For the record, I’m still making mistakes. Lots of them. And I’m for sure going to be making a ton more before I retire to a desert island where I can drink mojitos in a hammock all day long.
But in the last five and a half years of working in publishing and fashion, I figure some of the mistakes I’ve made might be applicable to your career, too. If I can make them so you don’t have to, that would at least make me feel like my eff-ups served some greater purpose (rather than just to humiliate me). So take notes, and turn my disasters into lessons to getting your dream promotion/next job move/becoming a badass CEO. You’re welcome to fund my desert-island retirement in thanks when you’re making your millions, okay?
1 Not speaking up when I didn’t understand something
When I first started out in the magazine industry, I quickly realised it was fast-paced and that being a can-doer was more important than being a that’s-not-in-my-job-description kinda girl. In pressurised, busy industries (which I think most of us work in these days), getting stuck in and going above and beyond are often the main ways to impress seniors and achieve fast growth. Which is great, except that being a can-doer isn’t effective when you genuinely have no clue what to do.
In one of my first jobs, I was asked to help solve an emergency crisis for a client. Someone had royally screwed up and now we needed to fix it – fast. But in the two-minute briefing (in which I didn’t take notes – big mistake, people!), I didn’t fully understand some of the jargon being thrown around. I also didn’t leave the briefing with a clear idea of what I needed to do. Instead of piping up and asking a few questions that would have quickly cleared things up for me, I sat on my to-do list, frozen. I didn’t know where to start, or who to speak to about certain tasks. I hadn’t even clarified a deadline – basically, I hadn’t outlined what was needed from me to really deliver on my deliverables.
The result: I missed key deadlines and upset more people than if I hadn’t offered to help in the first place. I also lost trust with some of the seniors who had relied on me to help out, fast.
When I look back on it, there were three simple questions I could have asked to avoid failing on this one:
- What do you mean by X? Any jargon would have been quickly decoded, and I would’ve learnt a whole lot of key industry terms for next time.
- Who should I speak to when it comes to X? Understanding the key personnel you need to deal with not only makes the introductions for next time, it puts you in contact with the right people to speed up completing the task at hand. Also, now you’re connected to other experts who you can ask for help when you don’t understand something.
- By when do you need this done, and how should I report back to you? Firstly, you know the deadline. Secondly – and sometimes more importantly – you know how to let the right people know that the job is done. Big career respect, coming your way!
Now, I also see that I would have gained the respect of my seniors if I’d had the courage and foresight to ask the questions and get clarity before I started. It would have given them confidence that I could focus on the key deliverables and speak up when I needed guidance, and that I was prioritising the right things.
2 Not putting my hand up
You know who gets all the kudos at work? The person who sticks her hand up and offers to do things. If you’ve never watched Google COO Sheryl Sandberg’s TED Talk, stop reading right now and watch it below. It’s a must – an oldie, but a goldie. As women, we often (sadly) have to work harder at putting our hand up than our male counterparts to get the recognition and roles we deserve.
If you want to get noticed at work or grow by undertaking new tasks and responsibilities, you need to ask for it. Put yourself out there! Even if that particular task doesn’t get assigned to you, managers will see that you’re willing to help and step up – and that’s never a bad thing.
Without fail, every promotion I ever got was because I asked for more responsibility. Even when new job vacancies appeared internally, I sucked up my ego and marched into my boss’s office to ask to be considered for the role. The times I wasn’t as brave or proactive, and hoped someone else would put me forward? I didn’t get the gig.
3 Not negotiating because I was afraid
You know what you have EVERY RIGHT TO DO? Negotiate. Got a job offer? Do your research about what you could and should be earning based on your experience and qualifications, then e-mail HR back to negotiate anything from salary to leave that you’re being offered. Newsflash: people do it all the time. It’s not you being ‘too demanding’, and it shouldn’t affect a company’s willingness to hire you.
One past job offer I got, I was so excited to receive that I didn’t want to do anything to jeopardise it. The salary was what I wanted, but the leave days per year were way less. I didn’t bother to ask for more – I was worried it’d make me come off as demanding or entitled. Then, when I got to the company, I realised that pretty much every one of my colleagues had negotiated more leave days. I’d missed my opportunity, but I learnt an important lesson: you’re allowed to ask for what you want. (As long as, y’know, it’s legal and things.)
This doesn’t just stand for job offers. It stands for promotions, raises – heck, even the amount of your monthly gym membership. (Like when you call your insurance and tell them you’re leaving, and then suddenly they halve your monthly premium to keep you with them.)
Hearing ‘No’ from your negotiation may be momentarily unpleasant, but the possibility of hearing ‘Yes’ or ‘We can’t give you that, but we can give you this’ is amazing and, frankly, how our world works. So go on – don’t be afraid to negotiate like a #GirlBoss.
4 Not owning my mistakes
Ever had that horrible, sinking feeling when an e-mail hits your inbox and it’s all about how you just messed up? Me too. On more than one occasion.
When it first happened at work, I did the whole ostrich thing: buried my head in the sand and pretended the e-mail didn’t exist. Except it did exist, and it eventually existed in my manager’s inbox, too. So instead of my dress-down being centred around the eff-up, it became centred around me: why hadn’t I flagged the issue earlier? Why hadn’t I taken immediate action to put together a fix-it plan? Why did my manager hear about it from someone else, not me?
Let’s just say that the next time I made a mistake, I did these three things:
- Researched fully the background of the mistake so I knew the facts and the exact trail of events and actions that led to it.
- Typed out a quick but thorough fix-it plan, with my suggestions of what I could do to make the mistake go away, pronto.
- Took all of this to my manager, face to face – making sure they heard about it from me first.
Sure, these steps didn’t take away from the fact that I effed up in the first place – but they did allow me to show I was back in control of the situation, being proactive about fixing it and, most importantly, that I was owning my error. I wasn’t wasting time trying to blame someone else or – worse – pretending it had nothing to do with me in the first place. The result? Trumping the negative of fluffing up with the positive of showing I was honest, responsible, reliable and someone worth having around in a crisis (even if I was, maybe just a little bit, the cause of the crisis).
5 Not doing my research
Ever thought it’d be great to pass on that fab article you read about how to increase business efficiency to your boss? Or talk sh*t about a co-worker only to find they’re related to the very senior you’re bitching about her to? Well, I once forwarded a legit Fake News piece to a manager who, instead of being impressed, was horrified I hadn’t properly read or fact-checked the piece. Talk about embarrassing.
Sometimes our need to impress or be noticed temporarily shuts down all our other rational functions, like doing a quick search on Google to make sure we’re not talking utter crap. Or understanding the dynamics of our workplace before joining in on the current office bitch-fest.
Do your research: it not only keeps you educated and critical of everything that comes your way (and that you inevitably forward on), but it stops you from doing or saying something downright untrue, inaccurate or just plain stupid.
Sometimes doing your research isn’t about reading up on a subject or an article of interest – it’s often as simple as re-reading that angry e-mail before you hit ‘Send’ and filtering it for unnecessary comments or an unhelpful tone. Or perhaps deciding that, on second thoughts, you should just talk to your colleague in person rather then sending a ranting e-mail that CCs in the world.