This is the first post in a series called “Managing your career – an introductory series“. The main audience I have in mind are analyst-level employees in corporate finance, but I think many parts can be applied more generally to anyone working in US corporations these days.
I work with a lot of people who are in their first corporate job after college, and I’ve been there myself as well. The most common expectation I’ve heard from them is that someone will manage their career for them, and they look to their manager and leaders in their group to do so.
While it’s true that truly great managers will look out for opportunities for you and push roadblocks away to give recognition to employees who deserve them, the sad truth is that in most corporations, there are usually very few leaders of this sort, and the corporate system makes it extremely difficult for exceptions to be made.
So, how do you go about managing your career?
Step I: Explore
The best thing you can do when you are in an entry-level role is to determine what areas you are interested in and widen your experience by trying different companies, groups, and departments. In other words, actively manage your career rather than expect management to look out for your best interests. Actually, this is also good advice for mid-career professionals, although as you get more experienced in your career, you’ll often find that it’s harder to make switches between departments and roles without eyebrows being raised. (Not that this should ever stop you from doing what you think is best for yourself!)
How do you go about figuring what roles might be a good fit? Ask yourself the following questions:
What do you think you want to do? In my experience, it’s a myth that most people know what they want to do in life, even if they’re in their 50s. Although there are exceptions, most people chase after what everyone else thinks is important and think they know what they want but don’t, so don’t worry if you don’t know what it is you want. Instead, just try narrowing down your interests a bit at a time. Start by listing out the things you’ve done in your life — be they jobs, volunteer roles, hobbies — and what you particularly liked and didn’t like about them. Are there patterns? For example, do you really enjoy interacting with people or prefer working alone? How about figuring out puzzles? A regular schedule and structure, or the opposite? Going to different places? As simplistic as this sounds, taking the time to be introspective and figuring out what you like (and don’t like) is a good investment and one that will help you find a role that’s satisfying rather than one you go with just because it’s what everyone else advises or values.
What areas do I find interesting? Once you know the kinds of work you might enjoy doing, start listing out groups, roles or departments that might coincide with those interests. Don’t be afraid to reach out to someone who works in one of those groups to have lunch or coffee to have a casual conversation, and don’t target the highest manager you can find. Instead, look for people who are doing the actual day-to-day work in a group and, if possible, who are willing to speak openly about what they do. Keep it casual, be honest about wanting to explore other functional areas and tell them you just want to learn about what it is that their group does. Everyone has been there and most are willing to share their own experiences. Most importantly, ask them questions. How do they describe their job? What does their typical day looks like, who do they work with, and what do they like the most and the least about their role? Are there other people they would recommend you talk to? People love talking about themselves, and if you come across as a genuinely interested party, it’s amazing what you can learn. If they ask what you’re interested in, you’ve already got some idea based on knowing the characteristics of the role you’re looking for and why you think their group might be a good match.
A final word for those starting out in their career: consider working or going abroad. I’m not the first person who will tell you that it’s easier to move overseas when you’re younger, and I won’t be the last. But having international experience is valuable both professionally and personally, especially as jobs becomes more and more globally focused.
I’ll write more about next steps to actively managing your career upcoming posts. In the meantime, feel free to share any suggestions or comments below.