Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

5 Career Lessons You Learn as You Move Up the Ladder (Unless You Cheat and Read This Now)

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About a year after I starting working in the PR department of a big media company in my mid-20s, my immediate supervisor left for another opportunity, and I was promoted to her position. Though I had managed people before, this was my first time at a large corporation where I had several staffers reporting to me, and also had to “manage up” with a number of senior executives, some of whom were pretty intimidating. The head of the department wanted me to emulate her tough, no-holds-barred style when dealing with executives, so I tried it out thinking if I just copied her approach, I’d succeed.

A week into my new role, I addressed a major editor-in-chief the way I thought my boss would and, gulp, it did not go over well. This seasoned editrix snapped at me, “You are too young to speak to me in that tone.” It took me months to get back in her good graces (luckily, I did, and we’re still in touch today), but what I learned was to be myself and not try to act like someone I’m not. If I dealt with people in my own way, I could still get the same results. That lesson’s stayed with me throughout my career—all the way up to senior management.

The knowledge you pick up along your career path can be a valuable tool, but often you don’t realize it until you’re much further along. To help you out, we’ve asked some successful people to share lessons they’ve learned at every stage of their careers.

1. When You’re an Intern: Raise Your Hand for Any Opportunity

As an intern, you'll potentially get exposure to hiring managers and even the C-suite—whom you might not otherwise meet (or spend time with). Nowadays, companies need all the extra help they can get, so don’t be afraid to raise your hand to jump in on projects that might be great learning experiences for you and will show your boss what kind of chops you have. Because you’re so green, expectations will be low (i.e., you won’t be trusted with anything that could bring down the company), so you can truly approach it as a learning experience.

When digital marketing consultant Sheryl Victor Levy was at Ithaca College, she interned for a production company that created corporate videos, but was also one of the first to broadcast from a well-known local comedy club. “I volunteered to work the green room during the production of the show and was able to learn production first-hand, meet some fab comedians, and work with the owner of the company. This inspired me to ultimately work for USA Networks and MTV Networks—jobs that I very much enjoyed at the beginning of my career.”

2. When You’re Starting Your First Job: Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

During web editor Gennifer Delman’s first job, one of her more senior colleagues had a saying, "At the end of the day, it's just [a presentation/a blog post/an email].” Delman found that phrase so helpful when she got upset about messing something up. “When you're just starting out, you worry that one mistake, fail, or challenge can make or break your career,” she says. “It's easy to get wrapped up in the minutiae of a project or take offense when there is criticism or negative feedback.”

Whenever you mess up and your manager gets upsets with you, remind yourself that, when all is said and done, whatever’s bothering you is probably minor in the grand scheme of things. (And if it’s not, I recommend reading this advice on recovering from a huge problem.) We all screw up now and then—yes, even the boss. What’s important is that you learn from what happened and don’t make the same one twice.

3. When You’re in Your First Managerial Role: It’s All About the Team

Delegating for the first time is always a bit of a struggle when you’re a new supervisor. But, marketing manager Sanam Ghanchi found it’s even more important to understand the personalities on your team. More specifically: What motivates each person? “While some individuals need to feel challenged, others need positive reinforcement or recognition, and others may need more coaching and support,” Ghanchi says. “Whether you’re managing up, down, or across, I've found that understating the motivating factors helps to energize the team to work towards a common goal.”

As retail manager Ken Sacco learned: It’s not just about building a great team but also being able to rely on them. “Building a strong team is about putting the puzzle pieces together in the form of individual employees strengths and weaknesses. You can't do everything yourself, and thus, it's best to surround yourself with people smarter than you.”

4. When You’re in Senior Management: Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for What You Want

As you’re climbing up the ladder, it’s vital to think about what will keep you moving ahead. Alice Suh, head of PR for a digital music company in Berlin, learned something invaluable over the course of her career that still applies today: “Always take initiative to further advance yourself. You are your biggest cheerleader, and your boss is not a mind reader. If you want to diversify or take on more projects, don't assume your work will automatically be proof. Communicate what you want, set the case, and then your work will back up that you are qualified.”

When Suh was in a director role at an internet company in New York, she knew she wanted to work abroad so, instead of waiting around for management to suggest it, she asked them if the company would consider transferring her to the London office and they agreed. “It wouldn't have happened if I hadn't voiced [what I wanted]. Don't be pushy about it, but let your desires be known. And don't let fear stop you. Go for it! If it's meant to be, it'll happen.”

5. When You’re in the C-Suite: Make Decisions That Are Best for the Business

Often, as you move up the food chain at work, you can end up managing people you consider your office buds. Content and marketing strategist Susan Schulz had a moment of reckoning early on when she was a young editor-in-chief and had to choose between two friends for a top-level position open on the magazine’s staff. How would she decide on a winner and preserve her relationship with the one who didn’t get it? In order to avoid perceived favoritism, Schulz read all of the editing tests “blind.”

After she decided which candidate to hire, she made it a point to tell her other friend exactly how she had gone through the process, so she could be completely impartial in choosing the best person for the job. Schulz said, “I still felt bad, but I was confident in the decision I’d made, because I had made it based on the business. As the boss, you must ask yourself, ‘What is best for the business?’ and do that, regardless of any emotional conflicts you might have. Putting company’s goals first makes your course of action crystal clear. But treating people with respect in the aftermath of a tough decision is also imperative. Just because you’re in charge doesn’t mean you should allow yourself to be a jerk.”

No matter what phase of your career you’re at, you want to put your best foot forward. And, even though you sometimes feel like you know more than your boss, some knowledge only comes with experience and growth. So be patient, watch and listen the people above you, and find mentors to support you along the way.