3 Unofficial Career Rules for Your 20’s


I was having lunch with a client last week, also in his mid-30’s. We were talking about our college years and how great it would be to go back in time with the knowledge we now possess. Don’t get me wrong, neither one of us thinks we have it all figured out. However, as we see our 20-something counterparts (e.g. employees, contractors, vendors) navigate corporate hierarchies and seek out career development opportunities, it’s clear that they often make the same mistakes that my client and I made.

Often, these mistakes come about because they’re missing some foundational rules for how companies work and businesses operate. Some of this wisdom seems common sensical, especially in hindsight, when some critical event happens that impacts your career. Yet, as is often the case with common sense, it seems to be rather uncommon when you’d most expect it in the workplace.

So, while I don’t have a social psychology degree (MS in Communications is as close as it gets) that qualifies me academically to put these rules out, I did manage to navigate my 20’s having made plenty of mistakes and several stops at companies and organizations of different shapes and sizes. Experience is my qualification here, in it’s raw and and messy form.

1. Your manager is your world – Ask any HR executive to talk to you about engagement and retention, and they’ll likely reference a study or quotation that mentions that employees join companies and leave managers.

The problem is that no one ever seems to tell 20-somethings that coming out of college. The only reason I became a believer of this idea, besides the fact that I went through the experiences that I did, is that I worked with several hundred HR executives in my late 20’s. I heard the idea repeated on a daily basis.

So, how should 20-somethings interpret this rule? The idea here is to make your career decisions through this lens, starting with your decision to join a company. Don’t join a company simply because it’s doing cool things or because you’re getting a good salary. Join a company because you’ll be working for an intelligent and motivating manager. Make sure you get to interview with that manager and be weary of a hiring process that never lets you meet your manager. Even if you get the job, you could be in store for a horrible surprise.

Also, make sure you have an intimate understanding of what your manager cares about. Do not speculate. Do not read between the lines. Ask and get a response. Their response should define your mission at the company. Don’t get distracted by what your colleagues want. While it’s important to play nice with others, your job is not to make your teammates happy or to make folks in other departments happy. Your job is to make your manager happy.

2. Listen MORE – This rule applies to all age groups. However, I believe it’s important to get into good habits on this front early on, or you will never recover.

The bottom line is that most of us think we are good listeners. “I heard you.” “I see what you mean.” We’ll say phrases like this constantly, as if they truly qualify that we’re listening.

Here’s how to interpret this rule: Make listening about relentless curiosity. Seek to understand as much information as possible about the issues that matter. See rule 1 for help identifying which issues matter.

Make it your goal to leave every conversation with more questions you want answers to. You should be insatiable on this front. The reality is that when you learn about all angles of an issue, you’re able to truly problem solve and contribute in a meaningful matter. ANYONE, intelligent or not, educated or not, can speculate on how to solve a problem. Very few people ask enough questions to decipher what the right solution is to a problem.

3. Don’t make it about you – There’s a lot written about millennials being selfish and entitled. Let’s be honest. I think we’re all a little selfish and entitled. The reality is that millennials are likely more vocal about it.

The problem with making the work place about you is that you’ll quickly be labeled as “not a team player”. People end up interpreting your vocalization as disregard for the Company and for the goals that are in front of everyone. Don’t get me wrong. I know you don’t think it’s all about you; that’s just the way it comes off though.

The reality is that this all goes back to rule 1. Your manager is your world. Find a manager that motivates you and that’s your advocate; you’ll never have to worry about you again. S/He will work to get you promoted, will work to get you the resources you need, and will care about your well-being. Trust me, some of my favorite managers over the years, Lane Soelberg and Carolyn Frey, always proactively thought about my well-being without me having to bring it up.

The rules apply to all of us.

I’m not singling out 20-something / millennials. These rules do apply to everyone. I’ve seen people in their 40’s that don’t seem to have a grasp of them. Unfortunately, I’ve also seen those same people endure the consequences of not applying the principles behind these rules.

Ultimately, our careers are characterized by constant change and growth opportunities. There’s no certainty, especially when it comes to today’s volatile corporate environment. However, if we can all bring back our focus to the things that matter most at work, then we can all succeed collectively.