Shifting gears: 10 tips for career success for new grads and young professionals

Scott Martindale  by Scott Martindale
  President & CEO, Sabrient Systems LLC

With another graduation season upon us, I would like to share my updated 10 tips for career success, specifically targeted to new grads and young professionals. I have expanded the list this year from 7 to 10. Of course, this is still far from an exhaustive list, and I’m certainly not claiming to have fully leveraged them all to maximally benefit my own career. (In fact, I wish I could go back in time and implement them more fully.)

They are simply a set of critical habits I have compiled based on experience, observation, reading, reflection, and thousands of conversations, meetings, presentations, negotiations, and interactions throughout the years while working within various organizations large and small, ranging from a major multinational corporation to solo independent consulting to a small, entrepreneurial business.

In summary, they are:

 1. Don’t burn bridges
 2. “Seek first to understand, then to be understood” (re: Steven Covey)
 3. Be a problem solver, not a problem creator
 4. Operate with an owner’s mentality
 5. Never stop learning and growing
 6. Become a skilled networker
 7. Determine your own definition of success
 8. Build your personal brand
 9. Display a “can-do” spirit
10. Take calculated, asymmetric risks

Some of these tips may not be the ones you typically hear at commencement addresses. So, please share this article with the new and recent graduates in your life. By the way, seasoned professionals might appreciate them as well. Read on:

1. Don’t burn bridges

When someone asks me my #1 recommendation, they are often surprised when I name this one, but that’s how important I think it is to avoid messy run-ins or break-ups with employers, colleagues, or clients. As time passes, you will find that your industry is a small world. So, as the adage goes, what goes around comes around.

We’ve all seen those viral videos of dramatic in-your-face job quits, but my contention is there is no upside to them (other than perhaps some fleeting personal satisfaction or social media fame). Same with hostile turf wars or backstabbing or lengthy, emotion-fueled emails that regurgitate every bottled-up frustration you’ve been accumulating about the person or company through the years. Remember that videos, emails, texts, social media posts, and the like are memorialized in cyberspace forever.

Learn (and practice) how to deal with difficult people or with stressful situations within a team or workplace environment. There are practical ways to diffuse or deescalate a tense situation with calm, assertive behaviors that give you a sense of control while ensuring a focus on the issues rather than the personalities.

Often, you can head off problems by being a supportive co-worker yourself, even if there is an underlying competition such as achieving sales objectives or earning a coveted promotion. Be willing to take responsibility and share at least some of the blame even if you believe you had no role in creating the problem at hand. If a friend, colleague, boss, supplier, or client has blatantly or ignorantly wronged you, acknowledge the misdeed in a calm way without being rude or snide. This is especially true if the other party was deliberately trying to get under your skin. Don’t give them the satisfaction of seeing you get all ruffled up.

Unfortunately, there still will be some burnt bridges along the way despite your best efforts to avoid them. But it is in your long-term best interest that the instigator be the other party, not you. It is only then, if you happen to encounter this person again, that you are not the one who should feel embarrassed.

In addition, avoid badmouthing your competitors or former colleagues or employers to others—it never reflects well upon you, even if the other person is goading you into your aspersions. Better to leave such things unsaid.

2. “Seek first to understand, then to be understood” (re: Steven Covey)

This is an important way to avoid burning bridges while building trust and respect. It is Habit #5 of Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and I love the way he puts it in that concise sentence, so I’m quoting it here verbatim. In other words, listen before you speak. Moreover, don’t try to make your point (or your sales pitch) until you fully grasp the other’s perspective or needs. Importantly, the other party must perceive that you understand their perspective. Perception is reality.

This concept is particularly relevant in today’s polarized and politicized society. Given the preponderance of partisan social media, podcasts, and cable channels, people can stay in their “echo chamber” and avoid ever having to hear an alternative perspective much less try to understand it. This can lead to hyperbolic demonization of other viewpoints. Make the effort to build rapport and ultimately draw people to you with a carrot rather than a stick.

In the business world, seek first to understand what a successful business relationship means to your boss, colleague, employee, or client. Ask probing questions without coming off as challenging or skeptical. When it is time for you to speak, demonstrate that you understand their perspective without sounding patronizing. Instead, focus on specifics that directly address what is important to the other party. If you show respect in this way, it is usually reciprocated.

