10+ ways to kick your ass into high gear & accelerate your career

I worked my way up slowly but surely, starting as a Content Writer for a startup after graduating with a BA in English from UCLA — and ending with my current position as a Marketing Director for sFBI, a venture builder in Tel Aviv, Israel. But, that ascent could’ve been faster, much faster, had I approached my career from the start with more focus and maturity, not to mention a little more tolerance for risk. Here are 10 things I believe recent graduates can do to get more out of their present job — so the next one will be a jump up.

The Interview Process

1. Seek out jobs that you feel somewhat unprepared for, but whose requirements excite you

The big risk with unknown candidates is that it’s hard to pinpoint certain soft skills: the ability to be organized and responsive, set goals and stay focused, work well with others, and navigate the various hurdles of specific companies and positions. To prove you have the soft skills, there are 3 things you can do:

  1. Start building your network and leveraging your contacts. Contacts within the company who know you will be able to vouch for your “soft” skills — including the ability to learn what you don’t know.
  2. Have a couple examples from school work, volunteering, or internships where you showed your capacity to navigate problems, work with others, and stay on track with goals.
  3. Let your confidence shine in interviews.

Hard skills are far easier for hiring managers to quantify — see that as an opportunity. If you don’t have a specific skill and you know it’s non-negotiable, do one of the following:

  1. Take classes and get certifications — between Coursera, Lynda, Treehouse, Udemy, and many, many others, the only barrier to learning is your ability to pay attention.
  2. Whatever skills are needed in your dream job, do them for free for somebody, anybody, maybe even for yourself — just do something that illustrates you have them.

2. Think about each job in terms of what you want to write on your resume after the job’s long gone

One way to back into this is to look at listings of the job you want next and zero in on developing those skills. Create a short list — a post-it even — and refer to it daily as a way to stay results-oriented and turn things down that steer you off your path. It’s important early in your career not to be inflexible, but if you can set up a habit across jobs of having a goal, setting yourself to it, and speaking in terms of percentage increases in money saved, efficiencies gained, leads converted, etc., you’ll be well on your way to being the most competitive hire on the application pile.

I recommend using your first 90 days at a company assessing possible barriers to achieving your goals. Every company has its limitations and often what separates the successful from the average is understanding how to navigate them. Pay close attention to your gut feeling and practice articulating your thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of your team, the departments you work with, the structure of the company, and anybody outside the company you work with.

The key here is to stay neutral — the purpose of this exercise isn’t to complain — rather, it’s to be practical and solution-oriented. What can be done to neutralize barriers in a way that doesn’t negatively impact stakeholders? Maybe there are unexpected solutions — make a plan to implement them. Check this list every 3 months and assess your progress — have problems been solved? Have you made progress towards your goals? Have new problems arisen?

A second element of this recommendation is to have somebody close to you who you can ask for advice, somebody who is ready and willing to have a basic understanding of your work conditions and keep up with the latest shenanigans of your bosses or co-workers. This can be a husband or wife, sister or brother, mother or father, or close friend. It doesn’t matter. Just make sure they’re capable of being and staying objective.

3. Try to understand in interviews how much responsibility you’ll be given.

Avoid roles that are especially fixed unless you’re comfortable staying put and having a slow ascent up. On the other hand, avoid roles that feel unstructured because you will likely need budget, resources, and guidance to make a difference.

To get closer to understanding this, ask the following questions during the interview. Another option is to ask any contacts you have who are familiar with the department or company.

  1. What is the #1 goal of the department?
  2. How is the department and company set up to achieve that goal?
  3. What other departments are central to the goal and what is the process like working with them?
  4. What are the central challenges to getting there?
  5. If you wanted to introduce something new that you think will bring the department closer to that goal, what would the process be like?
  6. What are employee evaluations based on and what will you need to do to score high?

4. Sounds obvious, but make sure your personal goals match — or at least overlap — the goals of the company

Needed to be said.

Beware the Startup

5. Don’t join a startup just because — look closely at the founding team & see what they’ve done

Startups are risky business. For every 1 new graduate who joins a startup thinking that a startup’s quick ascent will bolster their career — and it does, there are 9 new graduates who don’t have a job in a year. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with being a part of a failed startup — you will learn A LOT, both in terms of what NOT to do general, but also in terms of taking on a lot more responsibility than at any other type of company.

The key here is to understand what your personal goal is from the startup no matter the outcome so that you’ll have something significant to show for your work there when shit hits the fan. But, if you are hell-bent on taking the fast-track to C-level status with a startup, closely examine the founding team — what have they founded before, what have they sold, what are their backgrounds, and what specific verticals do they have a specialty in. It might even be worthwhile to do some additional research — and schedule meetings with any shared contacts — to understand if they have a track record of mentorship.

