5 Career Mistakes I Made That You’re Smart Enough To Avoid

Shyna Zhang is the Founder of Rigging Academy, and a former Product Marketing Leader at Marketo and Microsoft. She shares with us five career mistakes she made and how you can avoid them

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

 

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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”

Reality

•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.

3 Ways Young Professionals can Crush it at work

Starting off your career as a young professional can be a challenging experience. Despite your intelligence, college degree and work ethic, getting a handle of your role and making contributions to your team is not as cut and dried as taking a test or reading a textbook. It rarely happens right away. In fact, it takes most people a few months (or up to a year) to really contribute at their peak capacity.

For those that are college graduates and joining the workplace for the first time it can take even longer. While many of us are hired for our intelligence and experience, there are some lessons that cannot be taught.

I’ve gotten the chance to work alongside incredibly talented professionals who are making incredible contributions to their teams despite their lack of experience. Through my conversations with these high-performing individuals along with my own observations, the following things are things you can do to begin to do to stand out amongst your team.

Tackle the tough projects

When I worked at Deloitte, one of my managers used to tell me, “clients don’t pay us to solve their easy problems, they pay us to solve their hard ones.” Similarly, if you raise your hand to tackle the tough assignments, perhaps the ones nobody else wants to do, you’ll gain the respect and awareness from your manager and your colleagues.

Taking on a tough project can be a daunting task. Oftentimes, we may feel unqualified or unsure of how to proceed. However, raising your hand to tackle a tough project signals initiative, a willingness to roll up your sleeves, and problem solving skills. Furthermore, it opens doors for you, as others begin to take notice. If you’re able to deliver on these projects, you’ll often find that others will come back to you with future opportunities.

Tip: Next time there is an open project up for grabs, sign up for it even if you aren’t sure if you are qualified to tackle it. Then, reach out to some others who you trust to set up time to talk with them about how you can best approach this project.

Share knowledge

In our information-based economy, knowledge is power. The expertise we develop and the experiences we gain are valuable assets, not only to our work but also for others. This is why sharing your knowledge is something that can make you stand out from your peers.

When you share knowledge that is useful and helpful, people will see you as a trusted source of expertise on a particular topic. This helps you build credibility, trust, and respect from your peers, and again, opens you up to countless future opportunities.

Tip: Think about something that you’ve worked on lately and create a PowerPoint presentation on the topic. Consider sharing it with others on your team who might be working on a similar topic.

Solve unidentified problems

Solving a problem that your boss or manager has come to you with is always a good thing. However, the forward-thinking employees tend to spot problems that others don’t see and find ways to solve them before they become bigger issues. Your manager has a million things on their plate, which is why they’ve come to you with a particular problem. They can’t spot every issue or concern, so when you can find one and solve it before they notice they tend to appreciate your diligence.

Tip: This is a little bit harder to teach since it relies a bit on instinct and experience. Start by evaluating a project or initiative your team just completed and identifying ways it could have been done better or any weaknesses or pain points it caused to employees or customers.