When speaking with a client, always focus on their needs or the benefits they will enjoy rather than expounding on how wonderful your products or services are, which they must learn to appreciate. If possible, make clients feel they can shape or customize what they are buying rather than having to conform to what you are selling.

3. Be a problem solver, not a problem creator

No one likes to employ or work beside someone who is always whining, complaining, or stirring up trouble. We see so much of this in the public discourse today—always aggrieved or vitriolic but never offering a realistic solution, if any at all. If you identify a problem, don’t just complain about it; instead, offer up at least one reasonable solution, and preferably be prepared to help implement the solution.

Take a constructive rather than defeatist approach when dealing with problems, hurdles, slights, or setbacks. Show that you have the fortitude and confidence to let them roll off your back and push through. Don’t play the helpless victim; strive to be a leader, advisor, confidant, and team player. Be that go-to person when something needs to get done.

From a broader perspective, cultivate a reputation of trust, honesty, integrity, reliability, collaboration, positivity, and constructiveness. If you lead a team, instill empowerment, personal responsibility, and accountability in your teammates and clients through your actions and deeds. “When you offer genuine accountability, your clients will respond,” says famed pollster Frank Luntz.

Develop and empower your team and then hold them accountable, because you can’t (and shouldn’t try to) handle it all alone. In negotiations, be non-adversarial, separating the people from the problem. Seek win-win outcomes by focusing on the interests of each party rather than only defending your own position. You will gain the respect of all parties.

4. Operate with an owner’s mentality

Perform every job or task like it’s your own business, even if you work for someone else. It will be noticed. Don’t allow yourself to become a clock-watcher, web-surfer, work-avoider, or “quiet quitter.” Be punctual, neat, respectful, and pleasant in all internal and client interactions (even if you only meet over Zoom), so that your presence, attitude, and actions reflect well upon both the firm and your boss.

Find ways to add value even if you haven’t been assigned specific tasks. For example, seek ways to cut costs, improve processes and efficiency, increase client engagement/retention, or boost revenues—both within your immediate area of influence and for the company overall. Not only will this enhance your perceived value to the company, but also improve and diversify your skillset—not to mention you will leave work at the end of the day with a greater feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction.

Of course, you must be mindful of the politics within your organization and present your ideas with tact and diplomacy. You should willingly share credit with others when things go well, and accept accountability when things go awry. Avoid overshadowing or end-running your bosses; you need them in your corner.

5. Never stop learning and growing

Seek to build on your strengths and shore up your weaknesses. It’s never too late to start improving your skillset, and it’s always too soon to stop. Importantly, true growth only comes about by putting yourself in uncomfortable situations. For example, if you are deathly afraid of public speaking, then practice out loud by yourself or with a friendly audience (like your friend or dog), solicit feedback, and continually seek opportunities to speak in public. It will get easier, and you will get better. As Kobe Bryant said in his book, The Mamba Mentality: How I Play, “You have to work hard in the dark to shine in the light.”

In fact, virtually everything you do is a skill that can be improved upon through coaching, practice, and repetition—whether it be golf, carpentry, Wordle, piano, cooking, spelling, calculus, interviewing, speaking, writing, negotiating, or whatever. Even focusing on one task at a time for 30 minutes without distraction (hard to do in today’s society) is a skill to be honed.

Strive to develop new career skills, stay abreast of industry news and trends, and continually seek out learning opportunities, including “stretch goals” in your workplace. If you did not go to college, there are plenty of alternative avenues for you, but you should still seek some kind of advanced training or education—of which there are many, both formal and informal. A career counselor, trusted friend, or a mentor from a field that interests you can be helpful in this regard.

If you did graduate from college, you might consider pursuing higher education or professional credentials early in your career. Regardless, learning should not stop with formal education. Read industry publications, take an online course, seek cross-training opportunities, or volunteer in areas where you can both learn and contribute. Join a community or professional organization, learn a new language, learn how to code, or become more adept at Excel. When you have your earbuds in while at the gym or bike ride, consider branching out from music to also include things like podcasts, audiobooks, taped lectures, and TED Talks.

Furthermore, employers and clients may look to you for guidance on things like how to leverage or invest in new technologies. For example, if you become a financial advisor, you might be asked about buffered, target-date, or thematic ETFs, or investment opportunities in new technologies like cryptocurrency, blockchain, AI, metaverse, genomics, or fuel cells. You can’t simply pass them off out-of-hand as unproven, unnecessary, “too risky,” or “you don’t need to worry about that” just because you haven’t sufficiently researched them. That’s a sure-fire way to lose the client. Even if your firm doesn’t allow you to offer or advise on such products, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be prepared to provide some context and education on the topic.

