Ten pieces of career advice that are actually worth listening to

By Helena Morrissey

I’ve been given lots of advice over my long career – some great, some less useful, and occasionally, some completely wrong.

The best career advice depends very much on personal circumstances, including your stage in life, occupation, personality and goals.

The best career advice depends on personal circumstances.
The best career advice depends on personal circumstances.Credit: iStock

But certain guidance (plus lessons learnt along the way) has really helped me throughout my career to date, including when I’ve hit a rough spot.

Here are my top 10 tips.

Don’t let the fear of failure stop you from trying

There will always be reasons not to do something. But, now that I’m in my 50s, I know far more people who regret not trying to implement their big idea than those who regret trying and “failing”.

A teacher once told one of my daughters that “she might fail” if she pursued her big ambition. I was aghast. But she might succeed!

What’s the worst that can happen? We can pick ourselves up and try again. And we often learn the most from apparent setbacks.

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Play to your strengths

Yours, distinct to you. Don’t emulate someone else. Be authentic while being aware of your surroundings.

As a woman in the City of London, still very much a man’s world, I was advised to become “bilingual”. That meant to understand the prevailing masculine approach while keeping my femininity. Become self-aware, understanding what you are good at, what you don’t enjoy doing, and what you really want to achieve – then build on that.

You are far more likely to succeed at something if you enjoy it.

Spend time and effort honing your skills

It’s easy to become disillusioned in a world where hard work and integrity aren’t always rewarded – as the UK’s Post Office Horizon scandal has brutally reminded us. But no amount of networking will be enough if you’ve little to offer. Become an expert so you have something of real value.

Never stop learning. Understand your organisation’s strategy, the sector in which it operates and how your role fits in, so your contribution stays relevant (or you can decide to find a better opportunity elsewhere). Be in control.

Be sure to be credited for the work you do

This goes hand-in-hand with the point above. Make sure your skills and hard work are recognised and rewarded.

In my first role, as the only woman in a team of 16, my goal was just to blend in. I put my head down, and worked harder than anyone else but rarely spoke up.

As a result, I wasn’t perceived as being as good as I was. You may have to step outside your comfort zone to claim the credit you deserve. If you struggle with this, look at the point below.

Ask for help – and feedback

No one has all the answers. Throughout our career, we’ll need mentors, friends, colleagues and partners who genuinely want us to succeed, who can help us find the courage to speak up, take steps into the unknown or simply act as sounding boards.

Those supporters can also tell us when we go wrong.

I’ll never forget my husband, Richard, reprimanding me when I was feeling depressed after a setback. “Don’t let yourself become a victim,” he said. “You’re better than that. Show them by winning.”

I wanted to wallow in self-pity, but he was right. It was the pep talk I needed.

Setbacks are inevitable

It’s how you deal with setbacks that determines whether the experience will help or hinder your progress. Think of your career as a labyrinth, not a ladder. There will be many twists and turns.

I didn’t get the very first promotion I was up for in my very first job. That was painful but – with hindsight – it helped me ultimately unlock bigger opportunities. If I’d got the promotion, I would probably have stayed in the first company, and I very much doubt I would have become CEO.

When a setback occurs, do your best to operate with grace under fire. Don’t storm off, and don’t send an angry email. Deep breath, seek counsel, act calmly.

Position yourself for the job you want (and if that’s CEO, go for it)

If you want to be promoted, the surest way is to be perceived as someone capable of doing that bigger job.

Signal your ambition. I’ve heard managers dismiss the idea of promoting someone because they’re “not sure she wants that responsibility”.

I’ve also seen situations where someone is given a bigger role partly because they have made it clear they will look elsewhere if they’re not chosen. Career progression isn’t objective like exams; perceptions matter.

Note, you might not know whether you want the top job, or even the one after the next promotion – that’s fine. Take it one step at a time.

Leap before you look

Some people spend their lives looking and looking and never leaping. Be open to possibilities. Be willing to explore. Even if none of that comes naturally.

I was very shy in my 20s. I gradually became more confident by taking small steps outside my comfort zone – admittedly, very tiny leaps indeed – saying “yes” to opportunities and even asking for a seat at the table if I wasn’t included. (My informal mentor at the time nudged me, saying “Of course you can do that!” or “Just ask”).

People began treating me seriously and gave me more responsibilities, in turn boosting my confidence.

Accept your decisions, and make the most of them

One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given was from a very senior American banker, a mother of twins.

Remember the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Remember the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.Credit: Getty Images

Her children were now grown up; she told me that when she first went back to work she felt bad about not being at home, and when she was at home she felt bad about not being at work.

No one was benefitting from her constant regret. She decided to make the best of the path she had chosen, to be entirely focused on her work in the office, and on her family at home.

Such compartmentalisation may be harder these days, but we can keep the mentality. There is no single right path – so make yours the best it can be.

Behave well

Look out for colleagues. Be a mentor. Pay it forward – it’s empowering and much needed for better cultures and businesses – and more career opportunities. Never be a silent bystander if you witness poor behaviour. Remember the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

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