Do the Work: 10 Keys to Owning Your Career Immediately

By Allison McWilliams (’95), PhD, Assistant VP, Mentoring and Alumni Personal & Career Development, Wake Forest University.

The first few years of work can be a jarring, unsettling time, as you try to figure out the rules and norms of behavior, build a track record of success, Woman holding a key on a chain around her neckbuild relationships and connections, and identify future direction. And, more than likely, you are doing most of this work on your own. The truth is, after college, no one is going to care as much about your life and your career as you will and should. It’s up to you to make intentional, strategic career decisions, to acquire the skills and abilities that you need to be successful, and to determine the next steps in your career path. While you can and you should identify mentors and wise counselors to support you on that path, ultimately your choices and decisions are up to you.

So, how do you navigate these first professional experiences? Here are 10 tips that you can begin to implement immediately in order to do the work effectively, right from day one.

  1. Accept that you don’t know everything (if anything). Your first few months in any new position are all about you learning how to be a competent, responsible professional in that environment. You will make mistakes. You will learn things about the organization and about work you never knew before. Be a sponge and look for learning moments everywhere you can. Privilege “learning” over “knowing.”
  2. Be accountable. Set and hold high standards for yourself. Do what you say you will do, go above and beyond, and constantly think about what you want people to say about you, after you no longer work there. Focus on the long-term payoffs versus short-term wins. Consistently practice gratitude and humility. Learn the difference between humility—lack of arrogance—and modesty—lack of confidence.
  3. Set goals for your own growth and development. Take ownership for your own path. What do you need to learn about your organization and industry, and what are two to three resources you can incorporate into your daily life to gain that knowledge? What are two to three skills you can develop over the next year through your work? What would you like to see on your résumé in one year, which currently is not there?
  4. Seek out meaningful experiences (but understand that not everything will be a meaningful experience). You will have the opportunity to speak up and ask for assignments that connect to your goals, and you should. The answer may not always be “yes,” but it is always OK to voice your interests. But it’s also important to recognize that everyone makes copies and everyone makes coffee. Just because a task doesn’t feel “meaningful” doesn’t mean it’s not valuable.
  5. Seek out opportunities that go beyond (but connect to) the scope of work. Take advantage of all of the opportunities that come your way. Go hear guest speakers, volunteer for assignments, ask deep questions of yourself and others, take the opportunity to meet people all across the organization, and so on. If you have a mentor or someone you seek out for advice, talk to that person about what you’re learning.
  6. Reflect upon your experiences. Constantly ask yourself open-ended questions such as: What happened? What helped/hindered my success? What would I do differently next time? What did I learn and how will I apply that in the future? Share your thoughts with your mentor and ask for their reflections as well, both on your experiences and their own.
  7. Seek out feedback and the wisdom of others. Proactively ask for feedback, both from your mentor and from others. Help others to give you supportive feedback by asking, “On that project we just finished, what are the two to three things you think I did well, and the one to two areas where I could improve?” Pay attention to the process. How you feel during these feedback conversations is as instructive as what you are hearing.
  8. Ask for help. It is always OK to ask for help. No one expects you to be an expert from day one. Use your mentors, your supervisor, and your colleagues as trusted sounding boards and wise counselors. But before you ask for help, try to find the answer on your own, first. There’s a big difference between asking for guidance on how to effectively meet your goals to your supervisor’s expectations, and constantly asking someone to tell you the answer to questions you can easily find with a Google search.
  9. Listen and learn. This is a biggie. For the first few months, in particular, listen more than you talk. Pay attention to who is talking, and why. Whose voices are privileged in the room? You don’t always have to have the “right” answer to everything. Pay attention to diverse points of view, and if you can’t find those, seek them out.
  10. Do the work. Finally, everything starts and ends with the work. You can be the nicest, most fun, most supportive colleague ever, and if your work isn’t great, no one is really going to care about how nice and fun you are. Instead they’ll say, “He or she’s nice, but he or she never meets his or her deadlines.” Or, “He or she’s fun, but he or she’s not really interested in doing the work.” Everything that comes after that “but” is what people will pay attention to. Work hard. Do your absolute best on everything you do. Do the work.