Almost two weeks ago I typed up a letter. I signed it, scanned it, and emailed Human Resources the conclusion of a five-year career with a company I loved.
In one of the most difficult decisions I’ve made to date, I chose to resign from my dream job to stay home with my six-week old daughter. So many emotions. Though I spent the last five years at my most recent job, I’ve been working in some capacity for the last ten. Transitioning to stay-at-home mom gave me time to consider all the highs and lows of those years: the fond memories I had of coworkers and experiences, but also the things I would do differently if I had it all over again.
I spent time in several different offices over that decade, and no matter what the industry, staff, or location, some principles of behavior were universal. So looking back on those years, there are five things I’d tell young women on the brink of their own careers:
1. Give the benefit of the doubt – always.
When there’s more than one employee trying to prove herself for that promotion, things can get pretty competitive. Since trust is the basis of good relationships – whether between spouses or between coworkers – it is important to extend trust to your colleagues even in a high stress, dog-eat-dog environment.
This doesn’t mean being a doormat (which is how the world sees humility). As Christians we are not to enter any sphere – including the workplace – with a critical and judgmental attitude, nor do we need to play the fool in order to maintain our Christian witness. In my own career, refusing to think the best of my colleagues’ motives only resulted in strained relationships down the road. Strike a balance of trust, giving the benefit of the doubt until actions prove the truth of your colleagues’ character.
2. Stop fighting colleagues’ battles.
Loyalty is a good thing, but don’t let it form battle lines in your office. Since many of my coworkers were also my friends, there were times in my career where I struggled to find the balance between what was my business and what was theirs. If a friend was disrespected by a manager, I took offense on her behalf out of loyalty – but it wasn’t my battle to fight.
Allowing your coworkers to fight their own battles gives them the experience they need for their own career, but it also protects you from jeopardizing your own. Drawing battle lines and taking sides comes naturally, but is not always the wisest decision in an office environment. Settle for an after-hours vent session rather than an inner-office war.
3. Listen first, speak later (or not at all).
There is a meme on Pinterest I had pinned to my cube. It was a picture of a blue ribbon that said: “I survived another meeting that should have been an email.” And yes, there were days when all I did was go to meeting after meeting! Sometimes my input was desired; sometimes it wasn’t. And sometimes I gave my input when it wasn’t desired, which is the most awkward scenario of the three.
This principle is especially important for women leaving college to enter the workforce. In college, we learn the principles and prototypes of the field we intend to enter, but we haven’t actually done the work yet. We haven’t experienced it in real time. So make an effort to listen to your managers, supervisors, and particularly, the leaders of your company. Watch what they do and what makes them successful. Once you’ve watched for a while, you’ll be able to offer ideas from an educated and knowledgeable perspective, and you’ll know the best way to present your information. And once you know what you’re going to say, say it with confidence!
4. Choose companions carefully.
In every job I held, my coworkers quickly became my friends. But just as in any sphere of life, you must choose friends wisely in your workplace, because “bad company corrupts good morals” (1 Cor. 15:33). And bad company at work can do more than affect your character: it can ruin your career. Spending time with the office Negative Nancy will eventually affect your own view of management. Being regularly seen with the office flirt can result in cubical gossip you didn’t want to deal with. Be wise in choosing with whom you surround yourself and try to choose people who build you up personally and professionally.
You may be wondering how this skeptical approach jives with giving the benefit of the doubt – trust me, it’s possible! It means taking the time to get to know your colleagues over the first few months on the job. Once you’ve learned the personalities in the office, you can make an educated decision and commit to friendships. Thinking the best of people is not mutually exclusive with protecting your professional career; it simply takes balance.
(This goes for office romances as well – it is important to weigh the consequences before diving in.)
5. Realize that criticism builds character.
The first time I was called into my director’s office for my annual review, I wanted to die. I was terrified of hearing what I’d done wrong. It took a few years for me to realize that constructive criticism is not personal: it’s professional, and it’s designed to help you be a better employee. Reviewing my performance was my director’s way of paving my path to future promotions and raises. We can’t grow professionally if we never learn what we can improve.
Recognize that your boss’s criticism – even if it’s not delivered in the nicest way – can help you become a stronger, wiser employee, better equipped for more challenging tasks. Don’t take it personally. Take it in stride and let your humility build confidence in your professional self.
I wish I’d known these things when I started my career. I could have saved myself a lot of time and drama! I may have learned them the hard way, but in learning them, I saw my professional self grow by leaps and bounds, paving the way to my dream job. You can shortcut the learning curve by implementing these principles from the beginning of your career, entering the workforce with wisdom and confidence.