7 Things I Wish I Knew When I Was Starting Out
by Mark Linsz, Co-Founder & Senior Managing Partner
My oldest daughter, Ashley, was preparing for her first internship. How could I help her? I was bursting with pride and wanted her experience to be great. So I shared my corporate “lessons learned,” hoping they might shorten her learning curve and avoid some of my bruises from the school of hard knocks. I pruned the list to my “top 7” that really mattered. Ashley humbled me by sharing how helpful they were—and encouraged me to share them more broadly—so here goes:
- Do the little things without being asked, and without reporting that you did them. Your willingness to take on little extras at work is a big differentiator in a world of “do the minimum.” Don’t look down on tasks you feel are beneath your level. Instead, look at them as opportunities to help the success of the larger team. Roll up your sleeves; do what needs to be done. Those more senior will notice and appreciate it—even if they don’t say anything.
After the 1987 stock market crash, I was asked to do a menial task that no one else wanted. I knew it was important, but when asked to take it on, it felt like a demotion. I was better than that, I thought. My instinct was to begin looking for a new job, including roles outside the company, where my value would be appreciated and my capabilities more challenged. But after some thought, I decided to just do the task—and give it a few months. Interestingly, by the end of those months, I was offered a promotion to a bigger job. Why? Not only did they feel I was ready for more responsibility—they deeply appreciated that I was willing to take on a task nobody else wanted.
- Go in with a willingness to learn new things. When you take on new responsibilities or start a new role, you’re not expected to be an expert on day one. But you are expected to learn and get up the curve quickly. Even when you feel you’re in over your head, if you put in the extra effort to learn, you will stand out. It’s that effort and that teachability that will differentiate you.
A week after I started at Chicago Research and Trading Group, I discovered my peers and I would have to take a pre-test to establish each person’s baseline before we took our options and derivatives classes. I was terrified, because I knew nothing at that point, and I thought I’d be lucky to get 20% on the pre-test. So I got a textbook and studied all week and weekend. Test day came, and I scored 94%—significantly higher than most others. Three months later came the Crash of 1989, when the stock market plummeted over 20% in one day. For the first time in its history, CRT had to let people go, including many of my peers—but not me. I am convinced that, had I not put in the extra time to study that weekend, I would have been gone too.
- Check your attitude and adjust it if needed. If someone has a great attitude and shows up ready to work hard, I have always been willing to give them a chance. On the other side of the coin, a bad attitude (you know what this looks like: complaining, negativity, gossiping, undermining colleagues) can be toxic for a workplace, and I’ve never hired nor advanced anyone who showed that kind of behavior.
A man named Bob Munsey stands out in my memory as having the best attitude of anyone I’ve ever worked with. He walked in every single day with a positive attitude, ready to dive in and work hard. I don’t think I ever heard him complain or make a negative comment. He asked questions like: “What can I do? How can I help you? How can we improve things?” When I met Bob, he was two reporting levels below me, and a few years later, he had my job. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
- Work hard. Every day. No matter what. This sounds straightforward and old-fashioned, but it’s key: always be willing to work hard, help out, and put the time in to get the job done. Bring your best energy to work, and your performance will reflect it—and it will get you noticed.
A year into my career, agriculture commodities were going wild due to a drought. My company had an agriculture commodities group that traded futures and options, and they were completely swamped. I wasn’t part of the group, but I saw how busy they were, so I offered to help. For several months, I would go in at 5 every morning and stay until late at night, working weekends at times to help with the increased volume—on top of my regular job and responsibilities. I wasn’t getting paid extra, and I wasn’t really doing it for some type of reward or recognition. But as it turned out, my next promotion opportunity came not through my “day job” but because of that extra work I did with the agriculture group.
- Own your mistakes. Don’t try and justify them or explain them away. By “own” I mean three things: (1) take accountability when you make a mistake, (2) learn from the mistake, and (3) move on. Everyone makes mistakes. I have made many, and you will too. The worst thing to do is to blame others. It’s human nature to beat ourselves up for our mistakes, but this will hold you back in your career.
A fear of failing or making a mistake can paralyze you, or keep you from trying something new, daring, or hard. But if you’re too risk-averse, you won’t go very far. A mentor once told me, “Find the role that makes you the most uncomfortable—and take it. That’s where you’ll learn the most and be presented with new opportunities.”
- Be prepared—ahead of time. When you’re not prepared for a meeting or a presentation, there’s nothing to hide behind, and it will be painfully clear to everyone in the room. Would you walk into a meeting without your shoes on? In the same way, don’t walk into a meeting unless you understand the topic and objectives. Think about who will be in the meeting, what questions they might ask, and what you are expected to contribute.
Early on, I adopted a simple practice that has helped me tremendously: at the end of each week, I go over the next week’s calendar to mentally prepare for upcoming meetings. This weekly discipline allows me to head into every meeting knowing what I want to accomplish. It’s especially helpful on days of back-to-back-to-back meetings, with no prep time in between. The prep work has to happen in advance. It might be the last thing you want to do at the end of a long work week, but it will help you “put your shoes on” for the next week.
- Act with integrity—always—no matter what is going on around you. In my role as a risk executive, I studied and saw examples of people getting caught doing illegal trades and attempting to hide losses. I really believe no one starts out thinking: “I’m going to commit a crime by doing shady deals and risk losing billions of dollars!” Instead, it always starts with the little things: one trade that’s a little bit outside the lines, then another move to try and cover it up—and it snowballs, until the person is caught. Integrity is about being mindful of those “little things,” as well as the big things . . . because they really add up over time. There are people in jail today for illegal trading who never thought they’d commit a crime, defraud their clients, put their company at risk—until they did.
Throughout your career you’ll face decisions that will challenge your integrity. Acting with integrity may at times cost you money, recognition, or even your job. This won’t always be easy, but it is simple: always choose to do what is right, even when no one is looking.
Are you looking for ways to stand out and earn more responsibility—not to mention the respect of those above and around you? Do the seven things above. You’ll get noticed, you’ll encounter more opportunities, and you’ll be better equipped to rise to the challenges your life and career have in store for you!