Five career moves with exponential returns

One of my favorite topics to write about is ways to earn more money, though I don't often cover it here at GRS. As most regular readers know, last summer I quit my day job to work full-time as a freelance writer. Financially and personally, it was the best decision I've ever made.

Nevertheless, there are a significant number of GRS readers who have no interest in quitting their day jobs or becoming self-employed. Some careers don't lend themselves to self-employment, such as being a police officer or a research scientist. Some people prefer to do their jobs and leave work behind at the end of the day, which isn't always possible when you're self-employed. Some like being surrounded by coworkers, and the freelance life seems too lonely. Other people need major benefits that they can't get on their own, often the case for people with chronic health conditions.

If you're gainfully employed and plan to stay that way, increasing your salary is obviously key to making more money. And while salary negotiation is a critical part of the process, there are other important components to steer your career in the right direction.

The following are my top five smart career move tips:

Write Handwritten Thank-You Notes on Nice Stationery

A handwritten note takes more time and thought than an e-mail, and these days they are so rare that people remember them.

Who should receive a thank-you note? Clients who refer others to you, colleagues who helped you on a project, interviewers after a job interview, or anyone else who helps you out.

Saying “thank you” is a given, but writing it in a personal note goes the extra mile. In fact, a 1995 study by Bruce Rind and Prashant Bordia found that restaurant servers who wrote “thank you” on the bill before handing it to customers received an average of 11% more in tips than waiters who didn't.

Invite a Mentor Out For Lunch

Wondering how to break into management or a more exciting department? Considering a new career path?

The best $20 you'll ever spend is taking a mentor out to lunch to pick his or her brain about ways to advance your career. Ask her for advice and how to avoid missteps, and spend the majority of the time talking about her. (And don't forget to send her a handwritten thank-you note!)

Not only will you pick up some great tips, but you're also networking. Who knows when an opportunity might arise and your lunchtime interviewee will recommend you for a job opening or promotion?

Keep Your Résumé Current

I wasn't good at doing this when I was an employee, and every time I needed my résumé it was a chore to update. I likely left out some great points simply because I forgot about them.

An easier solution is to schedule a résumé update every few months and edit as you go, swapping more impressive accomplishments for résumé filler. Another way to update is to keep a running list of accomplishments from which you can pick and choose later depending on your needs. For example, the last time I was job hunting, I had two versions of my résumé, one for project manager positions and one for editor positions. With a list of accomplishments, I could pick and choose the ones that were most applicable for each job for which I was applying.

You never know when you might be up for a job opening or when you'll catch wind of the perfect position at your dream company, but if you keep your résumé in tip-top shape, you'll be ready to seize the opportunity.

Keep a Brag Folder

This is a tip I learned from a supervisor: keep positive notes, e-mails about a job well-done, and kudos from your boss, and file them away in a folder.

As an employee, I felt uncomfortable “bragging” about myself, but unless you work very closely with your supervisor, your boss may not be aware of all of your accomplishments. Bosses are too busy to keep up with every employee's triumphs and certainly won't remember all of them come review time.

Thanks to my former supervisor, I eventually realized it's not bragging, it's actually helpful for supervisors when employees keep good records. My boss wanted to include as many positives as possible in her evaluations and providing them made her job easier.

It'll also make your life easier when you have to fill out a self-evaluation or when you're preparing to ask for a raise. Rather than racking your brain to remember what you've done for the past year, you'll have a folder ready to go.

Read an Industry-Related Book

Staying abreast of your industry shows that you take initiative and have a deep interest in your career. It also helps you to bring new ideas to the table, something any good boss appreciates.

Every few months, read a book that relates to your career and brainstorm five ways the information could be used to improve processes or develop new programs at your company. Again, every boss appreciates an employee who makes his or her life easier. The more problems you can solve, even if it's not something in your job description, the better your chances for raises and promotions.

(Hopefully reading an industry-related book isn't a chore because you like your job, but if you really hate what you do, then pick up a book about another career track you're considering.)

