6 Fool-Proof Steps to Learning on the Job
One day, I came into work and my boss asked me a question: can you be our content manager? Recognizing an opportunity for growth and advancement, I said yes. Unfortunately, I was also the project manager and had no idea what being a content manager meant. Creating content? Not a problem; I had plenty of experience in that department. Creating and maintaining a dynamic content calendar and social media platform that would attract and retain new customers? Umm…. help?
That sort of thing happens all the time in the startup world. From pivoting business strategies and sudden personnel changes to loss of funding and restructuring, rapid change is par the course for the entrepreneurial set. Everyone at every level of the startup ladder has experienced having to learn on the job, and I asked some of the best in NYC how they’ve made the best of it. Here are some ways to get yourself up to speed when you feel in over your head:
Step One: Get Your Bearings
The first step to learning on the job is figuring out what you don’t know—namely, by figuring out what’s expected of you. If you’re taking on new responsibilities, or an entirely new position altogether, the best foundation you can give yourself is some basic knowledge about what you should be doing. Clara Buchanan, founder of NYC growth-hacking agency Hypergrow, puts it this way:
The first part of taking any plunge into the unknown is getting your bearings. Study what others, farther along than yourself in that particular area, are doing. Find the patterns of what’s working for those thought-leaders and learn how to do them yourself. Start small, establish a solid understanding of the basics and terminology, but then dive in and don’t waste time.
Once you’ve got a basic idea of what you’re supposed to be doing, the next step is to figure out how to do it.
Step Two: Ask People
This is what friends are for. Seriously: buy them a cup of coffee and pick their brain. They’re already inclined to help you—and they might even change the course of your career, as Emily Egan, a manager of paid social for a media agency, discovered:
When I was 23, I worked for a popular Manhattan restaurant and the owner put me in charge of the Twitter account strictly because I was young. This was 2010 and I had no idea what Twitter was. I bought a friend coffee and for 30 minutes she gave me a crash course in what RTs and mentions were and how to write to people. A few months later, the restaurant’s social media accounts were highlighted in an online mag as a restaurant “doing social right.”
Once you’ve talked to your friends, don’t be afraid to talk to your coworkers, too. People are the single greatest asset of startups, in terms of both talent and resources. Because startups bring an incredibly diverse group of people with divergent skill sets together, the people who stay are veritable Encyclopedia Britannicas hunched over their MacBooks. You can talk to them. And remember: don’t just ask your nice coworkers. Ask the ones who know the most, or, “who would typically volunteer high-level issues/steps, and perhaps some process-related details that help to bring next steps into focus,” as Fred Cannone, Director of Sales and Marketing for Telehouse identifies.
Step Three: Ask More People – Build a Network
“Find other people who care about what you’re doing,” urges Clara. “This will keep you aligned with your goals, activated towards them, and will connect you with other people who you can learn from and help towards their goals as well.”
By now you should be starting to get a feel for what you need to do, and that’s great. The next step on your road to mastering this new role or responsibility is figuring out what other people in your new shoes have done. Get a feel for the breadth and depth of the work ahead of you by reaching out to a group of people doing that work, and ask them.
“I’ve found LinkedIn and especially Facebook groups are great for this,” says Tim McDonald, Purveyor of Purpose at CreatingIs, LLC. The key is to use each resource effectively. You’re not going to plunk a time-sensitive question into LinkedIn, and you’re not going to blast a sensitive question to the Twitter-verse. Peruse the social media landscape and see if you can find Facebook groups, Google forums, or any other congregation of people online who are talking about what you’re trying to do. Then jump in and participate.
This step was the reason I didn’t fail horribly as a content manager. I joined a coworking space that offered access to the member directory, and started picking the brains of strangers who were smarter than me and knew how to do the things I was being asked to do—create email marketing plans, grow our Twitter feed, create and maintain content calendars, etc. Those discussions led me to a fantastic networking group where I’ve met most of the people featured in this article.
The key to this step is a big one, though: pay it forward. People like to help people who help other people. Be someone who’s willing to help others and you’ll find others willing to help you. Simple as that.
Step Four: Ask Google
“This was so me in my first E-commerce job,” exclaims Abby Whitmer, Vice President, E-commerce & Social Media at Laura Geller Beauty.
I started by Googling everything. From massive macro questions like “how to optimize a website for search engines” to long-tailed urgent questions like “how to quickly get a .asp site back up after there’s been too much unexpected traffic?” I followed the search trail from article to article and inhaled the information until I could 1) fix things and 2) test things myself and learn from my own challenges and failures.
This may have been your very first step – and that’s okay. In fact, if the answer to your question could be found on Google without too much difficulty, you’ll want to try this before taking the time of your coworker. Wherever you put it in the research phase of your new project, Google can help you. Just remember: it’s a tool, not your final destination. All you need to do for Google to help you is come up with the right questions—which we’ll cover next. And, if you’re not sure how to do a good search, they’ve got you covered.
Step Five: Ask Good Questions
What goals are you expected to hit? What technologies or platforms do you need to learn? What metrics will you be utilizing? Questions like these not only help you retain what you’ve learned, they help you learn more thoroughly by quickly identifying your weak spots. Julie Bogen, Associate Social Media Editor at Refinery29, backs that up:
[After researching on my own] I reach out to coworkers or peers for their input and bring a short final list of questions to my supervisor, accompanied by a near-perfect final product. That way, I’m exercising some creative muscles, demonstrating independence and initiative, learning a new skill, and expressing a genuine desire to respect my manager’s busy schedule rather than inundate them with problems I could solve on my own. It’s a guaranteed process to impress.
By using questions to shore up your budding expertise, you build and reinforce trust in your supervisor and coworkers that you can do the job—and without wasting anyone’s time, to boot. Best of all, smart targeted questions act as competency triggers, signaling to everyone at your startup that you’re a pro and a fast learner. All major boons to your career.
Step Six: Ask What’s Next
By now you should know a ton and have a clear idea as to where you need to go. How do you get there? Look at the big picture, as Clara explains:
In times when I have absolutely no idea what to do (and I’ve been in this situation more times than seems proper) I initiate this three-step system: 1) Research & actively pursue learning. 2) Find a community. 3) Bootstrap to success—[bootstrapping] consists of fleshing out your web of resources and people, building credibility in your field, reaching out to create symbiotic relationships with partners and individuals with aligned interests whom are at the level that you see yourself/your company going. And then, deliver on every promise.
Now that you’ve got a modicum of knowledge, act on it. Mockup a project plan with deliverables. Fill out a calendar. Whatever it is, start with the basics you’ve got a handle on and build from there or, as Fred puts it, “Create an initial, simple plan to acquire the knowledge/information/resources needed to begin outlining the projects’ framework, scope and action steps.” The key word? Simple. Don’t overwhelm yourself. Just find a place to start, a place to finish, and a way to get there.
Step Seven: Do it!
All that’s left is for you to do is run with it. Really. You’ve done the research, checked-in with smart people, created clear goals, and mapped a way to get there. You’re as prepared as you could possibly be—and, you’ve got a network of people supporting now, who are all still ready and able to help you. That’s how you create a path to success. And who knows? You may be setting yourself up for a whole new adventure, as Clara shares: “Ambitious people generally like other ambitious people, and you never know what can come from a simple ‘hello.’”