In the summer of 1996 after my sophomore year of college, I started an internship at a nonprofit technology association in downtown Washington, D.C.
Until that point, I’d only worked in retail and had no idea what to expect. I asked my father and a professor for advice. Remarkably, 20 years later much of that guidance still resonates.
Doors open based on who you know
In the late 90s, these were physical doors rather than virtual ones, but the concept is the same. When applying for a job or looking to connect with someone, name-dropping would increase your odds of getting a positive response. Today, although we have exponentially larger networks thanks to social media, deep, in-person relationships still provide the greatest networking benefit.
As you build your network of contacts, remember to follow up
Meeting a contact once is a wasted opportunity unless you periodically remind him or her of who you are and take steps to grow the relationship over time. In the 90s, I was encouraged to send snail mail holiday cards to former bosses and colleagues, and even to pick up the phone occasionally. Twenty years later, it’s all about LinkedIn.
In a new situation, aim to assimilate
Corporate culture used to be “one-size-fits-all.” If you worked in a business office in any city in the world, you were expected to behave professionally, adhere to hierarchies, and generally do what you were told without making waves. Individual company cultures may be more unique today (conservative versus liberal, strict versus playful) but the need to examine and then fit into a new culture – whatever it may be – remains.
Dress for the job you want
Like business culture, business dress was once straightforward. Junior level professionals in the 90s could wear business casual, which consisted of khakis and polos for guys and slacks or skirts paired with nice blouses for women. However, by the time you reached a senior level, you were advised to take it up a notch with tailored suits and pricey shoes and accessories. Basing your appearance on that of the executives sent a very clear signal that you intended to climb the ladder quickly. And it still does – even if the executives in your company now wear jeans and Hollister tee-shirts.
Be humble and willing to learn from any task
In the 90s, if your boss asked you to grab coffee or make copies, you did it with a smile. You understood that you were paid for the privilege of watching and learning as the higher-ups did the real work. Today, those with little experience may feel empowered to say no to grunt work, but that doesn’t mean refusal is a smart idea. Human nature hasn’t changed and humility will get you everywhere.
Success is not about effort, it’s about visibility and value
Early in my career, I made the mistake of churning out work product that no one ever saw. I didn’t get ahead until I made sure my managers were aware of how my contributions were impacting the bottom line. Today’s emphasis on lean teams and productivity means that adding and communicating value is more important than ever.
A bad attitude will break your reputation
Losing your cool at work has always been frowned upon, and despite claims of a kinder, gentler 21st century workplace, it still is. And now, the stakes are higher because your epic in-office rant won’t just be a legend passed down from employee to employee. Instead, it could be taped on a phone and broadcast on social media for perpetuity.
Take advantage of company-sponsored training opportunities
The concept that employees should “skill up” to remain competitive has been around for several decades, and in the last years of the 20th century, companies had dollars to spend on tuition reimbursement and courses like Dale Carnegie. In 2016, training opportunities are scarcer and more varied (online, in-person, etc.), but they should still be coveted. It’s only a matter of time before individuals will be responsible for 100 percent of their professional development.
If you want to keep a secret, don’t tell anyone
Workplace gossip has been a “thing” since biblical times, and in 1996, the chief concern was that if you told a colleague a secret or rumor in confidence, that individual would share it with someone else and it might be heard by the wrong person. Never has this advice been more critical than today, when, thanks to the speed and ease of digital communication, your secret WILL be heard by the wrong person – guaranteed.
Be respectful of others’ time
Back in the day, we arrived exactly on time for interviews. We asked politely for networking conversations and check-in meetings with our bosses that fit into a half hour slot in the day planner. When we thought people were busy then – filing paperwork, sending faxes, and leaving voicemails – we had no idea what we were in for. In 2016, people are so overscheduled and frazzled that they take their iPhones to the bathroom. If you make them wait, they might just lose it.