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10 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started My Career

Updated: Sep 19, 2023

Navigating your career can be exciting and daunting. There are so many things to learn and so many decisions to make. Over my 20-year retail, franchise, restaurant, and marketing career, I learned many lessons about myself and what it takes to advance and develop a fulfilling career. I believe many of the lessons I learned can help you chart your path to your ideal job.

If you could go back and give your younger self some advice, what would it be? I started with this prompt and came up with these answers. I hope this reflection adds value to you as you look to achieve your professional goals.

man looking towards goals

Here are 10 things I wish I knew before I started my career:

Relocating would accelerate my career growth.

If you're willing to move to a new city or state, you'll have a much better chance of advancing your career. Most people want to stay where they live. Your willingness to relocate can be a differentiator within a competitive labor market.

In the first ten years of my career, I was promoted twice. In the second 10 years, I was promoted five times. One of the big differences was my willingness to relocate for growth opportunities.

Where you get a degree from is less important than having a degree.

While getting a college degree is still important, the specific school you attend doesn't matter as much as you might think. What matters more is your skills and experience.

I graduated from a small liberal arts college named Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia.

I had similar or more career growth than people who graduated from large and better-known universities. Big-name colleges can help with your personal branding and provide you with a larger alumni network, but there are other ways to build your personal brand, and a small, strong network is all most people need to achieve their professional goals.

Use leverage to guide decision-making.

When you're faced with a decision, think about the potential consequences of each option. What are the risks and rewards? How will your decision affect your career?

I became a more effective leader once I started making decisions based on return on time, money, and effort. All are limited resources; how you use them will determine your potential and options.

Scale your influence by empowering others.

One of the best ways to grow your career is to help others grow theirs. When you empower others, you create a ripple effect that can benefit you in the long run.

In the early days of my career, I believed that I needed to control everything. This made me the bottleneck in my team's potential. Only when I began to delegate tasks and extend more trust did I start to unlock the potential of my teams.

Praise more than you criticize.

We are conditioned from a young age to focus on what is wrong and to fix it. While this is vital for survival, criticizing small and insignificant details erodes morale, creates extra work, and causes unproductive stress.

One of the most effective programs I ever participated in was the SMILE program. It required managers to write a small note to employees whenever we noticed them do something that put a smile on a customer's face. We saw morale and productivity improvements by creating more moments where leadership praised employees.

"I don't know, but I will find out" is a great answer.

It's okay not to know everything. In fact, more harm is done by giving a bad answer than no answer at all. Being humble enough to state that you do not know something but diligent enough to go find the answer and report back will help you build creditability.

This is one of the first lessons my first district manager taught me when I started my career in retail. This lesson served me my entire career. People want more than the answer: they want the right answer.

Hire people for potential and build competency.

When you're hiring, look for people who have the potential to learn and grow. Teaching a smart and ambitious person a skill is easier than motivating a well-trained but complacent person.

I had a lot of success working with individuals that others had written off. I would identify what they were good at and position them to do work that aligned with their skills, interests, and aptitudes. Leadership matters: Sometimes, a different management approach can unlock an employee's potential.

Most decisions are made outside of meetings.

Every opportunity you have with someone is an opportunity to gain new information and influence. Constantly seek opportunities to expand your next, form relationships, and get to know the needs, expectations, and wants of the people you work with. By helping others accomplish their goals, you will increase your influence.

I gained more information and influence from informal discussions than any meeting I ever attended. The time you spend networking, building relationships, building alliances, and managing stakeholders will make the difference when pursuing a new role, a raise in salary, additional resources, or a special project.

Performance ratings are biased.

Don't put too much stock in your performance ratings. They're often subjective and based on factors that are beyond your control. Focus more on building your competency and a reputation that aligns with your strengths.

I earned my first big promotion in the same year that I missed budgeting earnings for my subgroup of stores. I was promoted because leadership recognized that my lack of hitting my numbers reflected more on the complexity of my assignment than on my skills, knowledge, or potential. Numbers matter, but good leadership looks beyond numbers to understand the story that numbers tell. Focus on building great stories.

There are tradeoffs to moving up the corporate ladder.

As you move up the corporate ladder, you will be asked to do things you have never done before. Some of these things will help you grow, and some will go against your values and damage your personal relationships.

To gain power, money, and influence, you will be asked to support decisions you will not agree with. This is a cost of being a mid-level leader within an organization. As you climb the ladder, you must determine what you will give up in exchange for all of the perks of being a senior leader.


The last 20 years have taught me a lot about what it takes to get ahead within Corporate America. Working hard and being smart will only take you so far. You must have political acumen, strategy, strength of character, and a process from continuous learning. If you want to grow your career, I encourage you to invest time in building a clear picture of who you want to be, and what you want to do. This can help you stay motivated, centered, and focused on growing into the person you are meant to be.

I hope you have gained some value from reading the ten things I wish I had known before I started my career.

If you have read this far, I would love to hear from you on what you wish you knew before starting your career.

Sharing your comments could be of value to other professionals as they progress on their journey.

Thank you for reading this blog

Executive Coach Dorian Cunion

I am a father, husband, executive coach, and former retail executive. My coaching expertise comes from 21 years of leading operation, sales, and marketing teams. I understand what it is like to feel stuck, undervalued, and underappreciated.

I also know what it takes to invest in professional development, climb the corporate ladder, and find fulfillment at work.

Your career path is a scavenger hunt. Each opportunity prepares you for the next. Allow me the opportunity to help you clarify your path and accelerate your professional development.

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