Domain expertise, a lot of hard work, critical thinking, problem solving, raw horsepower, strong leadership skills, and the ability to drive consensus across teams. Nothing controversial there, right? But none of this actually matters. For those that are myopically focused on this, I’ll let you out in a secret — you will plateau at some point.
As someone who has been in the room when decisions are made on who to promote or bring in for a People management role, I’ll add one more critical category that young professionals may overlook which hold them back: soft skills.
I recently put together gave a talk called ‘5 Career Mistakes that I Made that You’re Smart Enough to Avoid’ in an attempt to reflect on this topic. Frankly, I didn’t invest in the ‘soft skills’ enough because I greatly underestimated their place in the workplace. The longer that I worked, the more I realized that being smart and hardworking would only get one so far, and the ones that were at the leadership level, weren’t always the smartest and hardworking. Growing up as a first-generation immigrant, these skills weren’t as valued and emphasized in my household, but they are crucial in the individualistic society of corporate America, especially Silicon Valley.
Lesson 1: I didn’t realize hard work and long hours only leads to more hard work and long hours, unless you short circuit
School teaches us that achievement (grades, test scores, winning competitions, etc..) leads to rankings, which Universities deem important. In this system, working harder and being smart leads to direct outcomes.
Work is a very different place. Things like perceived impact on business, relationships with colleagues and management are paramount to getting visibility, promoted and recognized. Therefore, working harder and long hours only leads to burnout.
Instead, be cognizant to both physical and emotional burnout and truly pace yourself and ensure you’re setting up for success in the long run with things like visibility, working on high impact projects, aligning yourself with strong leaders, and getting shit done – the key is doing it over and over again. It’s truly a marathon, not a sprint.
Lesson 2: I let others define my value and didn’t advocate for myself
Everyone is in the business of marketing themselves as much as they are in the business of marketing their solution/product. Ensure you’re setting up a Coach, Advocate, and Sponsor within or outside of your organization that are helping to champion your cause. What’s the difference?
- Coach: Day-to-day person that can be real as shit with you, providing regular constructive criticism
- Advocate: Have similar experiences to you which allow her to empathize, understand your issues and offer you useful advice.
- Sponsor: Person with a high status in an organization who can advocate for an individual’s future successes, when they are not in the room
Lesson 3: I didn’t show up, because it wasn’t ‘mandatory’
I often found myself the only female or the only person under the age of 35 in a room and frankly, I had better things to do with my time than to go to social events – things like happy hours and get togethers outside of the office or outside of work hours. Because I didn’t feel like I had much in common with my colleagues, I often just didn’t show up. Big mistake.
In hindsight, those relationships and being open and curious about them would have been a great investment for my own growth and learning, not to mention, to develop a connection outside of work.
Lesson 4: I cared too much what other people thought – catastrophically
Whenever my boss or my skip level manager would do a drive by my desk with a, ‘Hey, do you have a few min to catch up?’ or a text popped up that said, ‘Can you chat?’ My heart fluttered with a bit of anxiety.
In My Head
•“Shit, that presentation didn’t go well”
•“They are going to let me go or cut my hours”
•“Someone had negative feedback about me or someone on my team”
•Update on a project
•Ask me a quick question
•Compliment me on a presentation
Too much catastrophic thinking and anxiety, unwarranted :). Manage Your Manager, Otherwise they will Manage You. I use the 5-15 template and methodology, although I’m sure there are others that work just as well.
Lesson 5: I tried to ‘make it work’ vs knowing when it’s time to leave.
Posters line hallways and Instagram is full of motivational statements about ‘never getting in’ and ‘leaning in’ and ‘hustling for your goals.’ Although I’m completely supportive of hard work and working your ass off, there’s something to be said about knowing about a sunk cost. A simple exercise I try to do yearly to ensure I’m working at a place that’s aligned tomy values:
1)Stack rank your values yearly as it relates to your stage in life
2)Stack rank your organization’s values
3)Is there overlap? Is there a glaring disparity?
4)Realistically, will this change in the near future?
Last thing I’ll say on this is that I’ve made many more than 5 career mistakes :). It’s been a journey of trial and error, with lots of learning and luck. Interested in more content like this? Sign up for Rigging’s newsletter. While you’re there, Rigging’s 9-week online program for highly motivated young professionals that looking for the knowledge, access, and community to achieve their professional and personal goals through learning the soft skills that school doesn’t teach.
What got you here, often doesn’t get you there.