A person usually starts his or her career path with only a vague understanding of the rules to career success. Through experience and time, the interpretation of the past and the lessons learned from the countless challenges faced become more obvious, making it easier to identify different work situations quickly and respond appropriately.
Understanding these lessons early would be a great asset to anyone’s career—but sadly, our future-selves cannot visit our present-selves and offer career advice. So a recent A.T. Kearney survey tried the next best thing: A group of experienced professionals were asked about what they believe are the requirements for a successful career with a focus on what individuals starting out can do, in a sense, to ignite their careers and ensure a successful one.
Recent hires were also asked to identify disparities between them and the more experienced vice presidents, directors, and managers. Surprisingly, the responses revealed many similarities. Newer hires had an inkling of what actions should be taken; experienced respondents supported these actions with experience and proven examples. Overall, the path to success boils down to hard work and applying well-established common sense.
Survey respondents were asked five questions; A.T. Kearney analyzed and grouped the answers into the eight recommendations shown in figure 1. Clearly, no one piece of advice takes precedence over others—the goal is to be well rounded and able to perform each of the attainable advice described. All eight are critical and play a unique role on the path to a successful career.
Build relationships. Relationship building was the most common advice survey respondents gave for getting a career started. The ability to bond with people within and outside an organization is pivotal for long-term success. Some responses focused on simple interpersonal skills—displaying interest, smiling, and saying thank you—to make sure that people remember you. Others highlighted the importance of finding a good mentor and meeting people at all levels of the organization.
Obtain balance. Finding balance between work and life as well as long- and short-term goals is crucial. The ability to know how hard to push and when to do so is crucial for having a sustainable career.
Seize opportunities. Taking advantage of the opportunities that arise is an integral part of life. Even if the risks do not pay off, the experiences gained are priceless. Moving out of the comfort zone and taking those big steps can result in leaps and bounds especially at the start of one’s career.
Exceed expectations. At the end of the day, exceeding expectations offers a competitive advantage and is the ticket to the next level. This includes flexibility, hard work, a positive outlook, a team-focused attitude, and an “all-in” dedication.
Lose the entitlement mind set. Professional classism and superiority should be left at the door and everyone in the organization, senior or junior level, should be treated with respect. “Paying your dues” still means something; just because you're smart doesn’t mean you don’t need to earn the respect of others.
What was the best thing you did when you started your career?
What is something you wish you had done differently when you started your career?
What are the practices of successful people that you should try to emulate?
What practices should be on your “don’t do” list when starting a career?
What is one piece of advice you would give to someone starting their career?
Mastering the art of asking questions is crucial for long-term success. Good questions demonstrate a desire to learn, which is a great way to get noticed for the right reasons. Questions should be used to build critical thinking—a skill set that employers value deeply—and can help drive conversations, ensure a progressive team, and to deliver results.
Display confidence. Being confident should equate to being comfortable with learning and problem solving. There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance, so be sure to not tip the scale. Confidence should enable others to have faith in you, your work and ability.
Give back. Often forgotten at the start of a career, but still very important, is to give back to other colleagues and the community. Many respondents cite this as an action successful people perform that should be emulated. People who volunteer, mentor, or donate, have a strong sense of accomplishment and make a positive impact.
Without the benefit of a “future you” for advice, A.T. Kearney’s survey offers a useful framework for career success, based on behaviors that can be easily incorporated into daily practices. Most are obvious: good relationships equate to being known, smart questions lead to richer learning experiences, and a good work-life balance makes one happier. Others require a bit more effort: exceeding expectations, having confidence, losing the sense of entitlement, and giving back to the community. Applied appropriately, these recommendations can light a spark on a career path and open doors to exciting and unique experiences.