6. Become a skilled networker

Who you know in the business world can be every bit as important as what you know, especially in the early stages of your career when you are on a steep learning curve. To be considered for desirable roles, you can’t be invisible. So, networking is key. Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to new people, whether in person or via email—without being rude or pushy, of course. I’m not just talking about prospecting but also more broadly about building diverse personal and professional relationships. Although we’d all like to meet Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, or Elon Musk, they are probably not the ones who will advance your career. Often, new opportunities arise when you least expect them and from acquaintances that might not be obvious.

Seek mentors who can help guide you on your path, while also accepting opportunities to mentor others. In this regard, working in an office environment (or home/office hybrid) is more conducive to developing those important professional/mentor relationships, so I feel that all new grads should spend some of their early years in face-to-face work environments rather than working from home right after graduation.

But resist the temptation to blast out reams of cold LinkedIn connection requests with the default language to people you don’t know. It’s so fast and convenient to do, but it portrays you as lazy. Preferably, you should try to pursue personal networking in which you get to know people and build meaningful and mutually beneficial relationships with them. Be genuinely interested and offer to help but be careful not to come off like a pitchman—whether pitching your product or pitching yourself for a job.

But if you do decide to send LinkedIn invitations to your classmate’s parents or to second-level connections or to a higher-up in your firm that you admire, you must include a personalized note. This is hard to do with the mobile app, so instead you should use the browser version (or learn how to do it with the mobile app) to send a brief but thoughtful note as to why you would like to connect. I always do this myself, and I rarely accept invitations that do not include a personalized note (including those from my daughters’ friends!).

By the way, it is said that you are the average of your friend group and those with whom you associate. So, strive to have a close network that is smart, diverse, and ambitious—and not solely weighted toward people you work with, grew up with, or went to school with, or those who depend upon you to lift them up in every way (i.e., a “one-way street” relationship). In other words, strive to have a close network of friends and associates in different career stages and with whom you can have a reciprocal relationship, i.e., you lift them up in some ways while they lift you up in other ways (a “win-win” relationship). This applies to your romantic relationship as well.

For example, you might have a friend who is diligent about studying for a professional exam, which helps to motivate you, while you have much bigger social and professional networks, which can help her build her own network. Regardless, avoid at all costs those whose apparent objective is to hold you back from your dreams and goals—and by the same token, don’t allow yourself to hold back your friends and associates. In other words, don’t become trapped like crabs in a barrel, pulling each other down with negativity. As Jordan Peterson states in Rule #3 of his 12 Rules for Life, “Surround yourself with people who want you to succeed.”  

7. Determine your own definition of success

For most of us, our initial view of career success is shaped by our parents, friends, teachers, pastors, coaches, bosses, and co-workers. But ultimately, you may find that your own aspirations and desires lead you to a career path and definition of success that is far different from other people’s. Find and follow your true passion and convictions, not the path of least resistance, and don’t just “go along to get along.”

I certainly found that for myself. I was good in math throughout K-12, and my father was a civil engineer, so I pursued civil/structural engineering in college through the master’s degree level and worked as a design engineer for several years (and earned a Professional Engineer registration). But my heart wasn’t in it, and I felt pigeon-holed. So, I earned an MBA in an evening program while continuing to work, and then shifted into a senior analyst role on the Presidents’ Staff at my employer (a major multinational corporation), which later led to various field operations management and regulatory compliance positions. Ultimately, I left the big company and moved into the world of quantitative equity research, where I could pursue my interest in the investment world while leveraging my full array of technical, analytical, leadership, writing, speaking, sales, and relationship management skills.

Friends and colleagues of mine have gone on to find professional, financial, or personal success in various ways. Some stayed with the big corporation and rose up the ranks to the highest levels. Others ventured out on the entrepreneurial path and found a market niche that allowed them to have both the independence and financial rewards they sought. Still others became investors/advisors in the ventures of other dynamic individuals so that they could share in their successes.

