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5 Real World Survival Tips for Every Young Leader In Their First Job

This is a blog post by Dillon Smith. Dillon is the Content Manager for Carey Nieuwhof Communications and a member of the Speaking Team. You can book Dillon to speak at your next event, or on for an interview on your podcast here.

By Dillon Smith

When you’re just starting out in your career, you have A LOT to learn.

I know, because that was me less than 20 months ago.

And when you have a lot to learn in a short amount of time, it’s easy to get paralyzed by it all.

Whether you are that young leader or whether you coach a young leader, knowing what needs to be prioritized in the first year to really thrive can be challenging.

In this post, I’ll give you a quick survival guide to follow in those early months with skills and tips that really helped me.

If a young leader can master these skills, they can survive any job no matter how “unqualified” they might feel.

Below I’ve outlined 5 keys lessons young leaders need to learn ASAP in their first “real job.”

1. Be Chronically Early (Not Chronically Late)

It sounds so basic, it’s not. For most of my life, I got away with being late.

You can show up 5 minutes late for class or a meeting without consequence—everybody shrugs and moves on or doesn’t even notice.

I learned it doesn’t work that way in the real world.

In our company, and likely any company chasing after a worthy mission, being late to a meeting or late with a project is not acceptable.

When you study some of the world’s best leaders,  they are rarely, if ever, late.

Lauren Jiloty, a coworker of Bill Gates, had this to say about his timeliness:

“He (Bill Gates) is on time to the minute, every single meeting without fail. Time is the one commodity that he can’t buy more of. It’s a limited resource. It’s finite. He’s got the same 24 hours in a day that the rest of us have.”

If Bill Gates can show up on time to a meeting so can I. So can you…

In fact, if you really want to win points early on in your leadership, start showing up chronically early. Being chronically late will get you fired. Being chronically early might get you promoted. At least it will make you prepared.

Being chronically late will get you fired. Being chronically early might get you promoted. At least it will make you prepared. Click To Tweet

2. High character compensates for lower competency

When you’re first starting out, you probably don’t have a highly developed skillset, but you still need to find a way to add value fast.

High character can compensate for lower competency when you’re starting out in leadership.

Character development is something you’ll work on your whole life, but there are at least three areas you can start on that will have an immediate impact at work.

  • Work Ethic.
  • Resilience and Coachability.
  • A Good Attitude.

All of these things spring from good character.

If you bring good character to a position, it will usually be enough to get you through your first few months at any job.

High character can compensate for lower competency when you're starting out in leadership. Click To Tweet

3. Don’t Gossip. Period.

One deeply formative moment for me came after I listened to Carey’s podcast interview with Bryan Miles.

In the interview, Bryan talked about his zero-tolerance policy on gossip.

He said that if anyone in their company is caught gossiping, they are fired on the spot. Period.

In school, gossip is a normal part of everyday life.

Most students have so much free time that it’s a daily occurrence to have a couple of hours of unplanned conversation with someone, and unplanned conversation is an excellent breeding ground for gossip.

I went to a Christian College and tried hard to become more and more like Christ, but I could still gossip up a storm if I had a reason to.

Well, after I listened to Carey and Bryan’s interview, I brought Bryan’s “if you gossip, you’re fired” policy up to Carey and asked if that is a policy he would think about instituting sometime at our company.

His response shook me:

“I think it already is a policy in our company.”

My idea of “harmless work gossip” was changed forever after that conversation.

It’s just not worth it. Ever.

Gossip just isn't worth it. Ever. Click To Tweet

Even if you are in a company that won’t fire you for gossip, you still can’t afford the consequences of gossip.

Even if your company doesn’t have a policy against gossip, think about the harm it does:

  • If you talk bad about your boss and they find out, you might as well have just signed your own resignation papers.
  • If you gossip about your co-workers, you might as well kiss your hopes at a promotion or friendship goodbye.
  • And if you gossip about costumers, your heart will grow hard towards them and you will stop serving them. That never ends well.

So, do yourself a favor and stop gossiping today. While it may feel good in the moment, it’s just not worth it.

Something that I learned a few years ago completely changed how I view conversation:

I’ve heard it said “There are 3 levels of conversation, the lowest is talking about people (aka. Gossip.) The next level is talking about events. And the highest level of conversation is talking about ideas.”

I do my best to keep almost all of my conversations at the “Idea level.”

So how do you get rid of gossip?

Raise your level of conversation.

Do yourself a favor and stop gossiping today. While it may feel good in the moment, it's just not worth it. Click To Tweet

4. Embrace the learning curve

This one might get me in trouble…

When I started, I didn’t come into the job with a high skill set for the position, and I stepped into the role of executive assistant to one of the highest-paced leaders I know.

I had to learn, I had to grow, and I had to develop into the best leader I could become in a very short amount of time.

I had a massive learning curve to overcome.

I’ve learned that doing anything significant will bring about an equally significant learning curve. The bigger it is, the more it hurts, but it’s almost always worth it.

