If an aversion to returning to the bottom of the career ladder and doing an entry level job is the only thing standing between you and your dream job, that’s a good situation to be in. Why? Because being at the bottom of the ladder is always temporary. If you plan well and apply yourself, it’s almost always possible to get promoted quickly and fast-track your climb up that ladder. The AP’s founder Lauretta Ihonor shares how she did just that when a second career change placed her at the very bottom of the ladder, making her an intern just two years before her 30th birthday.
Am I too old to intern at 30?
At 28 years old, I found myself the proud owner of four degrees and £30,000 of student debt. I’d already qualified as a doctor, practised medicine for a year, gotten a fashion marketing degree from the London College of Fashion, worked in fashion styling and marketing for a year, worked as a medical news writer for three years and gained a master’s degree in international journalism. Despite having what I believed was a wide breadth of life, academic and professional experience, I quickly realised it all amounted to nothing when I decided to try and break into TV news reporting.
There was no getting around the fact that I lacked the hands-on TV experience I needed to get my foot in the door. But what I did have on my side was the fact that I was a new journalism graduate, and as a new grad (albeit an older one than most) I was technically eligible to apply for an internship at the news network CNN.
That’s exactly what I did. Two months later, I started a three-month internship at the news network’s London bureau.
Being an intern at 28 featured nowhere in my life plan (especially when all the other interns looked like they were 12 and made me feel SO old). But on the other hand, I knew it was a short-term ego-bruising experience that had the potential to take me somewhere amazing. And I was right. Just one year later I found myself reporting for the BBC.
The best ways to quickly progress after a career change
So how did I speed up what normally takes years of paying your dues behind the camera to achieve? Looking back, I really believe that five key actions made all the difference. And what I’ve learned since then is that these steps aren’t specific to working in TV. As long as you’re in an industry that doesn’t have a compulsory timeline for career progression (like law or medicine) you’ll find that the following five steps can make the difference between being stuck at entry level and getting to a more senior position over the next few years.
1. Stay focused on your goal
I came into TV knowing I wanted to try my hand at reporting, so every decision I made was in relation to achieving that goal. To become a TV reporter, I had to get my foot in the door, and with no prior TV experience, the only way to get my foot in there was to intern. I should add that I may have been more patient if I had been 100% certain that I wanted to be a reporter. However I didn’t know if the dream would live up to the reality, so I wanted to try it out as quickly as possible and move on if I hated it.
2. Pay attention to the writing on the wall and respond to it
At CNN I would never have been allowed to report without paying my dues for many many years. I looked at those around me who were reporting and those who were not there yet. I took note of their career paths and quickly realised that paying your dues was ingrained in the culture of the organisation. In addition, as an international channel, the stakes were high (it’s not the place you go to to learn on the job) and there were a lot of people in the queue between where I was and where I wanted to be. Armed with this information, I decided to use my time there to get to grips with the basics of TV production. Once I felt confident, I moved to a local BBC TV channel where the queue was shorter and the stakes lower.
3. Align yourself with the decision makers
Of course it’s great to be friendly with all your colleagues, but it doesn’t hurt to spend time with those who make the key career progression decisions. Let them know your ambitions, your willingness to learn and demonstrate that you have what it takes to do well in that career. I was shameless about asking for coffee meetings to get career advice, asking for feedback on tasks I’d done, pitching stories like a nuisance and generally staying on their radar.
Another point worth mentioning is that the person who can help you move up the ladder isn’t always the person at the very top. In most organisations, there’s someone more accessible who has been with the company for so long that they’ve earned the complete respect and trust of the decision maker. They will have a lot of influence over him or her, so this is the person you really want to show your ability to.
4. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want
When I snagged that first reporting gig, all I did was knock on the news editor’s door. I simply said I had a great story idea that I had a vision for and asked if I could report it myself rather than produce it for one of the usual reporters. He said ‘ok’ and no-one was more surprised than I was!
5. Make your plans based on what people do rather than what they say
Some people will make promises over and over again, but never deliver. I call them carrot danglers. They want to keep you onside but either can’t or won’t ever help you progress. As a result, they’ll throw a few crumbs your way every time you bring up the topic of being given more responsibility, which will make you feel like there’s hope… but nothing will ever materialise.
If you know you have potential, but you don’t feel like time is on your side, recognise when you’re dealing with a carrot dangler and move on. And if you’re not sure you’re dealing with a carrot dangler, speak to colleagues when you’re out for drinks or keep your ears open for office gossip. You’ll hear others making comments about the failed promises they’ve also been made.
Do you have any tips and tricks for surviving a return back to the bottom of the career ladder? Share them in the comments. below.
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