When my younger daughter was in college in New York, most of her peers were anxiously jockeying for hard-to-get on-campus interviews for prestigious internships and starting positions in management consulting, investment banking, or Silicon Valley. Of course, most of those jobs are located in big cities like New York, Boston, London, and San Francisco, and they are known for being demanding, competitive, prestigious, and yes, lucrative (the biggest draw). For some, the challenge, lifestyle, and prestige of these jobs are highly appealing. For others, however, they ultimately find the job to be a grind—long hours, stressful, and exhausting.

Total immersion in a challenging, stimulating, high-paying, and all-consuming career is desirable to some. But for others, work/life balance and time for community service, raising kids, or a sunny location are more important. Some thrive in a fast-paced office environment or enjoy being a road warrior, while others prefer a flexible schedule or to work commute-free from home.

My point is, don’t let others tell you what path is best for you. Decide on your own terms what is right for you. Follow your heart and your gut, but include a touch of pragmatism from your brain as well. Pursue passion and purpose rather than materialism. Stay open-minded and nimble to embrace new opportunities. It may not be what you (or your parents) always envisioned, but there is a path for you out there.

8. Build your personal brand

More opportunities flow to those with an appealing personal brand, so it pays to spend time cultivating it. For example, are you a “Sales Associate at Acme Tools” on your LinkedIn profile, or should you be a “B2B sales & business development professional who drives revenue growth while delighting customers”? Whether you are searching for a job, building a business, growing your visibility within an organization, seeking press coverage, striving to exceed your sales quota, or simply building a diverse network, a solid personal brand can make a big difference in the speed and quality of your results. It also can help prepare you to pivot quickly when faced with an unforeseen event, like a sudden layoff or company acquisition.

To that end, start by staying current on the news and trends in your field. Consider building your reputation and credibility by sharing relevant information or posting your own opinions and insights on your social media accounts. Don’t just repost or retweet, though; add your two cents as well (hopefully something insightful). Join professional organizations, pursue an advanced degree or professional certification, or volunteer for causes that are either important to you personally or relevant to your profession.

Build relationships with mentors who can help you shape your views, image, and message. Eventually, you might start your own blog, website, podcast, or Substack. Record and post videos, seek outside speaking engagements or “lunch & learn” presentations in your workplace. The ultimate goal is to create a personal brand that is unique to you—a combination of your skills, talents, background, experiences, ideas, and interests (both personal and professional).

9. Display a “can-do” spirit

Employers love an employee who is positive, optimistic, industrious, approachable, persistent, collaborative, frugal, and resilient. If you prefer to be an entrepreneur, those same qualities are appealing to clients, employees, and investors as well. But many new grads can be anxious, insecure, or easily dissuaded from pursuing career paths that are seemingly out of reach. Moreover, in today’s politically charged society, it can be easy to develop a victim mentality.

Perhaps you think you don’t have the right degree or school pedigree, or that you aren’t “smart enough” to compete. Or perhaps you chose not to go to college at all. Or perhaps you’ve been misled by political activists (and even the POTUS himself, such as in his dark commencement address at Howard University) to believe sinister forces prevent you from achieving success in our irredeemable society due to your race or gender or sexual orientation (or that the world will soon be destroyed by climate change or nuclear annihilation, so why bother?). But I implore you, don’t believe any of it!

Here’s the reality. Yes, humans are inherently flawed, and individually we may display at times anything from ignorance to snobbery to prejudice. But, for society as a whole, it is merely a symptom of what I euphemistically call “not-like-me-ism,” i.e., the innate tribal impulse to be more comfortable with those who are like yourself. This can lead to microaggressions (and sometimes blatant discrimination) against others for their age, race, religion, politics, hairstyle, lifestyle, clothing, tattoos, weight, stature, speech, accent, mannerisms, disability, alma mater, or whatever else makes them different.

But such biases are a human condition, not just among white Americans…or Republicans…or cops. No one is beyond reproach. We all must strive to do better in our interactions with others, and most people want to be good towards others. Indeed, our nation is much more tolerant and accepting today than ever before (despite what you hear from politicians and the media), and it continues to improve. But we are not programmable robots, and you can’t legislate individual thought (unless you want a totalitarian system like China or North Korea). So, you must learn how to deal with an imperfect world without shrinking in tears or anger; demanding censorship, preferences, or entitlements; or looking to the government to intervene in every perceived slight, impediment, or disagreement.

My main point is simply this: Never before in history has there been greater access to opportunity than you have today, both for you to find opportunities and for opportunities to find you—especially given the growth in remote work options. Our border crisis alone should be evidence enough that today more than ever, people from all over the world believe, in the words of Senator Tim Scott, “America is not the land of oppression; America is the land of opportunity,” and they are willing to risk their lives (and their children’s) to get here.

