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During your first years in the workforce, you can expect to have a huge learning curve – not just about the details of your job, but about broader issues of how to manage your career and operate successfully in an office. How do you deal with difficult co-workers? Figure out if you're paid fairly? Understand what HR's convoluted memos mean?
You'll keep mastering work skills throughout your career, but here are 10 key things that you should make sure you know about work by the time you're 30.
How to talk to people much more senior than you. It's pretty common to be intimidated by company higher-ups or industry experts when you're just starting out in your career. But if you let yourself stay intimidated, it will keep you from forming relationships and gaining visibility with decision-makers, and that can hold you back professionally. Don't be shy about chatting with higher-ups or sharing your ideas when appropriate. The more you act like a colleague (which you are), the more you'll be seen that way.
How to respond to CRItical feedback. Being able to listen to feedback about your work with an open mind is enormously important, because feedback is one of the most direct ways to get better at what you do. If you respond defensively or shut down, you'll prevent yourself from hearing important information, lose points with your boss and maybe even make it less likely that you'll hear information that could help you in the future. Instead, listen with an open mind and respond with something like, "This is really useful to hear," or "I appreciate you sharing this with me." If you can't stomach those, try, "I want to take some time to think about this, but I appreciate you telling me."
How to negotiate salary when you get a job offer. People sometimes worry that they have to lay out an air-tight case when asking for more money, but it doesn't always have to be a long speech with evidence about your worth. More often than not, you can simply say "I was hoping you could go up to X amount. Is that possible?" or "Do you have any flexibility on the salary? I was hoping for X."
How to figure out the market rate for your work. This can include asking other people in your field for their opinion, checking with professional organizations in your industry, looking at similar positions on online job boards to see if salary ranges are listed and talking to recruiters in your field – always making sure that you're factoring in your geographic area, which can have a big impact on the numbers.
How to run a meeting. If you lose control of your meetings, let conversation spiral in any direction and don't start or finish on time, people will quickly begin dreading attending any meetings you're running. Instead, always have an agenda, be clear about what outcomes you're aiming for, be willing to redirect the conversation when needed, take your starting and ending times seriously and make sure everyone is clear on next steps before you wrap up. People will be far less likely to "miss seeing" your meeting invites when you do this.
How to have a difficult conversation. Whether it's asking your co-worker to turn down their music, telling your boss you're quitting or letting an employee go, you're going to have tough conversations over the course of your career. Your life will be much better if you get comfortable with being straightforward. That doesn't mean rude, of course; you can be direct and kind at the same time, but you do need to assert yourself and get comfortable with difficult topics. Speaking of direct ...
How to stand up for yourself politely and professionally. There may be times when your employer does something that you need to push back on – for example, offering you a promotion with significantly more responsibility but no raise, expecting you to work unreasonable hours for months on end or violating a labor law. In these cases, it's key to know how to professionally advocate for yourself. Usually that means being assertive but not aggressive, calmly explaining the issue and being direct about what you need. For example: "I'm happy to pitch in when needed, but this schedule has me working seven days a week for the next month with only two days off. I'm not able to do that because of commitments outside of work, so let's talk about how else we can structure this."
What you're good at and what you're not so good at. Early in your career, it's pretty normal not to have a well-refined sense of where you shine and where you don't. But if you've been working for most of your 20s, by the end of them you should have fairly nuanced information about what you're better at than others, what you're much better at than others, what you want to work on improving in and what you should probably avoid altogether.
What to do when you make a mistake. At some point, you're going to make a mistake at work because you're human. When you do, how you handle it will often matter more than the mistake itself. The key is to take responsibility for what happened; don't make excuses or be defensive. Let your boss know what happened and – this is crucial – how you plan to ensure it doesn't happen again. If you do that, you'll have proactively addressed what your manager probably cares about most and he or she is less likely to impress the seriousness of the mistake on you.
Your reputation matters. Your reputation for doing great work and being easy to work with is what will give you more and more professional options over time. It's what will let you avoid bad jobs and bad bosses and what will give you a safety net when you need to leave a job quickly or find a new one across the country. That means that it's not worth doing things like leaving a job without notice or telling off your boss, and it's worth it to go above and beyond to build a reputation for excelling.