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How to have a successful career: advice when starting in a new role


LAST UPDATED: 07 March, 2024

I was listening to Mark Bouris speak at the Quickbooks Connect Conference recently and I was intrigued by his message for the 1,000 small business owners, bookkeepers and accountants attending. One of his key pieces of advice about how to have a successful career was based on his own experience, the other three on advice received from the likes of Kerry Packer.

His first piece of advice was to establish a routine. He told us in great detail about his routine… up at 4:30 am every morning Monday to Sunday, listen to the radio for 10 minutes, coffee with cinnamon and cayenne pepper (yes you heard right), etc.

The point he was making, is routine frees you to do the things that matter. You can focus on the big things and not worry about trivial day-to-day matters.

It triggered my thinking about the best piece of advice I have received or which I could give someone starting out in a new career or a new role.

The first piece of career advice:

The best piece of career advice I received was to spend your first three months asking questions. Lots of them.

The person who gave me this career advice was right – you definitely have more license to question everything when you are new.

And no question is a stupid one – in fact from experience it is often the simplest or seemingly ‘stupid’ questions which elicit the best answers or uncover stuff no-one thought of or knew about.

Try it. Ask lots of questions and don’t forget to throw in a few ‘whys’. You’ll be amazed how much information a few well–placed ‘whys’ can reveal.

And here’s another tip, write down the answers even if it is just a summary. There’s a lot going on when you start a new job and there is no way, unless you have a photographic memory, you will remember it all.

The second piece of career advice:

This is my own learning and one I wish I had known about early in my career – it would have saved me a lot of time, effort and pain.

Report up the line.

That’s it you ask? Yes, it is. It’s simple and here’s how it works.

You receive a brief for a project from your new direct report. It seems clear what she wants, she was clear in her brief… or so you thought.

So you set off. “I’m going to nail this,” you think. “I’m going to show them why they hired me.” And you churn through it. In fact, you decide to go a step further because you want to impress, you want to deliver beyond the brief. You even beat the deadline by half a day.

And then that sinking feeling… your direct report comes to you and says it’s not exactly what she wants. Could you add this and could you change the formatting and could you cut it down from 12 pages to two, and can you take out those two sections you added in… and so it goes.

You’re devastated, deflated. “How could it have gone so wrong?” you ask. You think back to the brief and it appears you did everything she wanted.

Therein lies the problem.

What people say they want, how you interpret what they want and what you finally deliver often doesn’t match up and it’s why you should always, always report up the line.

Report up the line

Here’s how it should have gone.

You receive the brief but instead of merely taking the brief you ask questions:

  • “How long should it be?”
  • “What format do you want it in?”
  • “How will it be used?”
  • “Who will read it?”
  • “What is the context?” etc.

You set off. And yes you can still think to yourself: “I’m going to nail this.” But this time, instead of churning through it, you research it, plan what you want to do and how you want to do it. And before you even start, you report back up the line with your direct report.

This time the conversation goes like this: “This is what I was thinking and this is how it will be laid out. I thought of including this piece of research and do you think the following headings will work?” etc.

You receive immediate guidance and affirmation and only now do you go back and start fine-tuning the output. It’s become a collaborative effort and best of all you’re managing expectations and you both have a clearer direction of where the document is going.

But reporting up doesn’t stop there — once you’ve implemented what was discussed you go back again to check a few final things. Again you refine it and only then do you deliver the document.

This time your boss comes to you and says it is exactly what she wants and how much she enjoyed the process.

Reporting up the line — I wish I had known about this simple process when I started out in my career. 

This blog post was originally published on our partner site, Firebrand.