12 Tips for How to Be a Professional

12 Tips for How to Be a Professional

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In the past couple years of leading and “managing” people, especially young people right out of college, I’ve seen a gaping hole in the form of teaching people how to be a professional. (Maybe it’s always been there but either way, it’s there.)

When I think about this topic — helping young people know how to survive and thrive in their first jobs — I think about star college athletes who are drafted into the pros. One day, they wake up and find that their lifelong passion (football, baseball, basketball, whatever) — the thing they’ve always done without much effort and with outstanding success — has now turned into a full-time job tied to all their lifelong hopes and dreams. And often it’s the job of the veterans to teach the rookies how to be a pro.

It’s someone’s job to help the “rookies” figure out how to be a “pro.”

So with that … I’ll offer my suggestions for the next generation to succeed in the workplace (and be a little blunt):

1. Be passionate

This means being interested in what you’re doing. Do something you have a great opportunity to LOVE.

If you take a job simply because it’s a crapload of money, I’ll make a bet now you’re going to be miserable in 10 years if you stick with that job. Don’t waste your precious time or talent on a job you hate simply because you want a BMW.

Take a cue from your baby boomer parents … happiness isn’t found in material things.

Loathing or hating a job is misery … that’s called prison.

You don’t necessarily have to love what you do … but I think you should at least LIKE IT.

Find a job you can like or enjoy, doing work that challenges you and plays to your strengths.

2. Be eager

I hire for drive and fit over talent. Being eager means you are internally driven to make your organization a success and with it, yourself. You should want the job. You should want to work hard to keep it and be better.

Being eager is typically a result of doing work you enjoy. Looking forward to going to work because you want to use your time and talents to produce something of quality.

3. Be a sponge

Just because you’ve graduated from college doesn’t mean you stop reading for the rest of your life. Be a lifelong learner. After you get over your college “I hate books” hangover, get realistic and realize that the key to growth comes cheaply by reading dead trees.

So if you’re not a reader, become one.

A key core value we hold close at iThemes is Learn, Grow, then Share.

Always be learning. Always be growing. Seek ways to do so. Find mentors at the workplace and ask questions and listen. Buy their lunch.

But by the way, listening is so undervalued. Most people want to talk about what they do best.

Be a sponge for all of it.

4. Get better on nights and weekends

Someone should tell you this and it might as well be me: You haven’t “arrived.” You probably won’t ever arrive. Neither will I. At least I hope I don’t. I always want to be improving and honing my craft.

Just because you land some fancy title doesn’t mean you’re set for life or done learning or growing.

Graduation is simply the first step in a journey that’s called your professional career. Now it’s time for you to use that base knowledge and those experiences to build your career.

It means constant improvement. And if you want to make more, do more, then that means you hone your skills on nights and weekends (yes, on your own dime!).

Let me be clear: Getting better at night and weekends is an investment in yourself.

You always want to achieve work-life balance and you need downtime … but consider using a large portion of that time investing in yourself.

Trust me … as a boss, this type of team member rises to the top. They are the clear leaders you take for the future of your organization. At least I do.

5. Everybody starts somewhere

Call this paying your dues or whatever, but yes, everybody starts somewhere and typically that’s at the bottom of the ladder. That might mean taking out the trash, being someone’s assistant, taking direction from someone else, or whatever.

You aren’t above it. And neither am I. Even as the founder of a company, I still do these things.

If you don’t have the humility to accept that, you’re going to struggle for a long time.

Realize now that this is the first step to a great adventure. Use this time to figure out what you want to do in your organization and in life. Solidify the place you want to be in and work hard to get there.

6. Be the solution

No one likes a complainer. Be a change agent instead. Be someone who sees a problem and owns the solution.

Initiative is an amazing, standout quality. The majority of people simply point to a problem and see if someone else comes to fix it.

A lone minority see the problem and realize they could fix it themselves. To them, go the rewards and recognition.

I want 100 more people like that in my business and in my life.

7. Be flexible

Flexibility and adaptability are assets in your career. Things won’t always go your way or the way you expected them to go. Sometimes you might be asked to work late, or switch roles, or do something your job description didn’t talk about ….

Be willing to adapt and change if needed.

8. Be helpful

Yes, this means changing the printer cartridge. It means answering the phone when someone isn’t close to it.

It means helping someone else with their problem.

As a boss, I want a group of individuals who WANT to help each other. Who want to help their teammates take their vacations and will work to fill the gap so they can without worry. Or who understand we are all humans being with struggles and challenges and needs … and there to be helpful and generous with our time and energy.

9. Be on time

This should be implied but I’ve realized it’s not. Show up for work on time, every time, and even before time. When you walk in late, it shows a lack of respect for everyone else.

When in doubt, ask what the expected times are. And be early and stay later. It adds up. People see it. It shows commitment.

And by the way, just because other people on your team don’t respect this and are habitually late doesn’t mean you follow the herd.