In many ways, employees and entrepreneurs are a lot alike. An employee can no more coast along and expect to excel than a freelancer can, and just like with freelancing, a job with an employer isn't guaranteed. In fact, all of these tips — networking, keeping a list of accomplishments, and staying on top of your industry — can benefit both employees and entrepreneurs.

Essentially we are each CEOs of our own little company of one, whether we work for ourselves or for someone else. Rather than waiting for your boss to notice your good work or hoping to be granted a raise, take steps all year long to propel your career forward and sell the personal brand of You.

What are some of your career tips to be prepared to interview, ask for a raise, or network?

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LifeAndMyFinances
LifeAndMyFinances
9 years ago

Great tips April! For those of us that absolutely love our jobs, these tips should come fairly naturally, but for others that absolutely hate what they do, this can be an even worse chore than actually going to work!

Do you suggest that people who aren’t interested in their job attempt to advance in their career anyway? Or, should they spend their efforts looking at a career that truly interests them?

Nicole
Nicole
9 years ago

Can’t speak for April, but my advice is for folks in this situation to read Your Money or Your Life and to make their own escape plans.

http://nicoleandmaggie.wordpress.com/2010/07/18/pre-tenure-angst/

Nicole
Nicole
9 years ago

Sometimes the interview process moves along too quickly for a written note to get there in time. Email is fine! Believe it or not, even emailed thank-yous after a job interview are increasingly rare.

Clare
Clare
9 years ago
Reply to  Nicole

I completely agree that a snail mail note is too slow for interviews. By the time it gets there, they will have decided on you days ago. Especially when interviewing with a big company or someone who travels a lot, it could be weeks before they receive your note.

Jaime B
Jaime B
9 years ago
Reply to  Nicole

If someone has their heart set on a handwritten note, then they could drop it off at the business themselves the next day. (assuming the distance/time involved would not be too burdensome)

Suzanne
Suzanne
9 years ago
Reply to  Nicole

Agreed – email is necessary due to the time factor, though a snail mail note follow-up can be a nice addition.

But be careful – the note should be addressed and tailored individually to each interviewer. A group note will not do (unless you interviewed with several people at the same time)! Each person should get their own note referenceing the unique conversation.

Tina
Tina
9 years ago
Reply to  Nicole

I completely agree. Having served on 4 search committees in the last 4 years, I found that time is frequently too short for paper notes, nice though they are. Get that thank-you email sent within a day and make sure to thank, or mention, all the relevant parties.

Hannah
Hannah
9 years ago

All these ideas are good, but I have never heard of the idea of a brag folder. I’m going to start one now, so I’ll have something to help prompt my boss when I need a recommendation letter for grad school. Thanks!

Kat
Kat
9 years ago

I’d also add to the list, “read industry-related blogs regularly” I find this easier to manage than to sit down with a book. I have 20+ industry-related blogs in Google Reader. I certainly do not read every post, but I always have iGoogle open and scan the headlines to see what is interesting. This benefits my career in several ways: 1. I learn more (duh!) 2. When I circulate big ideas or items that relate to current projects I become the one who is in the know and on top of industry trends. Just make sure you don’t become the… Read more »

Beth
Beth
9 years ago
Reply to  Kat

Agreed! I read blogs and current publications, but I find books are useful too because they get into more detail.

I also follow companies I’m interested in on Twittter, LinkedIn and Facebook.

Shawn G
Shawn G
9 years ago

Solid article April, nicely done.

Debt Payer
Debt Payer
9 years ago

I like the last line about “all being a CEO of one.” I’m disappointed in myself for this very reason. When I was looking for a job I was “Mr. Networking.” I met a ton of great people and went to a lot of events (some great, some “eh”). I know that it’s important to keep up these activities even after finding a job, but I have become sort of relaxed in my networking. As they say, you’re only as good as your ability to find your NEXT job. I’m not sure if I could use the “brag folder” because… Read more »

Beth
Beth
9 years ago
Reply to  Debt Payer

I’ve kept a “brag” folder for years — you never know when it will come in handy!

A couple of times I’ve been asked in interviews what my former coworkers/employers/clients would say about me, so I quote things like emails, LinkedIn recommendations, etc. It’s always good to have concrete examples.

