My road to entrepreneurship began in corporate law, a.k.a a place where few small business owners and leaders get their start. I was a partner in a Los Angeles law firm who saw my role evolve quickly as I went in-house for one of my clients. That client was later acquired by a publicly traded company. The division of that business that I previously managed I now own as a privately held business.
I know what you’re thinking reading this — how can I curve my own career path to go from middle manager to CEO? Apart from working hard in your day-to-day activities (which is more or less a given in any position), here are a few tricks of the trade that will help you rise quickly through the ranks to reach upper management in the career of your dreams.
1. Make it a priority early on to intern everywhere you can.
One of the keys to successfully climbing the career ladder and becoming one of the top-level managers is getting experience within your field. This begins as early as high school, when you can start working part-time jobs, and later in college when you can begin interning within your field before you even have your bachelor's degree. While I was in law school, I interned at a public defender’s office and as a part-time lawyer in the entertainment industry — all to find out that these were not the areas of law that I wanted to practice.
“Wait, but why did you intern at places that weren’t a fit for you?” Good question. Even in positions that look like your dream job and seem like they'd meet your expectations, it’s impossible to know where you’ll be a good fit until you get in some work experience there. Ultimately, the internships I held in a wide variety of positions allowed me to hone my skills. I quickly learned where I would be successful and where I would not, which was valuable for the entrepreneurial journey I would embark on in the future.
Determine where you’re meant to be and discover where your strengths lie by holding several internships early on to begin getting much-needed experience on your resume. It also helps to maintain the mindset of a student and scholar in these roles, whether you’re getting started as an undergrad or in grad school. Approach every internship focused, driven to learn, and eager to get out into the working world—whether or not the roles meet your expectations.
2. Go above and beyond what is expected of you.
During my days as a lawyer, I worked for a larger law firm but wanted make a change and go in-house at a smaller firm. The smaller firm could not afford to pay me nearly as much as I was already making, but they were willing to support my goals to develop my own practice area and build my own clients. It was definitely going to be a challenge to undertake, but I wanted to be there so much that I immediately took the opportunity. I started developing my practice quite quickly and grew from a small start-up lawyer into running the intellectual property department of the firm.
There is an old workplace saying that goes “first in, last out” that many new employees take to heart early in their careers. Essentially, you want to be the employee that comes in first and stays last. Never do just the bare minimum. Make it a daily habit to go the extra mile in your day-to-day work, always. This gets noticed by everyone — coworkers, managers, senior leaders, and even individuals outside of where you work who begin hearing positive buzz about your committed work ethic. When you go above and beyond, it impacts all aspects of your working life from requesting a raise to getting a new job title and reaching a new level. Eventually, it will help pave the way for you to make the next step up and out of middle management into a higher leadership role, too.
3. Embrace your background.
Pop quiz! Which type of CEO will experience the most success in the long run?
A) The CEO running a business that brands itself to be exactly like everyone else on the market.
B) The CEO running a company that embraces their existing strengths and prides itself on doing things a little bit differently than the pack.
While there’s no real way of knowing which company will make it, I have a hunch that “B” has the most staying power because they understand the importance of embracing who they are at the core.
As I mentioned early, my educational background is definitely not like that of the average entrepreneur. I have a JD from law school and an MBA. When I purchased my business, I had a limited knowledge of entrepreneurship since I had not done anything like it before. However, I chose not to look at my background as something that could hinder me but rather enable me. As an entrepreneur, my law degree continues to be valuable when I execute contracts, negotiate deals, and when I work with my employees. Similarly, my business degree has been invaluable when I think about our profits and losses, strategies, and mission. Each piece of my education has contributed to my success in business and I have embraced my background for the asset that it is.
Don’t get down on yourself if you didn’t go to what is perceived to be the “right” school or work for the “best” brands and companies. Embrace the existing blueprint you have laid out for your life and formulate a strategy as to where that can help take you next.
4. Be unique!
If you had to choose between embodying a stereotype or being yourself, which would you pick? Hopefully, you picked the latter option and want to be you!
One of the reasons why I believe I am successful is because I am unique. Beyond being a CEO, I’m a mom to two boys. I wear Lululemon to work every day. I sit out on the floor with my team, instead of an office. I take everyone on Starbucks runs just because. I dance around when I hand out paychecks and hold fun competitions for every department. Office fun aside, I also find success through building relationships with partners and providing top-notch customer service. I encourage everyone to contribute. I try to think outside of the box whenever possible and it’s that kind of mindset and strategy that allows my business to grow and thrive.
If you want to break out of middle management and get to the become one of the top-level managers, the best way to put yourself on the map and achieve your goals is by being original and embracing what makes you unique. Be creative! Keep an open mind and follow through. Make yourself open to learning new skills, trying new things, and failing — yes, failing — in order to continue evolving. Treat every experience as one to learn from, maintain a good attitude and positive energy through it all, and you’ll get to exactly where you’re meant to be.
Deborah Sweeney is the CEO of MyCorporation.com. MyCorporation is a leader in online legal filing services for entrepreneurs and businesses, providing start-up bundles that include corporation and LLC formation, registered agent, DBA, and trademark & copyright filing services. MyCorporation does all the work, making the business formation and maintenance quick and painless, so business owners can focus on what they do best. Follow her on Google+ and on Twitter @mycorporation.