Lessons from My First Job

Do you remember your first job right after college?

Even though it was probably entry level it was a milestone.

Unpaid internships now behind you, you were finally getting a real paycheck!

You felt liberated and overwhelmed by all of the choices in front of you.

If you were lucky, maybe you went straight into a management trainee program but most likely, it was just the first of many jobs that you’d hold until you figured out what to do with your life.

About this time a year, I often talk to college seniors who are beginning the search for their first job.

My first job was as a development director at Legal Aid of Western Missouri (LAWMO) in Kansas City, Missouri. My annual salary was $25,000 (bumped up by $5000 when then Executive Director verbally quoted me a salary of $20,500 and realized his mistake when I told him I expected $25,000) and I had to purchase my own laptop for my office.

My main responsibilities were to write grants to support the non-profit firm’s many legal assistance programs including family law/domestic violence prevention, fair housing, and consumer and employment law.

A liberal arts college major, I knew nothing about fundraising or legal services but I learned quickly. While I was at this job for less than a year, it started me on my career path to becoming the marketing and communications professional I am today. That first job taught me many other important career lessons that now, almost 18 years later, still stay with me.

Lesson 1: Go above and beyond your job description.

While my formal job title was as a development director, primarily responsible for writing grants and fundraising from private sources. I soon realized that to do my job effectively, the organization needed better brand awareness.

I started cultivating relationships with local reporters to bring attention to the organization’s many outreach programs and dispel the false belief that their work was focused on allowing poor people to file frivolous lawsuits.

And I secured pro-bono design services and revamped the marketing materials to put a more human face to the often tough and heartbreaking situations faced by the thousands of families who sought LAWMO’s services.

To this day, any job I take on is just a jumping off point for doing what needs to be done. I love taking a job and shaping it to leverage opportunities, gain new experiences and make more of an impact.

Lesson 2: Find a mentor (and get to know the “old timers”).

As a newly minted twenty-something college grad, I was astounded to meet Legal Aid attorneys who had worked for the organization their entire careers. These weren’t the well-heeled corporate attorneys you see on Suits or who worked on Wall Street. No. For these attorneys, legal services was not just a job but a calling and passion to be of service to people who were often at their lowest point in life.

They were modest, dedicated and ferociously good attorneys.

It was from these attorneys that I learned about social justice and corporate responsibility.

I asked questions all of time and learned about their toughest cases.

From these attorneys I learned how to read contracts and how to spot a bad deal. I learned who the wheeler and dealers were in town at the time and where to look for money from the firms that had it. I learned about the role of lobbying and how to use political influence to shape opinions. Several of these attorneys became mentors to me early in my career and I am grateful.

Lesson 3: Make other people look good.

As a newly minted professional, it’s tempting to try and show everyone how smart and capable you are. During my tenure at LAWMO with the help of a well-known community volunteer, we held a very successful 25Th anniversary gala fundraiser.

When I initially shared with LAWMO’s attorneys that we were going to throw an anniversary gala, I was met with lots of skepticism and cynicism. The gala ended up being a huge hit with lots of positive attention placed on the incredible work of LAWMO’s attorneys and the life-changing work they did.

And we raised almost $50,000 to support the organization’s programs. When one of the organization’s most battle-hardened lawyers told me how proud he was of the event and that LAWMO’s story was being told more widely, I was elated.

Sharing LAWMO’s story and bringing some shine to the lawyers who usually shunned public recognition was a powerful lesson for me. To this day, if I can make someone else look good and bring them recognition, I will do it.

Sharing credit is one of the most powerful things any professional can do.

Lesson 4: Pay it forward.

I was eventually hired away from LAWMO by one of the local foundations in Kansas City but I continued to stay in touch with my former boss and several of the attorneys who had taken me under their wings. This taught me the importance of relationships and staying connected.

What I learned, and believe to this day, is that none of us get to where we are on our own. Relationships and networks matter even more today and it’s important to nurture those connections.

Today. I try to pay it forward by mentoring young women especially who are early in their career navigating the same tricky terrain I did all those years ago. The benefit to me is getting the opportunity to scout amazing new talent and helping them land in organizations where they can really make a difference.

Your turn.

What lessons did you learn from your first job? What’s the most important career advice you would share with a college senior? Let me know your thoughts in the comments or find me on Twitter @bossmomonline.




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