So, embrace the fact that you already live in this great country, and focus on the opportunities rather than the obstacles. Don’t be defeatist by allowing yourself to get caught up in grievance politics or blame others for your impediments and hardships (we all have some). And please don’t look for solutions from your political leaders and media personalities, who increasingly push distorted narratives to stoke fear, resentment, paranoia, and division for power and ratings (“You need us to protect you from them!”). Don’t allow yourself to get sucked into their trap.

Instead, think independently and practice self-reliance while striving to heal wounds, find common ground, and embrace winning values—like education, diligence, resilience, tenacity, cooperation, honesty, mutual respect, and personal responsibility—while focusing on the many opportunities before you. Follow Kobe Bryant’s “Mamba Mentality” by visualizing your future and then go about making it happen. Remember the adage, as reiterated by Jena Antonucci, who just became the first female horse trainer to ever win a Triple Crown race, at the 2023 Belmont Stakes), “If you can’t find a seat at the table, make your own table.”

Yes, you can succeed. There is a path for you. So, act like you believe it. Display a “can-do” spirit, and you will be amazed by how many more doors will open for you. Many of our richest and most successful people came from humble beginnings (and many never got a college degree).

Quick story. A retired neighbor of mine spends his time with his wife shuttling among his three homes and monitoring his vast collection of rental properties. He self-admittedly was never a good student and “not the sharpest tool in the shed” (and I can attest that he is right). So, he staunchly believes that if he can find his way to career success, then anyone can. After barely graduating high school, he eventually fell into a job selling insurance, which he was not very good at. But it taught him not to fear rejection. Next, he stumbled into an entry level job in the home title business and later started his own title company, which became quite successful despite some harsh challenges (particularly the Great Financial Crisis). He ultimately sold his business for a tidy sum—but has never sold any of his real estate holdings. (As Mark Twain once said, “Buy land; they’re not making it anymore.”)

10. Take calculated, asymmetric risks

This applies both to your career and to your investments. It simply means that you should be open to new opportunities, and the risks you take should be skewed to the upside, i.e., much greater potential for gain than risk of loss. Sounds easy enough, but in practice they can be hard to identify. Let’s use a stock investment as an example. To ensure asymmetric risk, you might enter a stop loss or buy a protective put option, or “buffer” your downside with a put spread. Or it might mean finding a good company that is either just getting started (with little required investment) or is already heavily beaten down by market conditions to an absurdly low valuation (i.e., the proverbial “baby thrown out with the bathwater”).

For your career, as Kenny Rogers said in his song The Gambler, “You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and know when to run…the secret to survivin’ is knowin’ what to throw away and knowin’ what to keep….” But the reality is, it is hard to know anything for sure; instead, you just have to decide. And there are no hard-and-fast rules on this, although some people have come up with their own rules of thumb. One successful serial entrepreneur I know gives any new venture four years to gain traction, and then moves on if it doesn’t. However, I think the timeline can be more fluid—in some cases, you will know quite soon when it’s time to throw in the towel, and in other cases, you may want to give it more time.

You don’t want to be known as a job-hopper, but on the other hand, life is short, so you can’t wait too long. In addition, there is a balancing act between looking out for yourself and doing right by your colleagues and employees. Coming back full circle to tip #1, don’t burn bridges as you make these decisions!

Allow me to close with a few additional quotes:

“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” – Confucius

“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” – Neale Donald Walsch

“Those who follow the crowd usually get lost in it.” – Rick Warren

“Whatever happens as a consequence of telling the truth is the best thing that can happen…Do you want the truth on your side, or do you want to hide behind falsehoods?” – Jordan Peterson

“People will forget what you said…but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou

“Never let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game.” – Babe Ruth

“Constantly try to be the best version of yourself…a constant quest to be better today than yesterday.” – Kobe Bryant

“If you can dream, and not make dreams your master; If you can think, and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same.”
– Rudyard Kipling

No matter what path you choose, I wish you success and happiness.

For questions, suggestions, requests, or speaking inquiries, you can reach me at scott@sabrient.com.

Disclaimer: This newsletter is published solely for informational purposes and is not to be construed as advice or a recommendation to specific individuals. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Sabrient Systems LLC.


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