Six pieces of advice for early-career professionals

I have often reflected over the past 10 years or so, about what I have learned in the workplace and the vast chasm that often occurs between school/undergraduate studies and the real world of work.

I want today’s students to be more prepared than I was. That’s not to say I haven’t flourished in the workplace, I thank my quick learning, my keen observation skills and my flexibility in enabling me to fill the gap. I also suspect that today’s school leavers are much savvier than I was due to the dawn of the digital age, which makes people more connected than ever.

Some things I have learned long ago, others I have learned more recently, some the easy way, and others the hard way. The following 6 pieces of advice I have learned through the sum of all my roles, starting with my high-school retail job, my uni jobs, and my corporate career.

1. If you want something, you have to go and get it
I’m not talking about going to the supplies cupboard to get new batteries for your mouse (but you’ll have to do that too). To some of you seasoned workplace veterans, this might seem obvious. I’m talking about the skills you need to figure out how to get where you need to, or want to, go. If you want to progress in your role, the organisation, or your career, you need to map out the journey. What are your goal for this year, and in 3 and 5 years’ time? Now map out the steps to get there. If you don’t know, find someone you feel safe asking – think a successful 30-something you look up to, your favourite uni tutor or a colleague you trust.

2. You won’t be respected
At first. You can expect people to be pleasant to you, and the workplace to be free from harassment, but don’t expect anyone to respect your qualifications or ability to contribute to the workplace. You’ll have to prove it. This doesn’t work both ways – if the person is more experienced than you, or has been there longer, you should be clear that you respect them. It seems like a silly power play, but its a safe way to operate at first, to avoid any ‘career-limiting moves’.

3. Your workplace/the industry won’t keep pace with developments as fast as you want it to
Compared to you, who is relatively young and fresh, you may feel like you’ve become part of a slow-moving beast. In order to adopt new technologies, processes and improvements, the organisation needs to consider costs, benefits, risks and sustainability. Depending on the number of people involved, it could take what seems like forever! It will feel frustrating and you won’t be able to change it in the short term or by yourself. Don’t become disillusioned, just do what you can to make a difference – research something, write a journal, talk with colleagues or others in your network – you never know, you may start a conversation that leads to something awesome.

4. Not everyone’s a soul who’s intentions are good
I became disillusioned early in my working life when a colleague stole my quality-improvement idea from under my nose and it was my manager who allowed it to happen. I felt powerless to complain as a company had just bought out the business and I felt lucky to have my job. I ended up leaving the role out of disgust of the manager, and it set me on a course of moving ‘sideways’ into another part of the sector. I often wonder what would’ve been if I’d ‘risen above’ and had the confidence that my time to shine would come. At the same time, I try not to have any regrets as one the whole I’ve been lucky and successful since.

5. You’ll have to ‘manage up’
What’s this, you say? In order to get you work done, or have it go anywhere, you won’t just need to take direction from above, you’ll have to take them on the journey. I think this one’s a beast in itself and I’ll talk about it another time!

6. There is still nothing like the human element.
In today’s digital world, there are many ways to communicate online – by all means show the world what you care about by Tweeting, connect with colleagues on Linked In, and illustrate your worldly insights on your very own blog. But if you don’t know how to, or don’t want to talk to real people face to face, you risk never making memorable connections that may one day land you your real job or ultimate workplace achievement (that presentation, that deal or that reputation)’. Work on your conversation skills, and stay in touch – in person, and online.

Best of luck to all those finishing uni this month and hoping to embark on a rewarding career!

4 thoughts on “Six pieces of advice for early-career professionals

  1. This is a great list for people who are just starting out their careers, and even those who are more experienced. My favourite is No.1 ‘If you want something, you have to go and get it’. The drive to do this is something you will need throughout your entire career regardless of your position, and even in your personal life!

    The other advice I like to give to people is ‘turn mundane tasks into an opportunity to learn and build relationships’. Reality is that as a graduate you may have to take on tasks that are not always interesting, however, this is a good opportunity to ‘learn the ropes’ and build a diverse range of skills. Best of all, you will meet new people and make you presence known in the workplace. This will come in handy down the track.


  2. Thanks for the post Hayley. In my current role, I have just started mentoring a new graduate. I have been thinking about how to carefully word my advice to her so this post is incredibly timely. And while I have been thinking I was reflecting on words of wisdom you said to me in my early career, and everything here is so spot on and consistent with what you’ve said to me in the past. I will always be grateful for those words.

    I think the things I would add is
    – Find a mentor. Someone who you trust respect and can ask all your questions, without fear of feeling stupid.
    – Develop a good network. Finding other grads in my field made life a lot more bearable.
    – Accept that you will be bad at lots of things and you will probably be told that a lot. As a grad, a lot of the things you do are the first time doing it. And you will constantly be told how to do these things better. It can be frustrating and overwhelming – especially if you are not used to receiving this type of feedback, But there is no way to learn unless you honestly suck at something at least once.
    – Accept that you are great at other things (even if no one will acknowledge it… yet). Similar to respect, people are going to underestimate what you have to offer. Just look for opportunities to prove yourself and be flexible in your approach.
    – Accept that your first job (and probably your second.. or third) is probably not going to be the best fit. This was certainly true for me and a lot of other people I know. Take it as an experience and learn from it.
    – Office dynamics and the power of interpersonal relationships. I always thought a lot of this stuff existed in bad tv shows and movies. As a grad I naively thought people out grew this type if behaviour and came to work to, you know, work. But the impact of office dynamics is incredible and are important to be aware of.

    As new graduate there are just so many things to learn – everything from applying the theory you learnt at uni in a new way to learning how to be a young professional in a business environment to finally learning what all those other microsoft applications do.

    It can be an incredibly overwhelming, but it is an exciting and interesting time too. Work helps define who I am, and I honestly feel my experiences as a grad helped me learn how to be a better colleague, friend and worker.


    1. Thanks for those comments Sally, and congrats on becoming a mentor! Even at my stage of career (established) I am going to be seeking out a mentor too, and that is great advice for early professionals too! Congrats on becoming a mentor yourself.


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