Navigating the Workplace to Grow Your Career Effectively – As Told by My Career Tour Guides

Now Brewing: Indian Summer Montmorency Cherry Juice. So much love for this juice, even though it’s not coffee. Best part? 0 added sugars!

Throughout 2015, I had the opportunity to interview many of my fantastic teammates for internal staff featurettes. Although I use a mix of fun and unique questions in these stories, one that I always include is “what is your favorite part of working here?”

For me, what I enjoy most is how each day I get to think and write differently, from proposals and case studies to marketing and internal communications. Growing up, I never envisioned myself becoming a sales writer at an engineering firm. I’ve written before that my dream is to be an author (still is!), but as I grew, my interests and writing skills have shifted. Now, I absolutely love the challenge of working in a field where I’m constantly learning and exercising my talents in new ways.

One of the resounding answers I hear from my teammates though is that our people are what makes working at CH2M special. In my nearly two years with the company, I’ve learned that the firm prides itself on its people and our culture. I see it firsthand every day when I come into the office, whether at home in Milwaukee, or to any number of the offices I’ve had the chance to visit – our creative team and our technical specialists are truly what make us an incredible company. Across the firm, I’ve found guides and mentors in people who have built their careers here and understand what it takes to be successful in a growing, international organization. Apart from reaffirming how great our people are, much of their advice to me in my early career shaped my progress.

people-apple-iphone-writing-mediumNo matter what industry you’re in, there are certain behaviors that can be important in helping advance your career – I’ve summarized some of the most impactful advice I’ve received below in hopes that it will be as beneficial to others on a similar journey as it has been for me.

Even when I was in college, our professional organization (Public Relations Student Society of America) leaders, guest speakers and conference attendants really emphasized how important growing our networks and connecting with other people in and outside our field would be to landing a job post-graduation. I often heard the phrase, “It’s not so much what you know, but who you know that will lead to your early success.” The importance of building connections doesn’t evaporate the moment you walk across the stage though, relationship building is a constant behavior professionals should continue throughout their careers.

One of my firm’s long-time sales leaders shared this anecdotal story with me recently: “A million years ago, well actually 17 years ago, I attended my first sales training. This guy I kept running into around the training stood up as one of the speakers in the first module and said, “Now listen to this. Are you listening?” Then he said, “RELATIONSHIPS, RELATIONSHIPS, RELATIONSHIPS. These are the three most important things to know about sales not only externally, but also internally.”

The sales leader went on to share that he’s lived by these words since – and he now functions in a similar role as the esteemed speaker at the training he attended. Relationship building isn’t just important in sales – making quality connections with others inside and outside your industry is key to progressing your career and finding new opportunities to grow.

A project manager I recently worked with shared that her top tip for junior staff looking to improve their efficiency is to be openly communicative. She said, “Being open about your progress is very important. If you can’t get something done, it’s good to be upfront so that as a team, we can work together to achieve our targets. It’s certainly not about being perfect.” 

What I’ve found is that even though it can be intimidating to speak up about not being able to do something, it’s important to prioritize your time, so that you’re aware of instances where you might not meet a schedule or an expectation, and then can timely communicate those instances, rather than risk slowing progress further. The project manager reinforced this notion by saying, “Part of communication is proactively letting folks know when you can’t make schedule or budget.  Saying something way in advance is much better than waiting until it’s too late.”

Perhaps one of the best pieces of advice I’ve learned so far is to always ask What’s In It For Me? (WIIFM) when writing a piece. This applies to just about every form of communication – resonating with your audience is imperative. A sales leader in my home office recommended, “When you write or conceptualize graphics, you should be positioning key text and visuals to hone in on how the audience benefits. More simply, you could give your audience a box, some wrapping paper and ribbon, or you can wrap the box, tie a bow around it and give them a gift!” Understanding your audience is important – whether you’re writing copy for an advertisement or teaching fifth graders – knowing who you’re talking to and what’s important to them is critical to delivering a message both understandable and memorable.

It’s no secret that to grow, you need to be hungry for advancement. I recently read the book, H3 Leadership: Be Humble. Stay Hungry. Always Hustle and found that many of the anecdotes written in the book were similar to what I’d heard from my mentors, especially when it came to advancing my career. For example, in the book author Brad Lomenick includes a chapter entitled, “A Habit of Curiosity,” which encourages readers to be on a continuous learning journey. Similarly, another leader in my company recounted that her top tip for those looking to grow their careers is to embrace curiosity. In our field, many of the sales and proposal professionals don’t have technical backgrounds. She said, “The surest way to advance your career and help your teams win work at the same time is to learn the technology, terminology, and challenges of the clients in the business groups you work with most. I asked lots of “dumb” questions and then did my own research to learn more. The technical staff I worked with saw that I cared about getting it right and that I was thinking more critically about what I was doing for them. They gave me more and more opportunities, and my career grew exponentially. So I encourage those looking to grow their careers more quickly to not just learn proposal management, but to also learn the context of what our engineers, planners, and scientists are doing.”

Although her example is specific to the proposal development and sales, its message resonates for any career. By being eager to learn more about what others in your company do, you’ll not only show leaders that you’re dedicated to professional growth, you’ll also likely improve your own efficiency because you can better deliver company services when you have a deeper understanding of an organization as a whole.

Another important behavior that ties directly into embracing curiosity is learning about and committing to your company’s business and financial goals and strategies. My great mentor and friend shared the following, “In addition to participating in as many leadership classes and trainings as you can, start developing an understanding of your company’s business and financial goals. Then use that understanding to help the company succeed in its goals. Understand the goals motivating your supervisor and the goals motivating their supervisor and so on. Advancing one’s career is about more than just leadership skills (although those are equally as important!); one also needs to have strong strategic business and financial acumen. It’s helpful when you have started developing this acumen early on, because when you start asking those kinds of questions and making them a part of your habitual way of working, it becomes a natural process.”

Personally, understanding both my supervisor’s goals and my firm’s strategy helps me visualize where my career is going and I’ve also found that it’s a lot easier to feel gratified in your work if you understand that what you’re doing fits directly into your company or boss’s goals. My mentor also shared this great TedTalk about her tip here: http://go.ted.com/CG7M .

Going along with learning about your company and its staff, never be too timid about asking questions. “Most people will want to help and by asking questions you are showing them that you are interested, engaged, and committed to finding solutions. Think of it this way: you are providing them an opportunity to coach and possibly mentor you, thus creating an avenue for career growth,” one of my previous bosses once said.

A talented graphic designer I work with echoed that sentiment saying, “Don’t know what an acronym stands for that’s being thrown around a meeting? Can’t figure out how to do something in a program? Not sure which “Dave” the team is talking about? It’s okay if you don’t know … but don’t be afraid to ask someone to clarify.”

I certainly understand the hesitation about raising your hand and asking what could be perceived as a dumb question. For the first few days at my previous position, I was petrified to even ask my co-workers for the office WiFi password. To combat this fear and overcome the hurdle, my designer colleague shared, “It can be awkward to ask a question in a kick off meeting or in front of a large group, so take note of your questions and ask a teammate at a more convenient, less intimidating time. We’ve all likely been there and are here to help you be successful.”

Luckily I’ve learned that it is far better to find a solution early on than to shy away from asking and facing an even larger hurdle later when you still aren’t sure of the answer. Now, I ask “dumb” questions all the time and I’ve come to accept that it’s just part of the journey.

A fantastic, sometimes confusing, and always changing journey that I’m so very happy to be on.

Keep growing my friends,

Kathryn E. Weast

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