There’s at least three phases in a career path. There’s early career, mid-career, and established career. Often times, however, the advice given for professional development does not take into account the unique experiences that someone in each phase might experience. For instance, advice for early career development may seem to simplistic for someone who’s more established in their career. Advice to someone more experienced in their career will assume that person has had a wide range of experiences and coaching that has supported their evolution – which won’t work for someone early in their career.

Here, we will offer 6 pieces of advice for those early in their career based on research from Standford University.

First, let’s be clear about what we mean by early career. For our purposes, early career is someone who:

  • Has less than 7 years experience in the workforce.
  • May have held only one or two ‘serious’ positions. They may, however, have had other jobs like barista or lab assistant.
  • Is still exploring career options, and hasn’t yet focused heavily on career management.

In working with those who are early in their careers, I find that they are often eager to try new things. At the same time, they can be somewhat unpolished when it comes to managing workplace interactions and/or politics. And it is because of those I’ve worked with that I thought this post might be valuable in guiding early career development.

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While I draw heavily from the research from Standford on MBAs taking on new leadership roles, I selected advice that could generalize to anyone’s early career development regardless of their role or educational background.

6 tips for early career development

1. Initial impressions can have long lasting effects on your ability to access future opportunities (Willis & Todorov, 2009).

In a prior post, I’ve talked about how impressions of you can start earlier than you realize in interviewing scenarios. But, in this case, the advice goes further to suggest that early missteps can have long reaching impacts such as attitude, quality of work, or ability to communicate. It can impact whether someone gives you a special project or task. Early impressions can also impact whether someone will want to take you under their wing to mentor you. And, those impressions can stick to you as you interview for future promotions.

2. Understand that every interaction with someone has potential.

Think carefully about how you engage and what you want to accomplish with the interaction. This is especially true as you interact with people higher in the organizational hierarchy.

Are you looking to build rapport? Do you want to change their mind about something? Are you seeking their support? Do you want them to advocate on your behalf? In short, you’ll want to carefully shape your reputation.

Whatever you are trying to accomplish, it’s important to be mindful and intentional. There are specific things you can do to build rapport. Similarly, there’s specific things you can do to change someone’s mind. So you’ll want to research and read up on those things in advance.

3. Place at least equal priority on relationship building as you do on your tasks.

The days of being uber successful through individual accomplishments are largely over. Many who move up the ranks by alienating their peers or ‘doing whatever it takes no matter the consequences’ soon find this out.

It’s important to treat teammates as someone who might be your boss someday. Or, as someone who might someday work for you. In either case, I assure you, you do not want them as enemies and still hope to be successful. Similarly, you never know when someone will hold the key to making an exception for you. Their willingness to make the exception hinges on their prior experience with you.

4. Ask questions to clarify priorities and expectations of your supervisor.

In the past, I’ve written about how asking questions can help you avoid a great deal of rework. But, if we go back to Tip #1, failure to execute early can hurt you. It may be that you’ll seem like someone who can’t be trusted to get the work done. Or, you may be seen as someone who doesn’t follow instructions (even if those initial instructions weren’t clear). Or perhaps you may be seen as someone who can’t prioritize.

5. Don’t be a problem your supervisor has to solve.

Now, I do not mean to not bring problems to supervisors. What I mean is don’t be their actual problem. Are they constantly having to mediate conflicts for you? Do they have to explain to others why you did something the way you did? Do you require constant follow up to get you to meet deadlines? Are you overly sensitive, requiring they walk on egg shells to give you constructive feedback?

6. How you respond to a setback can be as important, if not more so, than whatever the setback was to start.

Are you someone who gets angry, lashes out, or blames others when something goes wrong? Or, are you someone that takes the time to understand what happened before making any rash decisions? As you move through your career, you’ll find that nothing works out perfectly a 100% of the time. But the person who learns from those situations, recovers, and moves forward are the ones who will be successful.

What advice do you have for those who are in early career development? If you have a blog of your own, feel free to link to a specific article that you think others who are early in their careers will find helpful.

If you have interest in professional development goals, you might like our article on skills you should include in your individual development plans (IDPs).