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Advice / Career Paths / Training & Development

The Best Career Advice I've Ever Received

Ten years after I had landed here from my native Ireland, I met an American woman who gave me my best career advice to date.

In the 1920s, this woman’s mother had emigrated from Ireland to America to become a house maid in one of those Downton Abbey getups where she wore a black dress and a frilly cap and said, “Yes ma’am” and, “No ma’am.”

“Can you cook?” “Can you run the laundry?” “Can you sew?” Each prospective boss had her own set of interview questions for this young maid from Ireland.

“Yes,” “Yes,” and, “Yes,” the young émigré said. “And then,” (she told her daughter) “I’d run back to the boarding house or to the town library to study and study until I actually could do what I said I could do.”

My American friend chuckled as she told me this story about her freewheeling late mother. Then she said: “I’ve never forgotten Mum’s story and its inherent advice: Say you can do it, and then make sure you really can.”

Neither have I. For over two decades, it has served me well.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t advocate “saying you can” if it means fudging your skills, education, or aptitudes in the workplace. For one thing, who among us hasn’t witnessed the fallout or picked up the slack when a new colleague’s resume turns out to be more wish list than skill list?

Even if it weren't unethical (which it is), in these days of online portfolios and professional networking sites, misrepresenting ourselves can land us and our resumes on the liars’ blacklist.

Still, I believe that we should take an annual inventory of our current job roles and skill areas and submit them to an annual “What else could I do?” audit.

I went to college in the early 1980s, in a country where, at least for us rural girls, young women were supposed to follow a gender-appropriate (read: limited) educational and career track. So I feel a touch envious when I look at today’s higher education offerings and the huge menu of college course choices—especially for women. But I also wonder if, nowadays, we haven’t over specialized, if we aren't graduating our 20 and 30-somethings with a contrived set of mono-skills. I also wonder if these mono-skills limit our newbie graduates' usefulness and adaptability in a real-world, constantly evolving workplace.

If you’re changing industries or working in a new country, the “What can you do?” question is sometimes a matter of semantics. I learned this when I interviewed for a job in which the recruiter asked, “What’s your experience with project management? And what project management software have you used?” Like an idiot, and against my friend’s mother’s advice, I looked across the desk at her and said, “I’m afraid I don’t have any.”

I got the job anyway. A few days in, I discovered that “project management,” at least as it applied in the communications field, is a matter of efficiently managing your jobs and deadlines. I did try out some of the software. None of it was as good as my old, tried-and-true tricks: a daily hand-written project list and my Outlook alerts. The lesson: Before you move to a new region, look up the major companies and job advertisements to see what they are naming something you already do (or can do).

But in the meantime, here are five tips for expanding your skill set and being ready to say, “Yes I can!” to that next job promotion or opportunity.

1. What Can I Improve or Expand?

Take an inventory of your entire skills list. Then, ask yourself, “Which areas could be expanded with just a little more training?”

2. Did Someone Say Training?

Getting from where you are now to where you could or should be can be easier and cheaper than you might think. Many national or regional trade associations offer free or very low-cost webinars, many of which are taught by national experts. Then, the webinars are archived at the association’s website for your cheat-sheet reference. Also, look up the top business consultants in your industry. As part of their own outreach or customer-loyalty programs, many consultants deliver value-packed information via their freebie newsletters or online blogs.

Or, simply Google your target topic. There are more online how-to articles and videos than you may ever need. And check your neighborhood adult or continuing education classes. A short, six-week class or training may be all you need to push that one skill area from dabbler to do-er.

3. Use it or Lose It

Back in my previous life as a teacher, we believed that students had an eight-hour window in which to practice whatever they had learned in the classroom. Ditto for our workplace skills. While webinars and trainings are great, it’s important to put them into immediate use and practice.

4. Learn the Vocabulary

Knowing the lingo isn’t the same as having the skillbut in a job or promotion interview, talking the talk, or using or asking questions in the correct terminology, will show your commitment and readiness to learn more.

5. Volunteer

Want to add grant or proposal writing to your toolbox? Or gain experience in events management? Your local library, youth group, or food pantry may be very pleased to have you. By volunteering just a few hours a month, these budget-strapped organizations get your skills, while you get the on-the-job experience and, hopefully, tangible and brag-able outcomes.

My friend told me that her immigrant mother was never without a job. And, when this housemaid felt exploited or overworked in one house, she simply moved on to the next job with her newly learned abilities—and a new confidence to say, “Yeah. No problem. I can do that.”

Photo of woman working courtesy of Shutterstock.