On the day to day, what you do from nine to five may not seem to amount to much. But there come moments in every person’s career—career firsts, if you will—that can make or break your entire work life. If you’re prepared for them and see them for the important moments they are, you can make your career, not break it. Here, our experts identify eight such moments and how to use them to your advantage.
1. Your first one-on-one meeting with a new boss.
A one-on-one with your boss might bring back memories of being called into the principal’s office: it feels as if nothing good can come of this tête-à-tête. But your first private meeting with your boss will set the tone for how you two work together, career strategist Hannah Morgan says. (NBD.) “It is a chance to learn what is important to your boss and to ensure you meet and exceed his or her expectations,” Morgan says. So, “be sure to arrange a meeting if your boss doesn’t initiate one.”
2. Your first “yes” moment.”
According to millennial career expert Jill Jacinto, there comes a moment for every employee in which—suddenly—your boss isn’t available to do his or her duty, and he or she asks you to step up to the proverbial plate, like, to give a presentation you weren’t prepared to give. (Talk about intimidating.) “Your immediate inclination may be no, no, no,” says Jacinto, “but to move forward in your career, you need to say ‘yes.’” By saying “yes” to the things that scare you, Jacinto says, “you are letting yourself be challenged.” And that’s when big career changes can happen.
3. Your first screw up.
“We all make mistakes,” commiserates Morgan. And your first work screw up may seem like it will break your career. But, “before you try resolving the problem—or worse, sweep it under the carpet—run your solution by a trusted employee,” she suggests. “Depending on the size of the problem, you may need to check with your manager. It’s important to admit you were at fault and what you plan on doing to rectify the issue. By bringing your mistake to the attention of the appropriate leadership, you show that you are aware of your mistake and taking responsibility.”
4. Your first performance review.
You know it’s coming. So, “whether you’ve been asked to complete a summary of your year’s performance or proactively arrange a meeting with your manager to discuss your accomplishments over the past year, it’s up to you to make sure you take credit for your work,” says Morgan. (Failing to do so could break your career.) “Keep a running list of the big and small achievements you’ve had,” she suggests, “and update it at least once a month. Not only will this help you track your success, it can be useful for regular meetings with your manager as well as the annual review.”
5. The first time you ask for a raise.
We may not like talking about money, but money matters—especially when it comes to your career. The first time you ask for a raise could set the course for how much you make over your entire working life. (No pressure, of course.) “Timing and tone are everything when it comes to asking for more money,” says Morgan. “It’s best to strike while the iron is hot, in other words, after you’ve completed a major project or before your annual review.” Prepare for success—i.e. making your career—by “documenting your achievements and the impact your performance has made to the team or organization,” Morgan says. Then, “base your request for more money on facts, and back it up with data that proves you’ve been successful in your job.”
6. The first time you negotiate.
The first time you negotiate, you may not be asking for a raise. Instead, you could be asking for more perks in a promotion, or an extra week’s vacation time. But even if you’re not asking for more moolah, this moment remains pretty epic for your career. Here’s why: “It demonstrates to your potential new boss—that you are willing to ask the hard questions and fight for what you want,” says Jacinto. “If you don’t negotiate these items, you’ll keep playing a game of catch up to your industry peers.”
7. The first time you quit your job.
Chances are, you won’t stay in the same position or with the same company forever. One day, you’ll quit for the first time. “When the time comes and you need to quit your job, always do it with professionalism,” advises Morgan. Part of that “means keep your news top secret until you tell your manager,” she says. Another part is giving an adequate amount of notice when you do quit, which could be two weeks or more. “Never complain or give the negative reasons you are leaving,” she says. “You don’t want to burn bridges that could hurt your reputation. Instead, say thank you for the opportunity and leave it at that. Be sure to ask your manager how and when your resignation will be announced or if you can notify your colleagues and clients.”
8. The first time you hire someone.
As you work your way up the corporate ladder, you may eventually find yourself in the position to hire someone for the first time. “It is exciting to expand your team and be in charge of this new hire,” says Jacinto. “It shows that management puts a lot of trust into your judgment of character and skill. Yet, if the person you choose turns out to be a terrible team member or quits within a few months, the fingers of blame will point to you.” Uh oh. “Make this decision very wisely and carefully,” Jacinto says.