Nancy L.
Nancy L.
9 years ago

I would also add taking the time to be a mentor yourself. Networking is not just talking to one another, but helping people out whenever you can. The “favor bank” tends to pay back in times of trouble–I’m in the midst of upheavals on the job front, and it’s been very helpful having a wide group of people also keeping an eye out for me. I’ve continued to make “deposits” by sending out job listings to other people I know are searching as well when I come across them, and in return, I’ve had people let me know about opportunities… Read more »

Justin
Justin
9 years ago

The advice about reading an industry related book is spot on. The more domain knowledge you have about your job/company/industry the more valuable you become. It also shows your ability to grow with a job.

Beth
Beth
9 years ago

Excellent points. I think networking should be a top priority, not just for job seekers. I keep reading that the majority of jobs are never advertised, yet job hunters still spend the majority of their time sending out applications.

Networking is definitely my one area where I could improve!

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
9 years ago

Sigh. “exponential growth” is a real thing with an actual definition. None of these tips hint in any way toward it. Regardless of the title, these may be OK tips, but they don’t seem to warrant the placement they’ve got, you’ve put “writing thank you notes” on the same level as “salary negotiation”, and it frankly doesn’t deserve that placement. And you know what deserves a mention? “Get better at what you do.” People will hire the better performer over the person with the friendly notes pretty much every time. I would love to see any evidence at all that… Read more »

Jacq
Jacq
9 years ago

Totally agree with the “get better at what you do.” That (usually) means taking the hard stuff on.
I’m pathetic at everything you’ve listed (except for saying thank you) – and have done pretty well in my career by just focusing on being “so good they can’t ignore you.” Then you get people coming to you for jobs, hoping you’ll pick them.

Luke
Luke
9 years ago

Tyler, I felt the same as you after my first read of this post.

On reflection, however, perhaps it could be interpreted as ‘career moves with exponential returns (based on the effort involved)’?

Still, this isn’t particularly snappy 😉

They’re all perfectly valid ideas (bar the snail mail one), but it’s fairly standard stuff..

Tage
Tage
9 years ago
Reply to  Luke

I agree with Luke. These tips aren’t going to land you a $200k salary. However, these tips involve minimal time commitment.

Exponential returns on a small investment doesn’t imply getting rich 🙂 (the title may be a little misleading though)

Beth
Beth
9 years ago

@ Tyler — I almost didn’t read this post because of the title! Seemed too sensationalist.

I think the tips are good — but that’s probably because I do most of them — but I wouldn’t say I’ve seen “exponential growth”. You’re right about becoming better at what you do. That’s how I’ve gotten raises and new opportunities.

Laura in Cancun
Laura in Cancun
9 years ago

Thanks for this, April! I have an office job and I really like it.

At the same time, there’s not much room for advancement within the company, so I’ll have to move on eventually. I’ll definitely keep the suggestions in the article and the comments in mind.

Walter
Walter
9 years ago

@ April…

“stationery” not “stationary.” “Stationary” means you are standing still and in the real world, when you are standing still you are, in fact, going backward because the world is moving on without you.

J.D. Roth
J.D. Roth
9 years ago
Reply to  Walter

Thanks, Walter. I should have caught this. Fixed.

jeffeb3
jeffeb3
9 years ago

Write thank you notes? April, we need to have a talk about what the word “exponential” means. It’s very specific. The books are definitely a good idea. Many employers will also pay for off hours training, such as a class at a university towards an advanced degree, or a particularly apropos subject.

Tage
Tage
9 years ago
Reply to  jeffeb3

If I write a Thank You note and this positively influences my chances of getting a job, I would call that an exponential return. This takes minutes, but could have an effect on my life for years to come.

SLCCOM
SLCCOM
9 years ago
Reply to  jeffeb3

I’m guessing you are young. Thank you notes, congratulations notes, “get-well” notes (not just cards, signed) all will make you memorable, will touch those who receive them and are likely to keep people giving to you.

No thank you notes, no presents is my rule. If you don’t even appreciate the time, money and thought that I put into your gift to thank me, well, I question how much I value you. All human beings respond positively to praise and appreciation. Indifference reaps the same.

