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Starting Out? Midcareer? Pre-Retirement? Advice for You

By Marty Nemko

This is the advice my clients have found most useful. It’s applicable to both private and public sector careers.


Conquer procrastination. When I give talks to successful executives and ask them, “How many of you think of yourself as procrastinators?” 25 percent raise their hands. When I ask the same question of unemployed job seekers, it’s 80-90 percent. At school, you probably could procrastinate until the last minute and still get a good grade. Alas, on most good jobs, there’s no grade inflation. Procrastination is a career killer. A related point: Return calls and emails the same day if not sooner. It’s a visible way to show you’re no slacker.

Develop your skill set. Your job probably requires skills you didn’t learn in school. Perhaps with your boss, identify those skills most likely to help your career. A tutor, short workshops, and studying on your own are often better ways to acquire needed skills than a back-to-school stint.

Brush your teeth in the morning and after lunch. Trust me, I wouldn’t mention this unless many people, including well-educated people, have bad breath. It’s a career killer.

Ask for what you want. The meek may inherit the earth, but not today’s workplace. It’s usually worth the risk of politely asking for what you want: advice, training, more responsibility, a revised job description. Your boss is generally unable to intuit your needs. You must speak up.

Be nice to everyone. People have long memories. People won’t remember what you said; they’ll remember how you made them feel. Even if it’s the janitor, be nice—they talk with others. Of course, the most important reason to be nice is that even the simplest act of kindness—an earned compliment—improves a person’s life. Be generous with earned praise; stingy with criticism. Most people take criticism poorly, so be sure it’s necessary, likely to be helpful, and couched in face-saving terms, for example, “Perhaps I’m wrong but (insert criticism.) What do you think?”

Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. A good way to defuse enmity is to invite your nemeses to work with you on a plum project, or even invite them to a party.

Food is love. For example, bring home-baked cookies, especially to a potentially contentious meeting. Lest you think that strategy might make a person seem like a homemaker and thus diminish their respect, that tip comes from Barbara Nemko, who, over 100 competitors, was her region’s 2004-05 Schools Superintendent of the Year.

The rest of the advice for those starting out differs depending on how ambitious you are. Which of these sound more like you?

The Ambitious Person: “I want to do what I can to move up quickly.”

The Less Ambitious Person: “For me, work/life balance will always be primary. Family, recreation, and down time are more important than a job with big money, status, and/or potential for productivity and societal contribution,”


Hold out for a launchpad job. Don’t settle for a dead-end job at a no-name employer. Hold out for a launchpad job: one that offers the chance to learn important skills, ideally for a well-known employer. My daughter’s first job was in the White House. That was the good news. The bad news was that her job was to answer letters to Socks, the Clinton’s cat. Before she got typecast as a low-level employee, she told her boss, “I’m willing to pay my dues but I’m a pretty good researcher and writer so I’m wondering if I could be more useful doing something else.” Soon, she was working on Hillary’s daily briefing.

You must work smart and hard. Unless you’re brilliant or satisfied with a low-level job, the advice that you need to work smart not hard is wrong. Most people must work smart and hard.

Grab responsibility. Look for opportunities to do more, especially higher-level tasks. You want to be seen not as the stereotypical young slacker, but as an up-and-comer.

Dress for your next job. Dress one notch above your current job, but not two notches or you’ll look like you’re trying too hard.

Embrace office politics. Office politics has a bad reputation—it implies backstabbing. But positive politics are ethical and critical. Getting what you want, whether it’s a promotion, permission to do a project, or simply to avoid downsizing, requires support from others. So, ask a respected long-time employee to describe the unwritten organization chart—where the power actually lies, and the sorts of things you need to say and do to get the power players on your side.

Consider the opportunity cost of going back to school. Yes, employer value degrees, but wise employers (the ones you want to work for) recognize that real-world training is often more valuable than the university’s. You might want to forego State U, let alone Private U, in favor of You U: a mentor-guided self-study program consisting of articles, books and workshops by top practitioners along with on-the-job training at the elbow of a fine and willing supervisor. However, going to school is usually a wiser choice if you’re not a self-starter, needing the structure of school to keep you motivated.

Network now. It takes time to develop useful contacts. Networking probably won’t help you land your first job, but it will later.

First, develop a few-second self-commercial. For example, “I’m having a good time as an assistant manager on a small Wi-Fi project, but I think I’m ready for something bigger.” Self-commercials are useful when you run into a boss in the elevator, etc, and in such networking activities as:

Start an Insider’s Group: people in your line of work who communicate via a Yahoo! group and perhaps periodically in-person.

Join your professional association. Even better, volunteer for its program committee or even to serve as an officer. You’d be surprised how often organizations are desperate for leaders.

At gatherings, be on the greeting committee. Or act like the host: find out about people and offer to get them a drink, food, or introduce them to someone else. Start conversations, perhaps about the host, the event, or something in the news.

Even if you do all of the above, you probably won’t develop useful connections unless you create deep connections with people. See my blog entry on how to do that at

Learn entrepreneurship. School rarely teaches entrepreneurship, but it’s key in many middle- and upper-level positions in both the non- and for-profit sectors, even in some areas of government. And of course, entrepreneurial skill prepares you for self-employment. You can learn it at the elbow of a good entrepreneur, even if you’re just filing and making coffee, as long as you watch carefully and ask questions. Also, use the services of the Small Business Administration. ( They offer courses in entrepreneurship and one-on-one free coaching from retired executives.


