Early classes: stayed (mostly) awake for. Basics: completed. Major: declared. Man hours: logged. By the time you graduate college, you've probably already figured out what you want to do — or at least some semblance of what to do next — and now, with diploma in hand, you’re at one of life’s most important precipices: starting your career.
It’s one of the more daunting things we have to do as adults. Life offers us certain boxes to check, and this just happens to be one of the most pivotal ones. Much in the same way you stumbled as a baby into walking, you’ll take careful steps toward building your professional life, and learning how to turn your job into a career along the way. The good news? At the end of the day, you’ll still be standing!
The first 10 years are going to be about exploration, and mostly about yourself. Below, I leave you with my own formula to help you navigate the waters of starting a career — and seeing it through to success.
Find Someone to Be Your Champion
Everyone needs guidance throughout a career, and mentors can play crucial roles in your professional development. Whether they teach you better ways to do certain tasks, provide criticism that’s constructive — albeit difficult to hear — or even protect you from uncomfortable or difficult people, or situations, you’ll gain so much from the wisdom a mentor imparts. And if they’re as good as they should be, they’ll stick around to watch you grow, and make sure you’re always doing your best. You might stumble out into the workplace anyway, but with some guidance, the journey is just a little bit easier.
Don’t Just Do What You Know
Try different jobs! What are you good at? In a not-so-fun twist, you’ll often learn the answer only after learning what you’re not good at. Companies with entry-level rotational programs offer a tremendous benefit in this area. That doesn’t mean do the same job in a different area, but that you actually learn new roles and responsibilities. For example, I was working in marketing when I had an opportunity to try raw material procurement, which I had never thought of before. I was able to leverage my analytical skills as an engineer to track and predict raw material price formulas, but I learned so much about negotiating, developing legal contracts and developing supplier strategies. If I hadn’t had the role in procurement, I never would have been considered for the SVP of Procurement role at BASF almost 10 years later.
Don’t Jump Ship... Too Soon!
People in the workforce today look like they’re playing a game of Frogger. For some, it’s become a habit to jump from job to job, in search of better titles and more pay. Unfortunately, you might actually miss out on key elements of learning if you aren’t patient and willing to get the most of out of the role you’re in. What you should be focused on is making an impact, and contributing something to the role that no one else has brought to it before. Make it better, faster, cheaper, more efficient; take initiative and you’ll reap better rewards than if you’re always rushing to the next thing.
That being said, know when it’s time to move on. Eventually, there will come a time when you’ll know it’s time to leave your position. Has your learning curve flattened? Have the challenges of the role worn off? Are you bored? There’s no harm in making a change when you come to this realization. Be appreciative of what you’ve learned and use it to improve your new work environment.
Don’t Shoot for CEO (Yet)
You’re shaping who you are, in your profession and in your life, every step of the way. But if you’re too preoccupied on a long-term end goal (like becoming a Fortune 500 CEO), it can be easy to miss out on the smaller facets of your own development that are necessary to get there. True leaders never land where they are without going through “grunt work” first, because it’s not only educational, but humbling. Treasure the times that you stumble, too; you may not know it at the time, but one day, you’ll look back and realize how those mistakes led you to where you are. Getting to the C-suite doesn’t happen overnight.
Be True to Your School!
Engaging with your alumni network can be a valuable resource, both professionally and personally, whether you’re on the job hunt, looking to make business partnerships or just want to connect with fellow students who share a common bond. Additionally, these groups are often heavily engaged in their communities through volunteerism and charity work, sports teams and social activities, which can also be a comfort to those looking to give back to their communities and make new friends.
Ultimately, work to live, don’t live to work! You’ve heard this one before. Life’s short and it’s not promised, so choose work that’s fun, gives you a sense of accomplishment and enriches your life — and also empowers you to have an impact on your surroundings. When you love what you do, it’s so much easier to love everything else around you. In the end, you won’t be remembered for your sales numbers or presentations or closed deals, but the impact you made on others.
Heidi Alderman brings more than 30 years of experience in the chemical industry, currently serving as Senior Vice President of North America Intermediates at BASF. She previously held roles as SVP of North American Petrochemicals, as SVP of Procurement, and joined BASF in February 2003 as a Business Director, Functional Polymers, where she was accountable for the Dispersions and Paper Chemicals business. She is currently the Chair of the National Association of Manufacturer’s Step Ahead program, past Chair and current member of the University of Houston’s Engineering Board, and is a member of WomenCorporateDirectors. Raised in Nutley, N.J., Heidi is the oldest of three and a first-generation American. She is married and resides in Houston.