Eight Life Lessons I Learned from Climbing the Corporate Ladder
I absolutely love my job as a freelance content marketer, consultant and brand strategist, but I wasn’t always in the freelance market. For five years I worked in the high-demand, fast-paced world of corporate. I began my corporate journey as an entry-level Web editor and ended it as Director of Content Marketing and Brand Strategy.
From entry-level to Director level, I climbed the corporate ladder very successfully—and I am proud of myself for accomplishing what I have in just a few short years. I learned a heck of a lot by grinding day in and day out in the cutthroat world of corporate, but these eight lessons are the most important of them all…
- Find a mentor
Find someone you can connect with, who has been in your shoes before you, who can guide you into becoming the person you strive to be. Find someone who isn’t afraid to hold you accountable and ask the hard questions but, at the same time, will also sit quietly when you need to cry at work (yes, it happened a couple times even to a stone-faced person like me). Thinking about my mentor from corporate always brings such a smile to my face and warmth to my heart. We traveled to corporate events together, and she wouldn’t think twice about staying two or three hours after end of day to talk with me about everything and anything if need be (even though she had her own family to care for). She even came to my wedding in May.
Even though we now live thousands of miles apart (her in RI and me in CA) we still keep in touch. A true mentor is someone with the rare ability to see more for your life than you do at the moment, and who believes in you more than you know. I take pride in my ambition and drive; however, I am confident I wouldn’t be where I am today if it hadn’t been for my one-in-a-million mentor believing in me, coaching me, encouraging me and, above all, opening doors for me.
- Don’t be afraid to be yourself
Starting a new job can feel like attending a new school; you don’t know anybody and, if you’re lucky, you’ll get asked to join a group of people to the cafeteria for lunch. Just put yourself out there. Unashamedly be yourself. Don’t be afraid to be who you are, even if you’re sharing a small cubicle with another person (the kind where you can barely turn around in your chair without bumping into one another).
When I started my entry-level position, I proudly walked in with my desk décor and family photos and carefully set everything up; it was like I was dorming all over again. I had Game of Thrones collectable bobble heads and an Oscar Wilde talking figurine (writing nerd much?). Soon, I was having side conversations with coworkers about Game of Throne theories and we were making ridiculous jokes silently from across the cubicle via IM. Don’t force yourself to settle in more quickly than you can handle; just take one day at a time and be yourself.
- You don’t owe anyone explanations
This isn’t to say you can’t give your boss a reason why you’re running late to work—that wouldn’t be good. What this means is that you don’t have to explain yourself or your actions to anyone other than your direct report; your boss obviously has the right to know why you handled a call a certain way or the thought process behind a specific task.
Even in the day-to-day of your job, you don’t need to over-explain yourself. If you’re running late for a call, simply send an email explaining that you’re tied up and will unfortunately be running late. It’s as simple as that. If you can no longer make it to a call, simply say that you unfortunately now have a conflict and need to reschedule. The world will not end. The sun will rise again in the morning. Everything around you will not crumble if you need to alter plans. And honestly, no one really cares. So long as everything eventually gets taken care of.
Be as solution-oriented as you can be, verses explanation-focused. Your client, partner or boss is much less likely to care about your explanation as they are about how you all can move forward with your goals.
- Don’t be intimidated
This doesn’t happen overnight but, eventually, you get there. You stop being intimidated by the C-suite. You realize that these individuals are regular human beings just like you with families they love and places to go home to. If you are uncomfortable with something, you begin to speak up and be honest about it. A good company with integrity will do whatever it can to be inclusive of every employee—from the intern up—so that this kind of intimidation doesn’t happen. But as we all know, this is far from reality at many firms. In fact, prepare yourself for the chance that some people in management will actually use your intimidation as leverage.
If you are in this kind of counterproductive work environment where politics are played (as many are), don’t give anyone the satisfaction of your intimidation. I would actually advise you to find another job as quickly as possible because that kind of company doesn’t deserve you. At the same time, however, I have stayed with not-so-great companies for far longer than I should’ve and everything worked out in my best interest more than I could’ve ever imagined. I’m glad I stuck it out to the very end, so I can’t say for sure that moving on from a sour company is the best choice. It’s all about what’s best for you. Trust your gut.
And please let me clarify: BE RESPECTFUL of your bosses. There is being self-assured (for insecure bosses, nothing is more frustrating than a self-assured employee) but then there is being disrespectful/being a jerk. Know the difference. Always be professional, even when someone is spitting in your face.
- Be confident
Believe you can do big things. Have a big vision for your life and career. Be confident when you speak to your direct report or even the CEO of the company. When I was offered my Director position, I walked straight into the President’s office, looked him in the eyes and told him my desired salary—how much I believed I deserved. His response was simple, “I believe we can do that.” That was our entire exchange. I never thought a conversation like that could happen.
I told him I also wanted an office with a window. I got that, too. Remember, your bosses deserve the utmost respect (even when you feel like they don’t), but there’s nothing wrong with being confident in who you are, your talent and what you’re deserving of. And that brings us into our next point…
- Know your worth
Honestly and truly, do not be afraid to be the person who walks away. ALWAYS have a backup plan so that you aren’t left high and dry, but always know that it WILL be okay if you decide to close the door behind you. Know your worth.
This may be in relation to negotiation for a pay raise that you were promised and now your employer is backing out. It may be related to taking off for an important family event. If you need to take time off, you take it off. If you need that PTO, take it—even if you text your boss an hour before saying you need a personal day. Do it.
Work/life balance is SO important. Throughout my corporate career it was not uncommon for me to work 10-12 hour days 4-5 days a week. Sometimes I would work weekends. That drive of mine may have been what got me to the tippy top, but there were some days where I should’ve pushed myself less and listened to myself more.
- Be thankful
No matter what your employer, partner, customer or coworker puts you through, always be thankful. In my professional and personal life, I owe a lot to employers, friends, etc. who put me through hell. They helped me become who I want to be today. They helped me learn about myself. They helped me identify and strengthen character traits. They helped give me a platform for where I am today. Always ask yourself how a sour friend, employer, etc. can build you up, verses bring you down. Ask yourself: “How can I see the positive in this?”
- Don’t worry
Boy, is this a big one. You’re talking to the queen of worry over here. It’s something I’ve worked tirelessly to overcome, and I’m still working on it every day. I would get an email from a client or customer with a slightly irritated tone and then freak out and overanalyze every possible outcome to the situation. I would worry myself sick. We’d then have a follow up phone call and the client would be peachy keen: “Oh yeah I just had a minor problem with x, y, z.” I then learned that it was an issue that would be easily resolved. I’d get a frustrated email from a boss, but then in our weekly meeting he would be fine.
I had to have these kinds of situations happen dozens of times until I finally learned that it’s never good to jump the gun and worry. Everything ALWAYS works itself out, I PROMISE. Just take one thing at a time. Take one day at a time. If I could make it out of where I was at, you can too.
I may have learned these lessons on the job, but I take them with me everywhere I go; at home, at work and everywhere in between. These are things that we should all remember every minute of every day. There are so many other lessons I have learned that I would include in this post if I could (the importance of being a team player, for instance). Hopefully these takeaways help you along your journey, wherever it may lead you.