STARTING OUT


Six Ways to Make the Most of Your Job

Erin Burt

With the right moves, even a menial job could be a springboard to the position of your dreams.



Year-end is a good time to take stock of your career. This can be a frustrating exercise if you're just starting out or you're a seasoned worker in a rut. After all, you've been slaving away in an entry-level position or a seemingly dead-end job, performing menial tasks, getting little respect and even less pay.

But no matter how boring or thankless your job is right now, you can use it as a springboard to a promotion or a more fulfilling position.

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Young adults will, of course, have to pay their dues. Even the most talented workers won't start out with the job of their dreams. After all, you can't get five years of experience in one year.

So bite the bullet and bide your time -- wisely. Some people pay their dues so long they never move up, says Marty Nemko, career coach and columnist for Kiplinger.com. "They tend to get cast in stone as someone content to stay put." Don't let that happen to you. And if it already has, snap out of it!

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Time can be your friend

Instead, use the time to your advantage: Impress the right people, sharpen your skills and seek out opportunities to shine. That'll put you in a better position for a promotion or a new job when the time comes.

Play your cards right and your break may come even sooner -- or yield bigger results. Here are six strategies to revitalize your career prospects, no matter how long you've been on the job.

1. Get a mentor. Some workplaces arrange formal mentoring relationships between young hires and seasoned executives. But if yours doesn't, it pays to seek out an informal one.

A good way to go about it is to work your tail off on a project, take it to a higher-up and say, "before I give this to my boss, I'd love if you could take a few minutes to look it over and give me any pointers." (Don't dump it in the person's lap at the last-minute, though. Leave plenty of time.)

This approach worked for me. My first job out of college was behind the scenes as a fact-checker for Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine. Finally, I got an opportunity to write a small article myself.

I asked two experienced writers on the magazine to look over the piece before I turned it in. Both gave me great advice on how to fine-tune my writing, and the polished article showed higher-ups that I was capable of a regular writing gig.

As I gained more responsibilities and took on bigger projects, I returned to my mentors for advice -- or stopped by their offices to chew the fat. We became friends, and I had two influential people in my corner. Even if your job is a dead-end, mentors can provide great letters of recommendation when you're ready to move on.

Find someone who talks regularly with management, says Randall Hansen, founder of Quintessential Careers. A mentor is more likely to say good things about you to the people who count. Don't worry about imposing. "It's very flattering to be asked to be a mentor," Nemko says. "And it's a great way for you to start establishing a crucial network."


2. Renegotiate your job description. You may have your set responsibilities, but you should always be on the lookout for opportunities to shine. Going above and beyond your mundane entry-level tasks can demonstrate your untapped talents and show your boss you're not afraid to take initiative.

One of my favorite stories to illustrate this point comes courtesy of Nemko. His daughter got her first job working for Hillary Clinton -- but her job description was to answer letters to Socks, the Clintons' pet cat.

Soon after starting, she approached her boss and said she was willing to pay her dues, but that she had good research and writing skills. She pointed out that she might be useful on some other task. A few days went by and her boss asked her to research a topic and write a one-page brief for Clinton. She ended up spending a year as a researcher, which certainly beats handling feline fan mail.


3. Hitch to a rising star. Odds are your office has a rising star: a boss or colleague who is seen as an up-and-comer. "Rising stars tend to take people with them," Nemko says. Ask to work on a project with that person, then gain his or her trust and respect.


4. Volunteer for projects. Don't wait for tasks to be assigned to you. Your boss will respect your being proactive. You might even be able to control whom you work with, giving you the opportunity to meet -- and impress -- new people within the company.

For example, in my first year as a fact-checker on the magazine, I volunteered to work on Kiplinger's annual car issue. It's a beast of a project that most fact-checkers tried to avoid. But I saw the project as an opportunity to work closely with different departments and higher-ups whom I had admired from a distance. I learned a ton and actually enjoyed the experience -- I volunteered for it three years in a row. That scored me major brownie points with my boss.

Especially keep an eye out for projects that let you showcase an untapped ability or learn something new -- even if it's not in the realm of your job description. If a project someone else is working on catches your fancy, ask if he or she could use an extra hand, even if the extra work won't translate to extra pay. Just take care not to let your normal responsibilities slide.


5. Open your mouth. From day one on the job, you should make it clear to your boss that you're interested in advancing within the company. A great time to reiterate your ambitions is in your annual review or when you're negotiating a raise.

A desire to move up the career ladder isn't enough, though. Sometimes it really comes down to who you know. You've heard it before, and I'll say it again: Networking is key. It can be as simple as chatting with a higher-up in the elevator or coffee room. This time of year, your office or industry holiday parties make a great opportunity to introduce yourself and build rapport.

Not a social butterfly? No matter. Practice a 15-second pitch at home in front of the mirror. Something along the lines of, "I really enjoy working for the company. I was excited I got to do fill-in-the-blank."

Show some interest in the other person, too, such as asking, "What is the best thing about your job?" Once you've met, you can trade an occasional phone call or e-mail to establish a friendship, Hansen says. You never know if that relationship will come in handy down the road for an in-house promotion or if you decide to move on.


6. Pay attention to your appearance and attitude. If you want people to take you seriously, you have to dress the part. You want higher-ups to be able to visualize you in a position of power and responsibility. That's hard to do if your grooming is sub par and your clothes are wrinkled or unprofessional. You don't have to spend a lot of money to dress appropriately. See Dress for Success for Less for pointers.

Be mindful of your attitude and how you come across, too. Confident and cheerful is a winning combination in the workplace. Pessimistic and angry? Not so much. See Standing Out Without Going Overboard to learn more.



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