Starting your first “career” job can be exciting. You’ve finished college and you finally have that first job, even if it is on the bottom of the ladder. You feel excited, motivated, relieved (it’s a tough job market), and ready to take on the world.
Then reality hits you: in the real world your work is usually only noticed by a small number of individuals. If you work for a giant company, you realize that your entire team’s work is felt by a small number of other teams. Everyone you work with is at least fairly competent, and you realize just how hard it is to stand out among your coworkers.
Additionally, you realize just how hopelessly dependent you are on other people’s performance. You would have had that project done a week ago…if the John and Jane would have returned your emails. You would have everything submitted on time…but Joe made it a low priority to provide you direction. The event would have been great…but Sarah waited until the last minute to book entertainment.
There are ways to stand out and provide value at work, regardless of the seemingly endless number of hurdles you will inevitably face.
1) Attain Unique Knowledge
Every company looks for employees who know things that others do not. Considering we are in the age of Wikipedia and open information, it’s surprising how much information employees do not know about their company, their industry, and even their specific tasks. For example there is an unlimited amount of information you could learn about the Health Care Reform law in the United States and how it impacts health insurers and providers, but a surprisingly low percentage of people working in the health care industry have a robust understanding of the law. This type of information could be simply obtained by completing a masters in public health degree if you are self-motivated enough to pursue it. As an employee if you can learn information about important legislation or changes to an industry and coherently explain how it will impact your job function and company specifically, you have a huge leg up on all the other employees who are just starting out (and those who have been around for a long time).
2) Learn How to do your job, then learn Why
There is a “breaking in” stage of every job. If you are in your first or second job out of college, this stage may be longer than people who have a couple of decades of experience under their belt. The dirty little secret is that there is a huge pool of candidates who can do a job competently; there if a far smaller pool of candidates who will learn how to do the job and then challenge the way it’s always been done. Pretty much any job you can possibly imagine can be done better in some way, even if it seems like the way it’s always been done is just fine.
Decades ago there were teams of people manually doing jobs that are now done by one person who utilizes various technological resources to do the work it took a whole team to do in the past. That one person is likely someone who challenged the way things were done, not someone who just accepted the fact that things were always going to be the way they have been.
3) Learn Processes, then Improve and Automate
Piggybacking on learning how to do your job and then learning (and challenging) why it is done that way, one of the best things a young worker can do is to learn, improve, and automate processes. Just like the above example, the more you can automate the more value you bring to a company; over time you may be saving them millions by pushing the envelope of what can be done given the resources available to you.
What companies care about (for-profits and non-profits alike) is results. How many people attended an event you organized? How many reports can you tie-out and manage in a given 8-hour day? How satisfied were the clients with the service you provided? It should be everyone’s goal to “do better” than the job or task has been done in the past. This requires understanding the process, looking for flaws or areas for improvements through analyzing a process, and finally automation (if possible). If you work at a child care facility, how can you improve the check-in and check-out process to eliminate manual tasks? What can be done to better accommodate customers at your car dealership? Processes are meant to be improved.
4) Create Something New
Improving things is always good, but you can create some serious value by creating something new. Even if your job description isn’t to create new products and services, there is usually something of value that can be created that has yet to be built. In pretty much every workplace there is some level of resistance to change or the creation of new things. The best way to deal with this reality is to understand that your innovation and creating of new things will actually have a much bigger impact in this sort of an environment. If you worked a place where you were expected to create, and to create often, the new things you spend time and energy creating will have less of an impact and will certainly stand out less. Consider making the action of creating a normal part of your workday.
5) Connect with Others
Some people see little benefit in connecting with people who do not directly impact their work. I think there is value in connecting with people who do entirely different work than you, especially if they are outside of your company. Frequently people who have been working at a company for a long period of time start having tunnel vision as far as how things can be changed or improved. Connecting with people who work for different companies in different industries doing different things than you can provide you a variety of perspectives that will help you avoid tunnel vision.
The easiest way to connect with others is within your own company. Whether it is through volunteer events, company-wide events, or just staying in touch with them long after that project you collaborated on is complete, knowing people within your company can be a great value to you and your work. It helps you understand perspectives and priorities of people who you do not normally work with.
Whether you are just starting your career or are simply struggling to figure out ways to provide value and inevitably stand out among your co-workers, there are many things you can do that will make an impact. It may not seem like networking with people or spending time improving processes will have an impact, but it’s been shown that long-term these are things that can potentially provide a lot of value both for you individually and your company as a whole.
Are you a young adult in the beginning of their career? What have you done to stand out or provide value at your job? If you have been working for a couple decades or more, what advice do you have for those who have been out of college less than ten years?
Photo by Dell Inc.