Starting from scratch in the professional world in your 20s is HARD.  I suspect it’s a difficult transition for everyone, but especially for those of us who just have no idea what to expect, how to act, how to dress, or how to react in a variety of settings.  There are some things that I’m sorry to report you’re just going to have to make a practice of feeling out along the way.  But on the flip side, there are certain habits that you can form that will help you navigate the largest of challenges with confidence over and over again. 

Hi, I’m Madelynne and I write for aspiring and busy young professionals who just do not have time to mess around.  Search my channels for everything from lifestyle advice, to home hacks, financial tips, career and office must-knows, and more!  I specifically write for young adults from underprivileged backgrounds who are ready to shatter their dreams,  covering all of the tiny details I wish I’d known 10 years ago. 

You guys know that I’m all about finding the best version of YOU above all else.  These tips aren’t just about office life, but that setting definitely applies.  For the most part, this advice is about crushing every encounter every time, whether you’re an employee or a boss, on a team or work solo, with the bros or on a date.  All it boils down to is you’ve got this! with a little help, if you need.

So let’s get down to business.

Be early, but don’t stay too late.  This is all about setting boundaries, and I actually learned it from a book all called How to Become CEO.  Showing up to work 30 minutes early each day can have a super positive effect on the amount of work you get done, and especially the mindset you have about work throughout the day if you’re able to use that time preparing and planning.  But staying late perpetually leads to poor work/life balance, and people’s assumptions of you will change.  At first impression you might think that staying late to work on projects screams ‘go-getter’, but in reality your colleagues will value your own time more if you value it yourself, and will feel more special when you do devote time to them or your projects, knowing how valuable that time is.  

Try not to take work home, either, for the exact same reasons.  If necessary, start early the next morning. 

 

Master organization.  Yes, I know.  As a Madelynne, I’m always going to say this is most important.  But seriously, check the interwebs, it really is!  Staying organized is key to success in any profession.  This applies to having a clean desk that says ‘busy’ but not ‘overwhelmed’, an efficient organization system on your computer so both you and others (on shared drives) can easily find what you/they need, and an efficient and highly-used calendar so you’re always perfectly on time to any meeting and well-prepared for it. 

This is a habit that hurts more and more to fix the older you get, so be good to yourself and start to develop it now!  No age is too late, but it’s never too early, either. 

 

 Speak with purpose.  Which begins with listening intently.  It helps to think about percentages or ‘turns’ in a day.  If you were only physically able to speak 5% of your day, would speaking now and using up that time be worth it?  Usually not.  Or, if you only had one or two turns per day when you could speak, is what you’re about to say in this meeting worth using a turn for?  If you even have to ask yourself, the answer is almost always ‘no’.  Listen more.

But on the flip side of that, when you do speak, it will be with purpose.  Questions I like to ask myself before interjecting include:

  • What value add does this bring to the discussion?  Am I just trying to add to the discussion because I feel I should?
  • Will others in the room find this valuable, or just use it as a jumping board to interject themselves?
  • If I were to not say/ask this, would there be any negative consequences? 
  • Is there any element to this that I should run by a colleague or do more research on first?

You’ll quickly learn that most of what you say in meetings does not bring value at the moment, but you’ll also quickly learn what does bring value to meetings and how much more appreciative your colleagues and bosses will be each time you do speak.  Back to percentages, if you speak less but 90%+ of the time it’s truly meaningful, your bosses will take notice fast.  On the flip side, if 15% of what you say is truly meaningful, they might talk about you as being a nice person around the office or have great personality, but that’s not (all of) what we’re going for in our rise to the top. 

 

Find a mentor (or two!).  I’m not really sure why having one mentor is the norm.  I do understand that it’s a time commitment if you get a good one, and ideally you’re choosing something that is an amazing professional and human being.  But I find a lot of value in having two – even if one of them is more of a part-time mentor.  