10. Find out how you fit in, quickly

Like I’ve said before, we hire for fit over talent. In a small business especially, it’s vital that you fit in. Otherwise, you’re simply a distraction.

Find your place, quickly. Discover your unique role in your organization and what you can contribute to it. Look for the place where you uniquely help others be better and where your talents and strengths are best suited and plug into that.

11. Show up, work hard and you’ll standout

Don’t shortchange your organization by not showing up — and I don’t mean simply skipping work. Although being mediocre, giving partial effort is the same I think.

If you agree to take a job, with specified hours, pay and responsibilities, do your best, every day.

And let me give you a hint …. do more than expected. It makes you stand out and people will take notice.

12. You’re not a rockstar

Companies and businesses might say they want to hire “rockstars” but I’ve found those with the rockstar mentality don’t usually work well in teams. Rockstars are about themselves and their own fame and fortune. They are solo acts and that is divisive to most teams.

Be the opposite of a rockstar … be a team player.

This African proverb says it all: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

On average, cohesive teams will always do more and go farther than rockstars in their selfish silos. Join a team and be the glue or compass or role player (whatever it takes) that makes you all better, together.

BONUS TIP: Get a job before your first “career” job.

If you’re still in college, I’d highly suggest you get a job, an internship NOW. Yes, before you graduate. Start working somewhere so you can learn what it means to make money for your time … and how to work with other human beings … and under the direction of someone else.

Our awesome developer Chris Jean, one of the hardest working and talented people I know, often says that working in the fast food industry was one of the best things he ever did. It forced him to develop work habits that we now benefit from.

UPDATE FOR YOUNG PROFESSIONALS: I’ve also published a new 30-page book on helping you get hired called I Want To Hire You But Your Resume Sucks at my new blog Purposeful Paychecks.

You can also download a short ebook giving 5 Keys to Getting Paid Well to Do Work You Love here.

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  1. Cory,

    Great article. Really love what you’re doing with this site and community.

    I would add:

    13) If you skipped college or followed your 1) Passion earlier than most— then read this list of 100 great business books and biographies- you’ll be just fine and won’t have the school loans. Commit to 3) on top of this.

    One of my favorite mentors Peter J Daniels ( he’s one of the wealthiest businessmen in Australia and an amazing Christian philanthropist) says he never had the disadvantage of a going to university :)

  2. This is great Cory. Having been in management before finishing college, I have seen the examples of your concern first hand. Starting a new career myself, I can not emphasize the importance of knowledge. It is everyone’s competitive advantage. Those who only garner knowledge while “on the clock” fall behind quickly. We should teach a class “How to be a professional.” to all college juniors. Internships should be required for all business majors the same way clinicals are required for nursing students.

  3. this 12 tips will be the best tips for my life to come up. Now i realise that still i am at the bottom of lader. Thanks make me understand that there still many things i have to do. I would like you to know that i am not a gratuate and my first work was as auto machenic. Now i am in a shipping company as customer care. I was thinking that i have achived what i want. But there is a say in Hindi which applys on me ” DELHI ABHHI DOOR HAI”.

  4. hard work is an overrated concept, especially as an hourly employee… the more you do, the less respect everyone has for you. It simply reaches a point where it is never enough. From management as well as other employees.

    • Keith, trying not to be snarky in my reply … but so if you don’t work hard, even as an hourly employee, how do you go about your job? Just do what’s asked, or the bare minimum?

      I would strongly discourage that if you want to make progress in your career. I was an hourly employee several times. My hard work stood out. People remember that and you rise to the top when new positions open up. If you’re only going to give a half-hearted effort, and some other better paying position you desire comes up, they’re going to not even consider you for the job.

      If you’re working hard though and hitting the ceiling, then maybe you should take a step back and see what might not be adding up. Do you need to move to a company that recognizes talent with hard work? Is your boss purposefully holding you back for other reasons?

  5. Cory,
    I think, the one thing that was left out is confidence. People can really have a passion, garner all the knowledge needed, they can be helpful, eager, etc. however, without confidence none of those skills will shine through because of the dark cloud that shadows a person which is call their self-esteem.

    • Hey Victoria, I agree with one caveat … confidence, not arrogance. Left unchecked or without a healthy balance of humility, confidence can quickly go overboard into blind arrogance. I love confidence when it is backed up by ability to deliver. Otherwise it’s just hot air.

  6. Great article! I’m a high school graduate, not a college graduate like the article mentions several times, but I still found this to be extremely helpful. I’m making my way into the tech field through a series of internships with some tech companies. I already had an idea of what to expect, how I should behave, and the type of things I might have to do as an intern, but this article has definitely solidified a lot of the thoughts I was unsure about. One of the biggest things I took away from this was the bonus tip. Right now I have a day job that I’m not too happy with. I want to get out as soon as possible, this second if I could, but the bonus tip has really reassured me that having that job for now is a vital step in the right direction. I will definitely take these tips and advice with me into the internships I hope to land!

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