Youth Skills Day: the lessons I learned from my first role

Tuesday 13 July 2021
Leaders from various sectors share the lessons they learned early in their career, in honour of World Youth Skills Day
Man looking at window in state of reflection

In the early 2000s, Caroline Whaley, co-founder of Shine for Women, was working for Nike in Canada. They were awaiting final approval for a TV spot from the head commissioner of one of the biggest sports franchises in North America. But they’d also scheduled some critical research which put the multi-million dollar campaign in jeopardy. The buck stopped with Whaley. She was worried she might be fired.

“I had a great relationship with my boss, but I was certainly very aware of the looming impact for me and the business,” she says. She explained everything, but he just asked, calmly, how he could help. “I definitely wasn’t expecting such a thoughtful reaction.”

He flew out to see the commissioner, and sent Whaley to deliver his presentation to 500 senior executives on the Canadian business, and the crisis was averted. “I remember vividly talking to each other from our respective airport departure lounges – one on the East coast, one on the West coast – and finally, actually laughing about it.”

That early experience has informed Whaley’s approach to her career to this day. For World Youth Skills Day, we asked a group of managers and leaders for the critical lessons they learned in their early roles.


Speak up

“If you have something meaningful to say, then say so. I remember being in my first role feeling like I didn’t have much to bring to the table but, quite the contrary, I was a fresh perspective that saw solutions where others hadn’t. It might be daunting speaking up, but do your homework and feel confident in your ideas. This can develop your soft skills such as problem-solving, presentation, planning and leadership skills. Speaking up will prove to yourself that you can make a difference and are a valued team member, both key in leading a fulfilling career.”

Rebecca Blake, supervising solicitor at The University of Law


Don’t waste time in a bad job

“Work takes up a lot of time in your life and if you don’t enjoy it, look for other opportunities. Don’t be afraid to try different roles along the way. Be bold and ambitious, but not arrogant – it will limit your career opportunities and effectiveness as a leader. For women in the technology industry, particularly in healthcare, I would say to seek out new challenges; take a risk and take every opportunity to advance their careers. Diversity is vital. We need more women in technology and the medtech industry.”

Dee Mathison, managing director of Elekta


Believe in your worth

“The colour of your skin does not determine your worth. No doubt you will have heard this many times before, but it is an important drum to bang. When racism forms the backdrop of your everyday life, it can be hard to believe this is not the truth. Remember where you come from. The experiences you’ve had help form every part of who you are.

“Your power lies in your difference, and you should not shrink or change to fit the mould of the majority. Instead, look to take up space respectfully. Acknowledging what you believe to be your difference and sharing your experiences can help to kindle bonds.”

Debbie Tembo, managing director, The Black British Business Awards


Customer service can teach you a lot

“I started as a salesperson for Dixons, earning commission. I quickly learned that the customer ultimately pays your wages. Remember this! It’s easy to forget that as you move away from the till but it’s totally vital to every business.”

Andrew Stephenson CMgr FCMI, chief people officer at Equiniti


Never stop learning

“As a business owner, you are so in the moment a lot of the time – I don't remember most of my 40s. The day you think you've got it nailed is the day you've got it wrong.

“It's what you don't know that you don't know that will catch you out. You need people who are specialists in their field: accountants, solicitors, other engineering companies, peers within the same group, peers outside that group. It's keeping your ears and mind open to the things you've never even thought about before. That's how you grow.”

Malcolm Little, executive chairman at Advanced Dynamics


Try everything

“Starting as an intern, it was important that I was given the opportunity to really take on some exciting projects and to just believe in myself. Even though I was a new entrant to the workplace, I could  hold my own in meetings, I could present really valuable and exciting ideas.

“It meant that when I was moving to more senior roles, I could say: I'm a fundraiser. I have audience development experience. I have operations experience. That strategic overview came from having done a lot on the ground.”

Max May,  director and CEO, Rural Arts


Learn the importance of connections

“I am still best friends with three of the girls I worked with in my first job, aged 16. The network you build helps to keep you strong, grounds you and gives you perspective. Being connected with the people around you gives you a good foundation to deal and manage the stress that success can bring, as well as allowing you to celebrate and appreciate your achievements (and help others do the same).”

Erin Berry, associate director at Knight Transaction Services


Find a mentor

“My PhD supervisor was hugely influential at the beginning of my career. I didn’t always appreciate the advice at the time, particularly around the importance of keeping a balanced approach to work and life and giving myself the time to ‘sharpen the saw’. But as I’ve grown older and life got more complicated, I have taken his advice on board. I believe in paying this forward. I’ve had the pleasure of advising a number of mentees throughout their careers.”

Dr Nicola Stokes, IDA Ireland’s technologist for International Financial Services


Learn analytical skills

“When I was studying political economics at University of California at Berkeley, I also took several classes in computer science. We literally had Steve Wozniak (co-founder of Apple) sitting in our class because it was close to where he lived.

“Later on, when I went to business school, I realised just how transferable that skill was. Tech is not a vertical anymore, it's a horizontal. That analytical way of thinking has become a real source of value in my career. When I worked in marketing, I had these technical skills that helped me to stand out. It brought a lot of value to the roles that I was in.”

Jill Hodges, founder, Fire Tech Camp


To learn from the life experiences of fantastic leaders such as these, sign up to match with a CMI mentor. Members get exclusive access to this benefit – get started today.

And if you’d like to share your big lesson from your first role, email us here.

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