Finding one (or two) can be intimidating but not if you look at it as part of your job.  If you must tell yourself that you will absolutely fail in life if you don’t find one, do that.  Or, just treat it like a literal job and act like you won’t get a paycheck if you don’t nail one down.  It’s a very similar process to job hunting, so that can be an effective mindset. 

Once you identify someone you think could be a great candidate, write him/her/them an email to the tune of:  “Hi Tim, I’m curious if you have a mentee right now?  I’ve been on the hunt for a mentor and from the outside looking in I think you’d be a great fit for me.  If you happen to have the time and aren’t already taken, I’d love to grab coffee or lunch one day next week to chat and see if you agree.  No hard feelings if not.  Best, Madelynne”  Be precise on the timeframe you give to meet so that it doesn’t become a “yeah sure at some point I’ll make time for you never” kind of thing.  Although anyone you ask to be your mentor should be the kind of person who is with it enough to always set dates/time automatically when they make commitments, in my humble opinion.

If he/she/they say no, thank them for their consideration and move on to the next option.  I recommend identifying three but only email/court them one at a time.  That way, if one says no you’re not floundering under feelings of rejection to find the next – it’s far easier to just move on.  Not that you should feel rejected, because a ‘no’ is more likely an indication of their bandwidth than anything.

 

Learn when to say ‘no’, or at least not to volunteer.  I often see people tell young professionals in their 20s that they should always say yes to every project, usually meaning they should get comfortable with moving outside of their comfort zone.  That’s great and all, but it ignores two even more important elements of professionalism – specialization and valuing time.  

To the first point, I often see young professionals scooping up a ton of new projects within the first few months of a new job, more often than not because they took that first position not because they love it but just to ‘get in’.  They want to work on other things because they don’t want to do what they were hired to do.  But what this leads to is being half good at 1.5-2 jobs.  I highly recommend waiting a requisite 6 months on a new job before taking on any additional responsibilities.  Get exceptionally good at what you were hired to do – that’s what bosses notice.  All the other kids are doing a million projects half good, you should be doing one or two projects with distinction.  Humbly, of course, but with mastery level skills.  

To the second point, I’ve already said that if you don’t value your own time then no one will.  Once you move to the point where you have mastered your main responsibilities, make sure you’re only taking on projects that you can comfortably complete within your 40 hours (or whatever time frame you work in).  Unless the project has a very direct connection with a promotion – and I don’t mean you kidding yourself that extra experience in anything has to be positive – then you should learn to say ‘no’.

And part of this is learning to say ‘no’ to yourself before you cheerily volunteer when the whole office or all attendees of a meeting are asked who wants to take over something.  In fact, I think the answer should always be to stay quiet and at least take time to think it over, do research or calculations on what it should take to complete it, and/or ask a colleague about it.  You can always follow up with an email if you good about it later and say, “Hi Boss, if no one else has volunteered for XYZ, I’d love to take it on.  Do you have time to chat about it tomorrow?”  Or if you’re really feeling pressured to volunteer for any reason but would rather not, at least wait and then email, “Hi Boss, while I don’t feel I’m the best person for the job because [I don’t currently have the bandwidth to devote to it/I don’t have the technical expertise/(whatever sounds best to you)], I’m willing to take on XYZ project if you need/no one else has volunteered.  Just let me know and we can set something up to chat further.”  The few times I’ve sent my boss a similar email this year, someone else has always volunteered before me (phew!). 

 

Ask for ‘details’ to other offices.  I’m unsure how popular of an idea this is in the private sector, but in government work it’s a relatively common concept.  People from certain offices go on detail to other offices for anywhere from a few weeks or a few months or even up to two years.  This helps them get to know other parts of large agencies, which makes them more valuable employees overall.  I highly recommend doing this when you can.

This could look very different in the private sector, but with the same results.  Maybe there’s a sort of sharing that could be done between your current office and another office.  Especially now that so many of us telework, it’s easy to work more on a projects-with-deadlines basis.  Ask to spend a certain percentage of your time working with another team or office, and you’ll not only learn about another part of the company which is super valuable, but also receive training in how they do their work, will become close to other people in the organization which is important to growing your network, will be able to attend their meetings and branch out further, and will have so many more chances to shine.

