flow of the music and the nuances of this instrument so I will ultimately be able to venture out to a more creative, and adventurous, way of playing.

Adventure just for the sake of adventure isn't necessarily good, while, at the same time, routine just for the sake of routine isn't either. Like everything in life, it's all about the balance.