Doing anything significant will bring about an equally significant learning curve. The bigger it is, the more it hurts, but it’s worth the pain. Click To Tweet

So how did I overcome that learning curve?

Well, I kind of disappeared for a few months. I spent many days working, eating, resting, and working from when I woke up to when I went to bed.

Was this sustainable?

Forever? Of course not. But for a season, it was necessary.

When you’re learning a new skill (or career) going through a really intense work season can help you reach your potential faster.

It’s like a piece of pottery going through the kiln. If you endure a few weeks or months in an intense work setting, you come out 10 times stronger than you were.

But you have to endure a few flames to get there.

Often young leaders expect a return without any investment. Life just doesn’t work that way.

Often young leaders expect a return without any investment. Life just doesn't work that way. Click To Tweet

5. Your Network Will Help You More Than You Think

When I started, I almost immediately faced challenges that I didn’t know how to solve.

And this happened over and over while climbing the steep learning curve into professional life.

Every time, I went through the same 5 steps:

  • Initial failure: This is the first time that I realize I don’t know how to do ___
  • Deep Failure: Stubborn attempts to figure it out on my own.
  • Humility: I accept that I can’t solve this.
  • Asking for help: I realize that someone else has figured this out before, and I ask them for help
  • Success: Their advice helps me solve the problem.

And while I asked my boss for advice regularly, I also found myself leaning heavily into my network.

Whenever I face a problem that I don’t know how to solve, I just look for someone I know who does.

The problem with this is that you have to have a good network to bring these questions to for this to work.

So…how do you do that?

I outline how in my Networking Cheat Sheet here.

Whenever I face a problem that I don’t know how to solve, I just look for someone I know who does. Click To Tweet


The High Impact Workplace

Wish your team was more engaged at work? Most leaders do.

According to Gallup, 70% of employees are disengaged at work, and the most talented employees are heading off to do their own thing.

Here’s how to change that.

My new online, on-demand course, The High Impact Workplace: How to Attract and Keep High Capacity Leaders In A Changing World will give you the edge you need to win the talent war for the best leaders and keep them engaged.

Smart employers know how to respond to growing requests for more flexible work: flexible hours, the ability to work from home or a coffee shop, and more freedom and autonomy.

In the course, I give you the exact strategies you need to:

  • Attract and keep high capacity leaders who would otherwise start their own businesses.
  • Identify and leverage the currency that motivates young leaders.
  • Navigate flexible work arrangements that result in deeper productivity.
  • Master the 5 questions every great manager asks their team for deeper engagement.
  • Create workplace environments that multiple generations can thrive in.
  • Learn how to keep your company or organization relevant to the most talented leaders.

Here’s what employers are saying about the High Impact Workplace:

“Each time a unit ends, I look over my notes and think “that was exactly what I needed, the rest of the class is just a bonus.” BUT I repeat that EACH UNIT!”

“The course got me to talk with my team about things I wouldn’t have considered talking about.”

“This is exactly what I needed.”

Learn why the future workplace is the flexible workplace, and how to keep your company relevant to the next generation of leaders.

To enroll now or learn more about the High Impact Workplace, click here.

What else needs to be prioritized? 

I’ve covered 5 things, is there anything I missed?

Let me know in the comments below!


  1. Austin Hill on January 22, 2020 at 2:15 pm

    Thanks for this, Dillon! I’m wondering, could you define what you mean by “gossip?”
    I find that when I’m working with a coworker in the office, planning for an upcoming elder meeting, for example, we might have a real, specific conversation about the challenges of one elder’s position on an agenda item, and we talk about how to approach that person on this topic, or brainstorm on what their response might be. Is this the kind of behavior you’re talking about or is it something else?

    • Jesse Kneeland on February 8, 2020 at 1:00 pm

      Austin, good question, “could you define what you mean by ‘gossip?'”
      I think clarity is needed on what gossip is today. In studying this topic, I’ve found that the modern definition of gossip in the culture is different from the Christian worldview. Check out John Piper’s explanation in his interview titled “What is Gossip”, I found it extremely clarifying as I prepare to speak on this topic.

  2. Wayne Keller on January 22, 2020 at 12:31 pm

    Ironically (to this reader), the author promotes a work ethic involving early bird advantages while ending the piece with suggestions like flexible work hours, hiring and culture advice for every stripe of people and determining what motivates engagement. Having just finished an MSOL and now into doctoral leadership studies, there seems to be dizzying speculation about leading and learning and many crash and burn stories among those trying to keep all parties happy (engaged). Our cultural ethos of innovation, collaboration and transformation at the speed of life we are in today evokes the image of tail chasing as we seek homeostasis without being home or static. Perhaps the achievement cycle we are in has people distracted (disengaged) waiting for or trying to leap to the next great possibility (paycheck or possibility) to fulfill their destiny? Godspeed perhaps. Thanks, keep writing. I’ll keep reading.

  3. Heather on January 22, 2020 at 10:00 am

    Spot on! “Embrace the process” was advice given to me when starting out too!

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