Pamela
Pamela
9 years ago

In reference to reading industry-related books, I suggest you find out what your boss is reading. If you’re reading what your boss finds important, you’ll tune in to his or her priorities which will make you a more valuable employee.

Jake
Jake
9 years ago

Given the title, I was expecting a very different list … 1) Double-down in high school and get the best grades you can 2) Get into a top college … with a scholarship 3) Pick summer jobs and a 1st job out of college that puts you on a “trajectory” not a “plateau” 4) Go to a top grad school for a degree that pays back (MBA, JD, …) 5) Work hard at your job, over deliver, be the best Doing that can put you in the top 1% of incomes, whereas April’s list may or may not push you… Read more »

Kent @ The Financial Philosopher
Kent @ The Financial Philosopher
9 years ago

This is good advice but only for those who truly need more money, which is an extreme minority of the world population. I will say, however, that “earning more money” is certainly a popular pursuit. My point is that most people don’t know what they need; they are implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) taught by social conventions that more money is good and never seek the answers within themselves. Climbing the corporate ladder is a common pursuit but this proverbial ladder does not lead to what all of us are truly seeking, which is self-actualization. “If thou wilt make a man… Read more »

Tage
Tage
9 years ago

I see where you are coming from, but I would tend to disagree. I don’t think that thanking interviewers, preparing for salary review meetings, and occasionally sharpening your skills are “only for those who truly need more money, which is an extreme minority of the world population.”

I would wager that most of these ideas apply to a majority of people.

Kent @ The Financial Philosopher
Kent @ The Financial Philosopher
9 years ago
Reply to  Tage

Tage: I agree that being polite is a valuable virtue but the post’s theme, as explicitly described within the first sentence of the post, is to “earn more money.” And I would also, like you, “wager that these ideas apply to a majority of people,” which is the exact point I intended to make in my comment: This post applies to a majority of people because a majority of people believe that “more money” will provide more happiness. I believe the opposite, which is a minority position. “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a sick society.”… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
9 years ago

Er, sorry Mr. Heidegger, but you’re wrong. I don’t have time to engage in a long argument, but let’s go for the empirical solution.

If money doesn’t help your happiness please part with your funds and find bliss today– I’ll take the pain off your hands via Paypal.

I’m serious. Please tell me where to send a request for payment and for how much. I trust you’ll stand by your words with a financial commitment..

Thanks in advance!

Kent @ The Financial Philosopher
Kent @ The Financial Philosopher
9 years ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Mr. Nerdo: I did not say in absolute terms that money does not buy happiness. I stated that “MORE money does not buy MORE happiness.” There is a difference. You may benefit by learning about the law of diminishing returns (although I suspect you’ll quickly dismiss it). Here’s a synopsis: For those who are not able to pay for the basic physiological needs (food, shelter, clothing), more money will certainly provide more “happiness.” However, once all physiological needs are met the utility for money diminishes. For example, if you need $50,000 to pay your bills (plus a few of life’s… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
9 years ago

C’mon, the law of diminishing returns is kindergarten stuff; let’s put the wheel of theory in contact with the road of reality. I can meet my personal physiological needs; however, I’d like to eat better and travel a bit. Also, I’d love a beach house and time to spend there. That would make me happy. I have plenty of happiness to increase until the returns are negligible. A few hundred thousand a year would cut it at first glance, but I have enough imagination to handle millions, trust me. We can keep talking until we’re blue in the face; you… Read more »

Kent @ The Financial Philosopher
Kent @ The Financial Philosopher
9 years ago

Nerdo: Good points and nice try on the challenge to give you my money. I didn’t say I don’t need any money. I just choose not to chase it for the sole purpose of buying more “stuff.” I’ll give you this: I do have “enough” but I am by no means financially wealthy. Any “extra” money I earn goes to provide for “extra” needs later, such as education for my children. Beyond those extras, I’ll give money to charity, not a clever commenter on GRS! Also, if the law of diminishing returns is “kindergarten stuff,” I will assume you clearly… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
9 years ago

