Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Notes from the front line (Part 1)



I have to say, I was pretty chuffed when the good folks at TheLadders asked me to help "spread a bit of wisdom" for the next generation of career-driven professionals.

So, I gots me to thinking: what do I wish I'd known when I graduated from university and started working?

Let me give you some context: I graduated with a major in English (Creative Writing) and a minor in Classical Studies. So, in all likelihood, it was the three years of retail/customer service experience (a weekend job at a jewellery store in the city) that helped me my get first full-time ongoing job: an enquiries officer at the university I had just graduated from.

This little front line role ended up being the launching pad for a career spanning twenty years, culminating in a senior specialist research and policy development role created specifically with my skills and availability in mind.

Which sounds pretty fancy but, actually, all I ever really wanted to do was be a writer. In the end, I consoled myself that I was finally living at least part of my dream. After all, I was writing for the university: marketing strategies, recruitment plans, functional reviews, academic board proposals etc.

Today, I am the writer and blogger I always dreamt of being and I can say without hesitation that the journey from enquiries officer to policy analyst was exactly what brought me here. Getting from there to here,  however, took me twenty years and I wasn't always so sure it was going to pan out the way I'd hoped.

So today, tomorrow and the day after I am going to: share some of the things that may reassure you on your own journey; give you some insight as to why my own professional evolution took so long; and give you some reasons why yours might happen a lot faster!

Without further ado:

Knowing what I do now, I can reassure you that (Part I):

1) you don't need to have it all figured out.

I loved writing but wasn't cut out to be a journalist and had no desire to sit public service exams. University administration didn't exactly light me up and, after a while, I got so sucked in to the corporate vortex that I was hardly reading at all, let alone writing. I didn't want to admit what I really wanted to do because I wasn't actually doing it and who makes a living out of not doing something (other than pointless celebrities)?

Although I didn't love it at the time, I see now that that the time I spent building my university career was incredibly valuable, actually instrumental, in my journey towards being a writer. I developed some amazing writing, editing and organisational skills, and I learnt first hand about negotiation, accountability and cross-cultural business mores. I also developed resilience and firm boundary-setting skills.

2) it's really useful to start at the bottom.

My first job was a Level Two as far as seniority and salaries go. The cleaning staff were Level One and general managers Level Ten. Many years later,  all Level Two roles were all reclassified to Level Three i.e. ceased to exist. I guess someone realised how hard it is to attract and keep quality applicants in entry level roles if don't challenge them sufficiently and pay them a pittance.

I can't say I was a good fit for the enquiries officer role and there were a few aspects of the corporate culture that were somewhat troubling. But I learnt a lot right there at the coal face about what students wanted and needed, the sort of support academic staff required and how different departments of the university worked together (or not).

As I progressed my way up the ladder -- my final role was Level Nine -- I was surprised to learn just how many senior and executive colleagues had started their careers as enquiries officers, just like me. I noticed how they often referred back to the knowledge and skills they'd developed at the front line, particularly the direct interface with students.

3) it's a good idea to be the one who says yes (especially if you work in a culture that is all about no).

Working for a large and complex organisation provided a unique opportunity to gain a broad range of skills and experiences without having to change roles or employers. There were always committees, reviews and working groups; community, environmental and social justice projects; even extra curricular and social activities.

You know the execs I mentioned, the ones who started at the front line like me? They made a point of getting involved in stuff. This way, they became known to other, more senior people who saw what they could do and liked their attitude. They became hot prospects in terms of careers advancement not only because of their skills and experience but also their contacts and corporate knowledge.

I know from experience that there are lot of cynics out there. I know because I used to be one of them. What's the point in doing more than I absolutely have to? Why do extra stuff if I'm not getting paid for it? Who wants to spend more time in boring meetings? Who's going to notice anyway?

Trust me : people do notice. And the cynics? They won't be around forever (as much as it might feel like it). And you? You won't be around forever either (as much as it might feel like it). You've got bigger fish to fry. Think of it as an investment in your CV and contacts folder. You really will be surprised what and who comes in handy down the track.

Come back tomorrow for Part II!

P.S. The photo was taken taken at the recent Bohemian Melbourne exhibition: it's a painting by Albert Tucker of Vali Myers in Paris. It conveys perfectly how I felt about a lot of my early working life...

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