Meeting my 'virtual mentors' Dan Miller and Michael Hyatt for the first time at the Inov8 Conference in September 2013.
Part #3- You will ultimately be responsible for your own career development
A close friend and I chatted about what we had envisioned for learning opportunities when we started our first job. Somehow we entered the workforce thinking that our employers/ future bosses would want to shower us with sound advice and sharpen our professional skills. Not exactly what happened. We both worked at small companies that did not have a robust leadership development programs or many opportunities to expand our skills. Looking back, I am not sure why I expected this to be available. In turn, I learned an immense amount just by diving in and performing my daily duties at work. I started to look outside of work for guidance and direction in some key areas where I needed to sharpen my skills. Here are some of the nuggets of wisdom I have learned:
1. In an interview, ask about what skills you will gain. You first entry-level job is all about building a set of professional skills. It is important that you find an employer who is going to help you build on these skills and gives you opportunities to learn. Bonus points if you work under someone who will take the time to train you and serve as a mentor in the workplace, but this does not always happen. You will most likely not stay at your employer 35+ years like your parents. The average time for millennials is floating around 2.6 years per job. Perhaps you will be in the minority of your generation and find a company where you will excel and want to stay longer. You should focus your questions around both scenarios: staying for few years or a decade or two.
The questions that embody both of these scenarios would be something like, “What career paths or future opportunities at (Name of Company) have you seen from someone that has excelled in this role,” and “For new grads who have entered this role, what skills and abilities have you seen them develop over the first few years?” Not only is this valuable information to know, it shows the recruiter that you are looking beyond the starting salary.
2. Good News: You have access to mentors 24-7. Bad News: You may never meet them in person. I honestly think that 80% of the articles you see today about finding a mentor or sponsor are unrealistic. The most honest advice that I have seen lately was in Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In:
“I realized that searching for a mentor has become the professional equivalent of waiting for Prince Charming. We all grew up on the fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty,” which instructs young women that if they just wait for their prince to arrive, they will be kissed and whisked away on a white horse to live happily ever after. Now young women are told that if they can just find the right mentor, they will be pushed up the ladder and whisked away to the corner office to live happily ever after. Once again, we are teaching women to be too dependent on others.”
I remember after reading this section of her book and feeling like she had read my mind. Sandberg goes on to tell a tale of a younger employee that had an unrealistic time length that she expected to meet with her each week to be ‘mentored’. Don’t get me wrong; I think it is wonderful and possible to find a mentor. If you have not found your “Prince Charming” of a mentor, realize that you have access to some of the brightest minds through media online. Following personalities through their blogging and podcasts will provide you a wealth of information. I started following the online work of Michael Hyatt who writes about intentional leadership back in 2010. One day in a post in 2011, Michael mentioned a specific niched author that wrote about finding work that you loved named Dan Miller. I quickly became a fan of Dan’s work and would look forward to his Friday podcast. The list continues as I have found various people through reading their blogs, purchasing their books, and listening to their podcasts. These are virtual mentors that have made a great impact on my life. So much so, that in 2013 I attended a conference where both Dan Miller and Michael Hyatt were speaking, and then asked to get a photo in the middle of both of them 🙂
3. Find outlets to continue your education. It is almost overwhelming to think about how many options are available these days for education outside a higher education setting. Many of these opportunities are free, however I would greatly encourage anyone to spend their own money on professional development. In the long run it will pay dividends in your career and personal life. Lately, I have enjoyed the collective and organized resources available on Lynda.com. I have needed to learn more about WordPress and I found updated videos and tutorials. Currently, I am using a free version thanks to my FSU Alum connection. I would encourage anyone else to check with their higher ed institute to see if you might be able to get complementary access.
There are so many resources out there it might be overwhelming. My experience has always been to think about the one greatest knowledge gap that you have and find resources based on that topic. At one point for me this was being new to a management role and I was able to find some great books based on this topic, but mainly benefited from one flow chart in one classic book, “One Minute Manager” by Ken Blanchard. (Note: PDF of book is here and flow chart is on pg 57).
Perhaps you already work for a company with a strong workforce development programs or that provide a clear career path. Keep in mind that while this is certainly nice to have and it is wonderful to grow through such programs, your employer is not necessarily a neutral third party in your career development. Evaluate if these programs are getting the skills you need and look beyond the company offerings.
As a young professional, check in with yourself and ask, “What skills am I missing to take me to the next level?” I guarantee there is a resource within a few keystrokes that you will be able to find. Perhaps you will be a home on a weekend and using your own personal time, but in the end remember that it ultimately your responsibility to get you to where you want to be.