Hey, Millennials: A Tunic Is Not a Dress (and Other Important Career Advice)

blog pic

By Erin Johnson 

Originally Posted on TueNight

In the 20 years since I’ve entered the workforce (the past 10 of them at J. Walter Thompson), I have traveled the world, hung with Hollywood’s elite (and not so elite), had cocktails with the Marahana of Udaipur, sold major bling and counted stacks of moldy cash (literally, stacks) in the kitchen of an Aspen mansion on red mountain, met “The Donald” and all of his wives (yep, Ivana, Marla and Melania – at separate times for different reasons), been accompanied by one major Las Vegas CEO’s Belgian attack dogs (long story) and handled many major corporate crisis communications campaigns, brand launches, executive visibility campaigns and so on. Because of the nature of my job, some of my biggest accomplishments were keeping things OUT of the media, to protect either a brand or an executive.

So when the fabulous Ann Shoket asked me to write about advice I would give to my 25-year-old self (or those starting in the work force), it was pretty simple. Today’s 25-year-olds don’t understand that Generation X “paid our dues” when we were 25. While I have worked and mentored many amazing millenials who should be my boss sooner rather than later, it won’t ever happen if certain behaviors continue. Besides the obvious “don’t sleep with your boss” and “please stop saying ‘on fleek,’” I jotted down a few things to avoid doing along with some of my best advice:

Don’t say “No” when asked to do something. Ever.
True story: A few summers ago, we had an intern who never ceased to amaze us with her behavior. For a big event, we asked her to walk down one block to Staples to get some supplies for that night. She said NO, that it was too hot out and couldn’t we just order it online? She also asked for Ubers to and from work and regularly told us to use Task Rabbit.

A tunic is not a dress.
If in doubt, wear leggings or pants with it. Another rule is: If you would wear it to a club or the beach, it’s not right for the office. I have literally had to tell interns or junior staff to put on bras, pants, etc. While they looked beautiful, their choices were simply not right for a professional environment.

Don’t whine about career advancement three months into your job.
Please don’t start asking for a raise three months into a job. The better approach is to document your successes and keep a file on hand for your review. You need to know how to self-promote, but you have to choose the right moment and you need concrete facts to support a specific request. Do you want more responsibility? More access to other projects? Know what you are asking for and think of solutions management would be open to.

Don’t ever wrestle with a pig because you both get dirty — and the pig likes it. (Also known as, “Taking the high road.”)

You WILL encounter some assholes. There is always going to be someone who has it in for you. Don’t let them steal your self-confidence. Whether they are jealous, insecure, feel superior or are just plain mean, I think the best way to deal with these situations is to, as my mother said “Kill them with kindness.” It feels good to do the right thing, and it is possible to stand up for yourself while maintaining your dignity. Plus, you never know when you will have to deal with this person again down the road in your career. Instead, console yourself by looking at the wiki for “imposter syndrome.” And don’t let the bastards get you down.

Get a “graduating class.”
Maintain supportive and honest relationships with people in the same industry that are roughly at the same level as you. It is good to have people in your “class” coming up along with you – through the good times and the bad. The friendships I have kept from 20 years ago still stand, and I know I can go to these friends for trusted opinions and even to level-check me when I am unsure about stuff.

Shut your mouth.
You are probably brilliant and will be running the place someday, but the best way to learn is to start by improving your listening skills. You can learn a lot by being a fly on a wall. Some of the best lessons I learned happened when I was a publicity assistant at Miramax and we would have “rolling calls” for our executives, meaning we would conference our executive into one meeting after another. I wasn’t technically included on the calls, but I had the opportunity to listen to the most fascinating business negotiations and learn from them – without ever saying a word.

CYA/Or “It didn’t happen if you don’t have it in writing.”

Oh, the heartache and drama that can be avoided when you learn to CYA (Cover Your Ass). Whether you are in a meeting, on a phone call or having a casual desk side chat and decisions/delegations are happening, follow up with a short, bulleted email to confirm/document next steps and deadlines. It seems simple, but it is so critical to covering your a$$.

Bring your lunch.
I am afraid to go back and count how much money I have spent on lunch in NYC in the last 20 years. Truly. Insane. Not only is it significantly cheaper to brown bag it, you will eat healthier, feel better and be less likely to make a bad food choice during the day. Because my next one is coming up…

Go to the gym at lunch. Then eat at your desk later.
Forget the insanity of “I am too busy to leave my desk for lunch.” It’s bullshit. If that is the truth, then you are not managing your time well enough. And I also call bullshit on the perceived/imagined “stigma” of leaving during midday to (gasp) workout. There will always be a to-do list in your life; put yourself on that list. Working out during the day twice a week is a great way to maintain your fitness momentum as you climb the corporate ladder. When you feel healthy, you are more confident – and it shows.

Negotiate salary and severance.
Severance is just as important as salary. Nobody likes having tough conversations, but I believe in the work “pre-nup.” What’s does that cheesy subway ad for divorce lawyers say? “When love isn’t forever.” Think of your job as a marriage. You might stay married forever, or you might fall out of love sooner than either one of you anticipated. I have learned that the squeaky wheel gets the oil. Do your homework and try to find out what your company has done before or what similar companies offer. Don’t walk down that aisle without a mutually agreed-upon employment contract.

Get mini-mentors and learn how to ask (and take) someone to lunch.

Professional dating is a critical part of networking and learning. Make a list of people you would love to meet and ask them to lunch (or breakfast or coffee). Tell them upfront that you aren’t looking for a job or pitching them but that you are curious about their career path and want to hear their story. I was terrified to ask a senior reporter out years ago, but it turned out to be the best experience. Lunch doesn’t need to be fancy; you just need to have a goal for the lunch. Do research and ask questions, but not ones you can find out via Google. Find out what makes people tick, and you’re guaranteed to learn something that can help you in the future.

Pay yourself first.
My college roommate’s father used to lecture us about saving ten percent of our income. It was a joke to me. I was so in debt from loans and rent that I was barely making it from one paycheck to the other. I didn’t have the money to save, or so I thought. But I was wrong. Compound interest is no joke. Even if you only put aside $10 in a savings account or 401K the day you start your first job, you will be amazed at how much you can accumulate in 20+ years.

Shoes and bags matter.
A $19 H&M wrap dress looks just as amazing as a $500 DVF dress when you have the right basics. Invest in one GREAT bag and a pair of Chanel Ballet flats (or some major heels – you get the point). Continually get them cleaned, moisturized, resoled, etc. You only need one go-to fancy pair that is forever classic and elegant and says, “I’m an adult.”

Check under the hood, and freeze your eggs.
That’s right. You don’t want kids now, but those eggs of yours are VERY valuable. Don’t wait until you are 35 and freaking out because you haven’t met Mr. Right, so you settle for Mr. Fertile. Freeze your healthy eggs NOW – even if you have to forfeit a summer share. Your 40-something self will thank you. Then you will be able to relax about it and meet the right person at the right time, not just because your clock is ticking.

So, there you have it. In today’s crazy, 24/7 work environments, it’s difficult to remember to take the time for self-improvement. For example, “Active Listening” is a skill that takes as much practice and patience for me today as it did 20 years ago. And who doesn’t struggle to save money, work out and take the high road? But believe me, it’s worth the effort.

I hope you can find some nuggets of helpful info in my experience. I’m off to go learn about a new analytics program from a 20-something who fascinates me. She’s going to teach me a thing or two. But I’ll be happy to buy her lunch at a fancy salad place.