Like many kids growing up, I glamorized the working world. I knew that I wanted to pursue public relations, and I envisioned jet-setting across the country to client meetings and sipping lattes with reporters at a local coffee shop.
What I got was rather uneventful. My first day entailed a Zoom meeting about onboarding, followed by my then-manager saying to Slack if I needed anything. I sat there, alone, in my apartment, sporting a work-appropriate top and not-so-work-appropriate pants. I wondered, is this really it?
My experience wasn’t unique. Joining the corporate world during the pandemic, Gen Zers are no strangers to Zoom meetings and office-less interactions. We’re proficient in virtual ways of working. But, connecting through screens has its limitations, especially in our professional development.
Don’t you want more for your career than a Zoom call and virtual happy hour? I did and that’s why I encourage you to take control of your career advancement and professional development. This is especially important at startups where innovation moves fast and so do timelines to meet ambitious goals. There may not be a clear-cut playbook to reach that next step, and that’s OK. In fact, that’s a blessing. In working with startup executives to uplevel their careers, I’ve learned that the path to groundbreaking success is rarely easy or obvious.
Here’s how Gen Z startup professionals can pave your way to success, even if the road to getting there looks a little different than imagined.
#1 Be Curious
When first embarking on your career, you’re like a sponge. You’re learning about your industry and client challenges while producing top-notch work to get your company closer to its goals. A lot’s happening quickly in the startup world. Take the time to do your research and understand your industry, whether that’s subscribing to popular industry newsletters or consuming competitor news. Get a holistic view into your industry, so you better understand your company’s differentiators and how you position yourself in the market.
In addition to doing your homework, take the time to ask important questions. For one, it shows leaders that you’re invested in your role and going beyond the tactical work. You’ll also get valuable context to help you do your job and understand your company’s dynamics. The virtual world makes it that much harder to know who does what and areas you may plug in — so be curious. That curiosity may open new doors for you that you didn’t know existed.
#2 Find Your Unique Value Proposition
Have I mentioned startups move quickly? It’s easy to get caught up in getting deliverables out the door as soon as possible, but this race to deliver may prevent you from seeing where you provide unique value. The most successful entrepreneurs offer something others can’t. Take a look inward to see where you excel, and see if that translates to a business need. If you have contagious energy, shadow your sales leadership on client calls. Build rapport that translates to stronger relationships and revenues. Maybe you’re a tech wizard who can automate error-prone and arduous tasks. Use this skill to save your company time, money, and headaches.
Unsure of where you can shine? That’s why asking questions is imperative. The more you know, the better equipped you’ll be to identify gaps and fill them. Lean into what makes you, you and make yourself indispensable.
#3 Build Your Network (Outside Your Virtual Office)
Generations before us had lunch and learns, holiday parties, and industry networking events. While companies are slowly introducing these get-togethers again, we missed pivotal years of fostering in-person connections. And let’s be honest, a virtual networking event isn’t quite the same, and the research proves it. Because 70% of communication is nonverbal, people struggle to build connections behind screens. Forbes found in-person meetings lead to notably stronger relationships compared to online meetings. When starting your career, it’s important to get out there and form connections with people like:
- An influential sponsor within your company to advocate for your growth
- An industry subject matter expert to mentor you about the exciting world of tech
- A customer to give you the inside scoop on the most pressing challenges they’re facing
The greatest leaders prioritize relationships. If you want to join their ranks, make this top of your list. Research local events near you and make a case for how that can benefit your growth. If your company has an office near you, go in a couple days a week and align your schedule with leaders you’d like to connect with. Getting out into the world will yield transformative connections to take you to that next level.
#4 Champion Your Work
Contrary to what we’ve experienced in the academic world, your work doesn’t always speak for itself. Don’t assume leadership knows your accomplishments. Advocate for yourself and your work. This isn’t to say you should send a company-wide email every time you cross something off your list. Rather, be strategic in your work and focus on your results. If you hear about an emerging market in a company meeting, ask your manager how you can get involved. Keep track of your contributions and ask to share them if there’s a meeting to discuss that project’s results. Being at a startup, you’re uniquely positioned to attend meetings with top leaders. Present your work so leadership associates you with a key company result.
Change brings opportunity. By proactively seeking career-advancing pursuits, I’ve grown tremendously and found my niche. The path to get here may not be what I’d expected, but who accomplished anything spectacular by accepting the status quo?