Set your boundaries early. Today, ever more jobs are stressful, requiring long work hours. So, unless you’re careful, you’ll find yourself in a misfitting job, which will cause you to be fired or at least to work harder than you want. So, hold out for a job in which long hours and pressure aren’t required. You’re more likely to find those through networking. Avoid job ads with phrases that suggest a stressful job, for example, “fast-paced office” or “multitasking essential.” During your interview, ask about work expectations. On the job, don’t start by putting in long hours. They’ll expect you’ll continue doing that. Learn to say no to boss requests that require extra work.


Plot out your career arc. Perhaps rethink what you want to be. Set goals and sub-goals.

If you want to continue moving up:

Continue to grow your skill set. Leaders read leadership-oriented magazines on their exercise bike, find role models and mentors, and engage career coaches to help them navigate choppy waters. Areas of particular importance as you move up:

-- Strategic thinking, incorporating large amount of data, but ultimately relying on good intuition.

-- The ability to inspire employees to work hard and smart, both in their own and in the organization’s interest.

-- Delegation. Take the time to train people to handle delegated tasks or find people to whom you can more confidently delegate.

-- One-on-one communication skills. Most people think they’re good communicators but few are. Good communicators listen carefully to what’s said, how it’s said, and what’s not said. They speak clearly, concisely, and in a tone that engenders buy-in rather than defensiveness. This skill is so important and so difficult that most people would be wise to have a few sessions with a communication coach.

-- Running a meeting in an efficient yet inspirational way. See an article on that topic on

-- Public speaking. Key is the art of storytelling. Consider taking a storytelling workshop or joining Toastmasters, a club with chapters all over the world in which members give talks to each other to improve their public speaking as well as to make connections.

-- Conversance with all aspects of a business: the technology, finance, sales, marketing, etc.


Brand yourself as a wise elder. Especially if you’re not eager to establish your worth by keeping up with the latest and greatest, try to be seen as the Wise Elder. Offer to mentor younger workers. In reports and meetings, offer lessons from your experience, for example, “Some years ago, we ran into an analogous situation. (Describe it.) Might that offer a lesson on how to deal with our current situation?”

Angle for jobs in which age is a plus: for example rainmaker, internal or external consultant, or working on a product aimed at older customers.

Estimate how much money you’ll need for retirement and the financial difference of retiring at different ages.’s Retirement Center offers useful tools. (Click on “personal investing, then “planning and education,” then “retirement planning.”)

Mind your personal appearance:

-- Posture. Helen Gurley Brown isn’t far from right: “After a while, it all comes down to posture.” Stand up straight, walk with a bounce in your step. I know, sometimes you don’t feel like bouncing. Bounce anyway.

-- Sleep. It’s easier to bounce when you get seven or eight hours of sleep. Also, you’ll look younger. Nearly everyone looks older when sleep-deprived.

-- Use caffeine judiciously. Mainstream consensus is that one to three cups of coffee a day isn’t harmful and may even be helpful. Caffeine certainly increases energy and cognitive function. But we do build tolerance to caffeine, so drink as little as you need to maintain your energy.

-- Be energetic and smile. Trudge down the hall with a dour expression and you look like deadwood. Bonus: your smile will distract people from the part of your face that most reveals your age: your eyes.

-- Glasses. Speaking of your eyes, glasses cover a multitude of sins: red eyes, glassy eyes, raccoon eyes and crow’s feet. Glasses hide all of the above. Don’t need glasses to improve your eyesight? Get a pair with plain glass lenses. The situation is more complicated for women: a study found that men prefer women without glasses.

-- Clothes. Think three times before buying clothes meant for 20-somethings. The contrast between your clothes and your age will accentuate the very thing you’re trying to distract from. Other clothing tips:

· Soft colors make most people look younger.

· Choose clothes that hide your bad features. For example, if you have flabby arms, wear ¾ sleeves in the summer.

· Avoid ill-fitting clothing, especially too-tight clothing.

· Be sure your clothes are pressed. The rumpled look doesn’t work, even if you’re a professor. There’s no faster way to look burned out.

-- Hair. For most women, a medium-length cut works best. Older guys, keep your hair relatively short. Both men and women might consider coloring their hair; your original color usually looks best. Guys, that beard may have looked cool when you were younger, but now, it probably just makes you look older.

-- Teeth: Get your teeth whitened or do it yourself. It costs little and makes a difference.

-- Cosmetic surgery. A good face lift makes you look ten years younger and lasts a long time. There are new, easier procedures, but the benefits aren’t as dramatic nor as long-lasting. Ask lots of people for referrals. When you hear the same surgeon’s name again and again, that probably should be your doc. Secret: Prices for face lifts are often negotiable. If your schedule is flexible, even many top cosmetic surgeons will do the complete job for under $10,000.

Think three times before retiring. Too often, after the first few months, you’ve run out of things to do. If you’re contemplating retirement, vacation for a few weeks and ask yourself how you’d like 10 or 20 years of that. Will you soon feel irrelevant, out to pasture? Lay out a plan for how you’ll fill the next five years. Will you really fill the time with volunteer work, golf, reading, gardening and friends? Or will that get old? When in doubt, rather than retire, cut back.

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