Sometimes, when you’re having a major philosophical discussion about the Big Life and how you’re going to find meaning, passion, respect, and fulfillment, you want someone to tell you exactly what to do. Enough with the endless possibilities and twists and turns; you want some hard-and-fast rules for getting ahead so you can simply keep putting one foot in front of the other. Here they are.
But one caveat: This is probably not the advice that well-respected, well-researched career sites like Levo League, the Muse, Fortune, and Inc. would give. I don’t have statistics or long-term studies to back up my findings. This is advice culled from my own career — I have moved up and around in an industry that’s notoriously tricky to navigate. I have hired and occasionally fired employees. I know what makes someone stand out from the crowd and who’s hiding from being noticed at all. I have interviewed some of the most powerful women in business — and worked closely with some of them, too. I’ve listened to senior women tell stories about their own paths. And I’ve been honored to hear hundreds of young women share what has worked for them and what hasn’t. And so, with the benefit of my own experience and perspective, I offer some of the lessons I learned that can help you craft your own kick-ass career, no matter what your field.
STEP ONE: GET A JOB, ANY JOB
In college, I studied English lit and creative writing. I had considered becoming a novelist, but by graduation, that seemed like it would be a recipe for loneliness and financial ruin. So, I thought magazine journalism might be a good place to get started. I sent résumés to all the big magazines — People, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Newsweek. I had a few informational interviews (which, by the way, are totally worth doing so you get practice and they get to know you) but zero job offers. I still have a stack of the rejection letters — including one from Seventeen, where I eventually became Editor In Chief!
When I graduated from college in the mid-1990s, the country was in the middle of a major recession, but despite the lack of jobs, I had rent to pay! My Filofax (now a relic) was full of notes about people to get in touch with, places to research for my cover letters, and ideas about where I could look for a job. I was hustling. Every week, I’d go to the career services center at New York University and look through a giant dusty binder of job listings. (Listen, it was the ’90s. The Internet was about 5 minutes old, and there was no Indeed app to scrape all the job sites for me!)
It was while poring through that binder that I saw a listing for an executive assistant position at the American Lawyer magazine. If this doesn’t sound like a Dream Job, it’s because it isn’t — or it certainly wasn’t mine. But it was a job. At a magazine. That paid. I wore the worst suit that has ever been designed, made three copies of my résumé as career services instructed, and took the train uptown to the American Lawyer offices. But this time, during the interview, instead of the glazed eyes of a human resources drone whose job was to turn away 99 percent of candidates, I was met by a woman tasked with finding her own replacement, and I actually saw a spark of interest. I seized on that flicker of possibility and became determined to keep talking until it was clear that she had decided to hire me. She offered me the job the next day.
While a job at the American Lawyer wasn’t the glossy glam-magazine job I’d dreamed about, it was the job I could get. And though I had a flicker of an idea about what direction I wanted my career to take, it ultimately didn’t matter that much. Whether you have honed in on your Dream Job with laser-like focus or have no idea what career you want, know that just getting a job is better than flopping about trying to figure out the right path while burning through any savings left in your bank account. When you’re a total newbie, you have little more to offer than your ability to be on time, answer the phones professionally, and not screw up (although I did that too!). You are there to learn the rules of work. Why the receptionist is your secret weapon for office intel and lunch orders that get delivered on time. How to schedule appointments with the busiest people in the world. Which time-wasting, desk-lurking people to avoid. How to send emails that are polite, to the point, and get answered in a timely fashion. Why you should never send an email that you wouldn’t want forwarded to your boss. How to figure out whether the dude in the cubicle next to you is about to ask you out and how to duck the invite so things don’t get weird. And, ultimately, how to make your boss love you and move you into bigger and better roles. You will learn these things no matter where you work, so don’t stress about the Dream Job.
At first, my job at the American Lawyer was to answer phones, order lunch, and distribute memos. I quickly moved into the role of fact-checker, in which I basically re-reported the writer’s stories and made sure all the ampersands and commas of the law firms’ names were in the right places. Are you still awake? Working at the American Lawyer actually turned out to be a phenomenal opportunity. The boss, Steven Brill, is a brilliant, legendary journalist who chomped cigars, yelled at reporters (including me), and also had a new vision for a media company. In addition to running the American Lawyer, he launched Court TV, owned a collection of newspapers, and created a digital platform for attorneys. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was learning how to create multiplatform media, which later would shape my own vision for my role in the industry. Some of the most respected journalists in the country had been in Brill’s newsroom: Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist James B. Stewart; Jill Abramson, who became the first female executive editor of the New York Times, and financial journo bulldog James Cramer, who famously said that Brill bit him on the ear in the heat of an argument! I used to see Dan Abrams, now chief legal affairs anchor for ABC News, in heavy makeup on his way to the Court TV studio. And when I met the Today show’s Natalie Morales, who was also on Court TV, we realized that we’d probably bumped into each other in the office kitchen.
A week after I started my job, O. J. Simpson took his infamous ride down the California highway in his white Bronco. We all huddled around a small TV in the conference room to watch the drama unfold. Suddenly, courtroom journalism wasn’t so snoozy after all!
My Should-Be-Patented Steps for Nailing a Job Interview
You’ve research the company, Googled the boss, connected with the HR department on LinkedIn, checked out the Glassdoor reviews, and written a killer cover letter — and finally you got a callback! Don’t panic, sister. You got this!
Sit at the Edge of Your Seat
You have to earn the right to sit back in your chair — and if you’re going for your first job or second (or even third), you haven’t. You have to lean forward and show respect to your interviewer. Under no circumstances should you bring coffee or a water bottle into an interview and put it on the interviewer’s desk. Automatic disqualification!
It’s your job to make the interview a conversation. Don’t make your interviewer work to figure out what’s so great about you. Come prepared to tell her what makes you so good for the job and what she doesn’t already know about you from your résumé. She wants to know specifically why you want to work for her. You should ask questions too, but never about money (until later) and never about anything that you could find out in your research. I’m a huge fan of questions that connect you to the work the company is doing, let the boss know you’ve done your background checks, and flatter the interviewer just a smidge, like this: “I loved that campaign you launched last fall. I did a similar program for the nonprofit I work with. What was your favorite part of that campaign?”
Write a Thank-You Note
I used to be a stickler about handwritten thank-you notes. And if you’re going that route, get classic flat note cards with your name or initials engraved on them. No foldover cards. No flowers or butterflies. Simple and sophisticated. That said, I’ve softened my stance on the handwritten note and think it’s fine to email a thank-you. In fact, if you know the clock is ticking toward a decision or it’s a digital job, email is the first line of defense. The crucial point, though, is that your thank-you has to specifically mention something you talked about in your meeting, and it has to be thoughtful — and short. Five sentences MAX. Or it’s TL;DR. Simply thanking your interviewer for her time is a waste of her time. You have to say something that makes you stand out from the crowd. The most nerve-racking part of the proper follow-up protocol is how to follow up again if you don’t hear back. The truth is that people are phenomenally busy and email can easily get lost in the shuffle. If you don’t hear back in two weeks, email again reiterating how excited you’d be to join an organization that’s doing such amazing things. If you still don’t hear back, some people say a third email another two weeks later is okay. I think it’s just like a dude who doesn’t return your text or your smiley face reminder: He’s moved on and so should you.