Outside the 9–5

6. Do something on your own in the industry, even tangentially, that excites you

Understand that it may take a while to see results, but that sometimes showing initiative and getting traction outside of a established career path can greatly accelerate your progress. You’ll show recruiters that you have passion and the specific skill set it takes to succeed — not to mention up-to-date industry knowledge. Possible ideas include:

  1. Helping your parent’s or friend’s business succeed
  2. Starting a blog around your niche and building a readership
  3. Mentoring startups or new business owners
  4. Volunteering your services with a non-profit or volunteer organization
  5. Hosting events and bringing on speakers

7. As soon as you have any semblance of a salable skill, try to sell it and grab a client or two

I’m not saying you should put up a shingle and set up shop, but the process of taking on and delivering to a client will teach you more about the specific skill set that matters in an industry than pushing paper at any 9-to-5. It will also help keep your ears open to opportunities and teach you a thing or two about sales and closing deals — a life-long skill in and out of the office.

Patrick McGinnis, author of The 10% Entrepreneur, recommends this anyway as a way of hedging your bets in an increasingly unstable economy. Having something going on outside the office will make you sharper in your 9-to-5 and put you in a better position should it ever put up the shutters, not to mention keep your confidence up no matter what happens.

Your Reputation

8. Keep all of your relationships professional and make a note to follow up with people every 6 months or so

The key to keeping relationships professional is simple: be honest about what you can deliver, be reliable, and keep things positive. There really isn’t more to it. Professionals are professionals because they stick to the big picture and don’t take things personally. Whatever your grievances, remember all it takes is a few rules to get started on earning — and keeping — a solid reputation.

As for following up with your contacts, don’t be afraid to be methodical about it. To some people, it comes naturally. To most of us, it’ll take a nudge. Even just a quick catch-up on Facebook counts, or a personal congratulations after marriages or new jobs. The more you do this, the more naturally it will come.

In some circles, like entrepreneurship, networking is the bread and butter of the industry; in others, or to the uninitiated, it can be a drag. Keep at it and you’ll find out the power of your network sooner than later and get hooked. Free tools like Streak, a Chrome extension that sits in your Gmail, are perfect for this.

Network, network, network

9. Attend conferences and industry and networking events & add interesting people to that list

Aim for at least 2 events a month. And don’t be afraid to be crafty about the conferences that cost money — on a couple occasions, I volunteered to blog for expensive conferences in exchange for free admission. Interviewing speakers can be a great excuse to meet the big-hitters if you’re naturally shy (like me). Sometimes, even an email begging for free admission because you’re a student or recent graduate will do the trick. Just remember to follow up after the conference to stay fresh in the mind of anybody you meet — they just met a lot of people.

Even outside of conferences and events, remember that there’s a strong tradition of mentorship in business. Don’t be afraid to send coffee email-invites to high-rollers just because — being a student is often reason enough for an executive to meet with you. Tim Ferriss wrote in The 4-Hour Workweek about assigning all of his students at Princeton to email their dream mentors — some didn’t out of shyness, but the ones who did reaped a lot of benefit. It was actually pretty easy.

10. Grow a small circle of people in your industry and try to meet up with them regularly

You can meet these people anywhere — events, conferences, Slack groups, Facebook groups, Twitter. In cities with strong industries, the more you stick your nose out, the more you’ll meet people in your professional space. As much as you might want to view them as competition (and maybe in some competitive industries, it’s unavoidable), you’ll likely find that in fact this group will become a source of referrals, inspiration, and solutions to problems. If you find that there isn’t a meetup in your city around your particular niche — even better, start your own.

Act Fast

11. Recognize early if a job isn’t all its cracked out to be

As you do your 3-month assessments to see if you’re on your way towards your goals, check if successive 3-month assessments haven’t shown improvement despite your efforts to neutralize obstacles. If that’s the case, start looking outside the company. It’s rare that a job that isn’t what you wanted it to be will ever change. The longer you delay the conditions that will allow you to succeed, the longer you put off success. Don’t be afraid of job-hopping — be afraid of delaying the job where you’re meant to be.

Natalie Edwards is a Marketing Director at sFBI, a startup studio based in Tel Aviv, Israel, & leads marketing for several B2H startups (that’s Business-to-Human). But, she’ll soon be moving from one beach town to another and setting up shop in San Diego, California. To talk marketing strategy, content marketing, & more for your company, email her at natalie@natalieanne.ink.