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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

5 Career Lessons I've Learned From Mad Men

I love Mad Men for the same reasons we all do: The writing is incredible, the characters rule, and the evolution of the advertising field is scandalously intriguing. But beyond the drama, the show offers a unique glimpse into the process of navigating a career path and overcoming professional challenges. Despite being set in the 1960s, much of the on-screen wheeling and dealing draws uncanny parallels to the workplace today.

As we wait (with bated breath!) for Season 6 to debut tonight, here’s a look at some career lessons I’ve learned from Mad Men. (And yes, while I’d like to say that the secret to success is keeping a bottle of scotch in your desk, there are a few more practical points to glean.)

1. Manage Your Personal Brand

We’ve seen Don Draper successfully launch lots of ad campaigns, leveraging creative approaches and somewhat unorthodox ideas. But his success isn’t solely a factor of his team’s brilliant marketing techniques, it’s also the result of his undeniable charisma. When Don walks into a room, you know he means business—he dresses the part, arrives prepared, and is perfectly poised in his delivery.

Confidence, sincerity, and having a presence go a long way in business, and as Don shows us, there’s a lot to be gained from both talking the talk and walking the walk.

2. Work Hard, Get Noticed

Everyone scoffed when Peggy tried to break into the boys' club at the agency, but it didn’t take long for her hard work and perseverance to pay off. She had to endure a fair amount of grief, but eventually she surpassed many of her naysayers and landed a role she loved.

There are lots of good lessons here: Working hard for what you want, never taking no for an answer, and sometimes being willing to pay your dues and take an entry-level position to navigate to a better opportunity. But most importantly, Peggy shows us that there’s no limit to how far a good work ethic and a can-do attitude will take you.

3. Productivity Doesn’t Hinge on Technology

Gasp! I know. It’s a farfetched idea at best, but Mad Men is a good reminder that a lot got accomplished before the advent of computers and cellphones. Granted, it was a different world and a smaller marketplace, but big things happened with typewriters, landlines, and face-to-face meetings.

I’m not saying you should toss your iPad out the window, but don’t forget the value of real connections and conversations. In the Mad Men days, it was all they had.

4. Beware the Office Romance

First it was Pete and Peggy, then it was Joan and Roger, and last season Don and Megan tied the knot. While a passionate office rendezvous makes for awesome TV, we’ve learned over the past few seasons that these can get complicated quickly and don’t typically end well. While it’s not completely taboo to date a co-worker—lots of people do it—it’s best to keep it under wraps from 8 to 5 to avoid jeopardizing your credibility and professionalism.

5. A Woman’s Place is in the Boardroom

I consider myself lucky that when I entered the workforce, women could pursue any path they chose. Gender was far less of a barrier than in the days of Mad Men, and it’s pretty hard to imagine a time when my participation in the labor force would have been stunted by cultural, educational, and legal practices. I have a true appreciation for women like Peggy and Joan (er, their real-life counterparts) who helped pave the way for my generation to kick butt and take names in the workplace. There may still be a glass ceiling, but it’s nothing compared to what women had to deal with in decades past.

Times sure change, but the fundamentals of business success don’t waver too much. So if you watch closely, there’s a lot to be learned from Mad Men. I can’t wait to see what becomes of Don and the gang this season, and you can be sure I’ll be taking notes on how to give my career path a little more edge.

Oh, and yes: If all else fails, there’s always scotch.

Tell us! What career lessons have you learned from Mad Men?