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15 Pieces of Advice From My 20’s That Stand the Test of Time

Universal, genuinely helpful pieces of advice that are immediately applicable and pay dividends later are tough to summarize.  “Best pieces of advice” can seem too generic to fit an immediate, specific situation. And explicit guidance for a unique challenge is often narrow.  That said, we’ve gathered our best insights and given it a shot.

See what applies to you now.  Read the context. If the advice doesn’t apply, file it away.  Or better yet, pass it onto a colleague. Following are lessons that have stood the test of time…we look forward to hearing yours.

Never pose a problem without a solution (or three).  Picture this; you are sitting in a London taxi on your way from the client to the hotel after a 16 hour day.  You have 10 minutes with the most senior person on the project. To make conversation, you mention you are disappointed in the way a decision is being communicated to your client.   Your colleague looks at you and asks “How would you communicate it?” You are now thrilled someone wants your opinion, but at a loss for words because you hadn’t thought that far ahead.  Opportunity lost. The partner goes onto say “I can’t stand it when people pose problems and don’t have solutions” Not good – obviously directed toward you in the most helpful way possible.  And yes, that is how I learned never to pose a problem without potentially offering a solution. Solutions show you are engaged, thinking of the various dynamics and a problem solver. Always have one (or three).

Six months or a year is insignificant relative to a 30-year career.  While it can seem devastating to have to wait six more months for the plum assignment or to be promoted, don’t compromise long-term success for short-term progression.  Six months is a very short time to hone your skills and be extra prepared for your next step. To keep the longer term objectives top of mind, I latched onto the “5-5-5” framework early in my career.  I look at how every decision will impact me in five days, five months, and five years and then consider my options. This helps keep the immediate and mid-range consequences top of mind.

Overinvest in “new”-  new skills, new job, new clients and new relationships. Throughout your career, you will have to make decisions for when to “over-invest”- work harder than it may seem necessary to learn something.  Over-investing pays higher dividends when it is new. You learn more. You develop stronger relationships more rapidly. You establish yourself as a quick study.

Say “yes” early and often.  At some point early in your career, there will be a project, a client or a task that is a necessary evil or that you are just unsure about taking.  You can dodge it for only so long. Instead of making up excuses, embrace it and identify what you can learn from it. Say yes. Do it enthusiastically.  And learn something from the experience. Early in your career, you have more flexibility, and no one is expecting you to know all the ropes. Saying yes broadens your knowledge, perspective, and skills.  Soak up as many different experiences as you can before your career turns the corner, and you have to begin to say no due to shifting priorities or expected expertise.

Have strong opinions, but hold them loosely.  Life isn’t about right or wrong – it’s just about making a choice and often having an opinion.  Strong leaders take a position, but are open to views from all around them and are flexible in their thinking.  More often than not, leaders and teams can agree on the objectives but may have different ways of accomplishing the goal.  Or sometimes, the reality is you just didn’t have all of the pieces of information when coming to your conclusion. State your opinion, but always remain open-minded to shift with new information or different approaches.  

Compounding – it’s not just for interest.  Most of us think of our bank account when we think of “compounding.”  But the reality is that consistent effort in almost anything over time has exponential value.  Very few writers write books in a month. It’s the practice of consistently writing that allows them to achieve goals.  Athletes don’t hit a PR every time they race. They train and over time gain the conditioning to perform. The same holds true for anything from learning a new software language to building trust with a client.  Efforts made consistently over time pay higher dividends than cramming or sprint sessions. Think marathon, not a sprint.

Don’t let the game end until it is truly over.  All jobs and projects hit road bumps.  There will be points when you will not get to the answer you anticipated.  Clients will have differing opinions and want to change directions. A new product launched will not meet forecasted expectations.  In short, we will all have times we want to throw in the towel. When those times hit, or you think you have almost failed, take a step back and think about the next potential options to continue to pursue your objective.  You may need to change course (e.g., gain a different client sponsor or modify the product interface), but keep your ultimate aim in mind and try to continue to work towards it. Too often we lose the more significant opportunity because we quit too soon.

Read the paper every day (or listen, or watch).  Yes, your day job may be being mired in spreadsheets, writing code or dealing with extreme levels of detail.  But to your boss and your boss’s boss, that information is part of a larger picture to solve a problem. To engage on more senior levels, you need to understand the broad perspective.  This means staying informed and current. And that means acquiring knowledge any way you can get it., Read the newspaper in the AM, listen to the news on your way to work, check the headlines on the subway.  Stay informed. Stay current. And think about how your piece of the universe fits in.

Presence matters.  Executive presence,  Gravitas. Cool and calm under pressure.  Everyone has a different take on presence.  But at the end of the day, no matter how great the results you are producing are, if you don’t communicate them in a balanced and composed way, the results won’t be heard. Tone, body language and eye contact are all critical skills to learn early in your career.  Find people you admire and watch their style. Practice presenting in low-risk situations. Keep a list of techniques that work for you to communicate concisely and persuasively.

Stay in touch.  Building and maintaining professional relationships takes time, effort and consistency. Put the extra time in, and 20 years from now, your colleagues become friends and friends become clients or colleagues. Show people you are thinking of them.  Drop a quick note about something in the news that reminds you of them. Think about ways you can be helpful. Introduce them to others with similar interests or career paths.

Repetition does indeed make you better.  Early in my career, I was all about getting all the right experiences.  Need to build a financial model. Check. Need to handle a negotiation. Check.  Need to draft a term sheet. Check. If I had done it, I knew how to do it and could move on.  While getting a broad range of experiences is important, the reality is it takes multiple repetitions to become proficient in a new skill, particularly with multi-faceted or complex problems.  Embrace the nuances of a seemingly similar challenge. Determine what is similar and what the differences are from your prior experiences. Identify what you can do differently, more efficiently or better each time.  

Mentoring is a two-way street – invest in it.  One of my first mentors said to me “I look out for you and you do great work for me.”  At the time, it didn’t seem like important advice. But looking back on it, I am constantly reminded that mentoring is a two-way street.   To foster strong mentor relationships, you need to be thoughtful about how to add value to the relationship. That can be as easy as sharing industry information and knowledge of co-workers interests or as complex as making certain you are available to help out on a special project.  As a side note, I’m a big proponent of having many different types of mentors (in the coming months you will see my “How to create your personal Board of Directors”).

Your peers are your best resources.  In my first job out of business school, it was widely known that one-third of the entering class wouldn’t be asked to return after the first year.  And a third of that after the second and on and on. Managers encouraged competition to get to more work product and produce better results. That said, it became quickly apparent to a group of us that banding together and supporting one another’s efforts was far more efficient and productive.  Your peers are your best resource for questions. Chances are, if you have a problem, they have had the same question and may have found a faster way to solve it. Take the time to teach a tip or trick you have learned. Create groups to share solutions to everyday challenges. Double check one another’s work.  And above all, while it’s important to take ownership over your own work, have one another’s backs.

And finally, make sure you have the basics in place.  You have to be physically and emotionally healthy to be performing at your peak.  
• Be healthy – get enough sleep, get some exercise, eat well
• Contribute to a community in a meaningful way – inside or outside work
• Foster your relationships outside of work – they are your ultimate support network
• Identify activities that revitalize you – when you hit bumps, you need to know how to rebound quickly

The Gist
There is a ton of great advice out there.  And we will dive into the detail of all these topics in upcoming months. But the fact is there are a few sound pieces that have helped me through a 20-year career.  Steal liberally, keep your own list and share your best piece of advice in the comments section.

Ever evolving,