Make sure your boss knows that you’re only aiming to become a more well-rounded employee and not job-hunting.  But the right intentions should shine through easily, and your boss will appreciate the initiative.  Again, make sure you’re on the job bare minimum 6 months to a year before asking for this.  And avoid asking for back-to-back details!

 

Finish your more difficult or time-consuming tasks first.  And your gut is never wrong.  What you feel is the worst IS the worst, whether it defies logic or not.  Don’t waste time trying to tell yourself that you should want to get XYZ done because ABC.  Just do the worst thing first and you’ll feel so accomplished that you’ll start busting out the smaller stuff so fast your boss won’t know what hit him/her/them!

The one exception to this rule is if you’re the kind of person who needs to start out busting out a bunch of small tasks to feel accomplished enough to tackle the beast.  If you are, that’s okay!  But if you don’t consistently bust out small tasks and get right to the beast, swap tactics to the above. 

 

Build and maintain solid relationships.  You should know 5+ things about every single person that works in your office, on both a personal and professional level.  Even if it’s a large office.  It’s easy to walk in every day, interact with only those on your direct team, and go home.  But we’re not here for easy, we’re here to make waves.  So go out of your way to ask for coffee (or a virtual coffee/chat) with people you rarely cross paths with.  Be genuinely interested.  Ask about their past, their present, and their future.  Make sure you also open up and aren’t shy about sharing, but try to make it more about them than you.  If there are good vibes, go ahead and set up your next chat before you end that one, even for a month out.  

Make sure that, over time, you get close enough to both colleagues and bosses (and hopefully bosses in other offices) that you have their personal contact information when you leave the company.  And I also recommend that you send an email around your last day that includes some sort of personal contact information where they can contact you if they need you.  Lastly, I highly recommend that you go ahead and set a coffee/lunch/dinner/drinks date with several of the people you most need to keep around after you leave for roughly a month or so after your departure, so that you don’t say you’ll keep in touch but don’t.  Creating that forced accountability will do numbers to sustaining your network over time.

 

Update your résumé and LinkedIn regularly.  As in, weekly or monthly at the most.  There are often so many details and so many small projects that you won’t think about later that you might add in the moment.  Also, just take the time to research how job listings for your future desired position are wording the skills and competencies they are seeking, and adjust the wording of your resume to that, as much as possible.  This exercise will also keep you in the mindset of not straying from your goals, and knowing when to and when to not volunteer for side projects. 

 

 Dress consistently daily.  As in, stop showing up super fly one day and barely-showered the next.  Take the time to figure out your most effective and efficient morning routine (including if you telework but have to take Zoom calls) and get super good at it.  If you have the option to style your hair several different ways that look ‘good’, choose the one you can do the fastest that looks exactly the same every time.  If you’re awful about running out the door late without ironing your shirt every morning, then set up a system or habit that ensures that shirt is ironed with a weekly batch or the night before or whatever it takes.  If you’re inconsistent about lipstick, stop wearing it altogether.  And definitely go for a natural makeup look if you’re wearing it!  

The point is, successful business people ‘hack’ their look and just aim for consistency.  They streamline the getting ready and looking fab process just like they do their business processes.  Now is the time to go through the growing pains of what your streamlined process looks like to you, but definitely get going on it!

I hope these ten tips have you excited to jump in.  Hopefully some you’ve already implemented and the rest will be easy to start.  If you need to write yourself discreet sticky notes for your desk or laptop, please feel free!  I used to have one to remind me to listen more and talk less, and it definitely helped.  I hope you see the same success starting tomorrow.

If you have any questions about a related topic, please shoot them to ideas@helloascent.com What you need to know is exactly what I want to write about!  Don’t be shy – I appreciate your feedback.

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