Navigating The Career Journey: Five Tips For Early-Career Millennials

People who are just starting out in the working world are inundated with career advice, and the reality is, much of it is conflicting. They’re told to be regimented about their career development plan but not to over-engineer it. Make close friends at work, but maintain separation and “work-life balance.” In today’s business environment, where companies are becoming increasingly matrixed, it’s hard to tell which way is up.

We all measure success differently — whether it’s the size of our paycheck, becoming a manager or getting a promotion. I don’t have all the answers, but mentorship, research and five years of on-the-job training at Microsoft have helped me navigate through how to manage my career. Here are five tips for millennials early in their careers:

1. Nix the concept of a career ladder.

The traditional concept of a linear career path doesn’t exist anymore. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg often encourages people to think about their careers as a jungle gym versus a ladder. There’s no surefire path to success, so be sure to hone in on developing your skills and experiences. This can be by taking on projects outside of your normal scope, participating in rotational programs or traveling.

Some people do this by hopping from company to company, industry to industry, non-profit to for-profit, startup to corporation, etc. After all, millennials are often referred to as the “job-hopping generation.” However, expanding your skills can also be accomplished within the same company — big or small — by trying a variety of jobs across multiple businesses to differentiate your experiences.

It’s also important to set both short- and long-term goals, even if they are basic. My short-term goal is to sharpen my competencies on how to build and shape a high-performing business and to become a thought leader in my industry. This will help feed my long-term goal of becoming an executive at a large corporation and managing my own business. I keep this North Star in mind anytime I explore a new job or project.

2. Take advantage of the qualities that make you unique.

As a woman and millennial, some people have implied that I should be more assertive or hide my age in order to seem more credible. I don’t think we should downplay the qualities that make us unique. Instead, we should use them to our advantage.

There was an instance a few years ago when I even questioned what to wear to a meeting with a Japanese client. Knowing that most of the attendees would be men from Japan, I thought about wearing a black business suit to fit in. After some thought, I decided to wear what I would normally wear if I hadn’t known who the audience was — a professional red dress inspired by the ever-so-fashionable Amal Clooney. After a successful meeting, I realized that what really mattered was that I was prepared, knowledgeable and comfortable. I brought my authentic self to work and encourage others to do the same.

Being fairly new to the workforce, I offer a unique perspective than my experienced peers and sometimes approach decision making differently. For that reason, people often seek my input when they need an outside-in or millennial perspective. Given that 50% of the workforce is predicted to be made up of millennials by 2020, our opinions will matter more and more. So why not leverage our strengths of being innovative, well-connected and energetic to invent new processes and initiatives?

3. Don’t sacrifice happiness for a job; find a job that brings you happiness.

In other words, find a company that doesn’t force you to leave your passions at home. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella often references the fact that we spend far too much time at work for it to not have meaning. So find an environment that spans across your personal and professional interests.

As I was looking for a job, I focused on finding a company that was changing the world, that allowed me to exercise my personal interests — a company with values that aligned with my own. One of the things I’m passionate about is helping to advance women in business. At Microsoft, I’ve been able to co-chair the Women@Microsoft Board in addition to my regular “day job.” I get to help women grow their professional skills and build partnerships with other companies to share best practices on how we can support and advance women. Find a company that allows you to explore your own curiosities.

4. Demonstrate clear, measurable business results.

It’s easier to do this in some jobs, like sales, where it’s clear what your accountabilities are and harder to do in others, like marketing, where you might not see an immediate or tangible impact. Regardless, it’s important to get into the habit of documenting your impact and measuring progress.

Most corporations have clear performance review models with structured guidance on measuring results. However, this might not be as clear at a smaller company. This Harvard Business Review article offers guidance on how to set objectives, milestones and financial and non-financial goals. Learning how to do this early will serve you well throughout your career.

5. Find ways to pay it forward.

Every job I’ve had has resulted from an introduction that was made for me. Because so many people have invested in my growth, I want to pay it forward and support others and encourage you to do the same.

As millennials, we have an instinctive desire to want to make a difference. Sixty-four percent of us say it’s a priority to make the world a better place, so let’s show this in our everyday interactions. This can be done by mentoring, volunteering or making financial contributions. One of my favorite phrases is “lift while you climb.” I have this on my desk as a reminder that, while we might be individually strong, we’re collectively powerful. You never know when helping others might help you in the future.

Regardless of where you are in your own career journey, I hope that you find these tips helpful.