Alright Ken, you may have “enough,” but that doesn’t mean other readers have “enough.” or that they can’t benefit from April’s recommendations, and to assume that very few people need more money is ridiculously patronizing. Many of us here at GRS are paying off debts and cutting corners wherever possible, and we know first-hand that there’s only so much you can cut without suffering physically and morally. All around the US we’re still suffering from the wake of a huge recession, so yes, your philosophical musings are a very out of touch with what’s going on. I haven’t shared a… Read more »

Trina
Trina
9 years ago

I agree with all of these (why not send a thank you email *and* a thank you note??). Whenever I have sent hand-written thank you notes or congratulation notes for a colleague’s professional achievements, I always see them later displayed on the person’s desk. Not only were they meaningful to the recipient, but every time they see the note they think of me in a positive way. Also, I think you have to be thinking several steps ahead in terms of your career field. This is especially true in my field, IT. Over the last 11 years I’ve gone from… Read more »

Aaron
Aaron
9 years ago

These are great April. I especially like the brag folder.

One of the best ways to create more value is to – like you say – improve a process or processes at your work. Management is always looking for employees to initiate and create something new. You’d be surprised at how easily they’ll jump on board, if your suggestion is to improve the bottom-line and you are willing to own it.

fetu
fetu
9 years ago

To quote the title of an old book, “We are all self-employed”

I remember one old guys advice. “Find out what your boss cares about and wants done and do it!” This can be hard when you have a new boss and everybody is having a hard time changing with the times.

LC
LC
9 years ago
Reply to  fetu

I want to expand on this thought re: “Find out what your boss cares about and wants done and do it!” That really can be key in terms of opportunities within your current position. You should learn to excel at managing up without being a kiss @ss. Become the go-to person by making the boss’s priorities yours and becoming the expert your boss can depend on to make the right things happen and according to their wants/needs. Be the expert (knowledge/skill). Make your boss look good. Fill them in on your successes, framed as win’s for the department/company. Figure out… Read more »

Nancy K.
Nancy K.
9 years ago

A friend of mine emailed individual follow up thank you notes to five different people he interviewed with at a very large, household name corporation. The HR recruiter he had been working with told him those communications are considered stalking by their company and he was only allowed to go through her.

Bella
Bella
9 years ago
Reply to  Nancy K.

WOW – can’t say it surprises me. Sign of the times. It would be hard to collect interview teams if one had the impression that the interviewee would be able to find you personally later. I’m reminded of the mentor episode of Seinfeld where Elaine promotes the scary guy, just so she doesn’t have to fire him.

SLCCOM
SLCCOM
9 years ago
Reply to  Bella

Sending an appreciation e-mail to employees at their company e-mail addresses is “stalking” and threatening?

Really? We aren’t talking about having him show up outside their homes, or calling their families, or following them in their cars.

People really need to get a grip on reality!

SLCCOM
SLCCOM
9 years ago
Reply to  Nancy K.

Wow! That would take that company off my list in a heartbeat! What kind of sick response is that?

Bella
Bella
9 years ago

For me the key take away from this article is that if the thought of doing any of the ‘extra work’ required to improve your situation in your current job either bored you to tears or worse, you should consider switching jobs.

Madison
Madison
9 years ago

The tip about keeping a list of acomplishments is spot on! I had a job where I had bi-weekly meetings with my supervisor. I kept these notes in a file, and when doing my annual review I had a list of everything I’d done during the last year. That file also came in handy when I left that job and was writing my resume.. I had an impressive list of my job duties along with my accomplishments from my career. It was also helpful to review before interviews because then I could more easily recall job-related stories on the fly… Read more »

s
s
9 years ago

Yes to the list of accomplishments – easy to keep as an Excel spreadsheet.

Mine completely saved me when I had an impaired boss that couldn’t remember this morning – let alone yesterday, last week, month or quarter. It also helped catapult me out of there…

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
9 years ago

Good article, and good pointers, 100% useful for self-employed people, including artists. I don’t see that it applies only to corporate employees.

My wife is the queen of the thank-you note and those little cards have opened her doors to scholarships, grants and freelance gigs. Same thing with updated resumes (required when you apply for grants), schmoozing with mentors and funders, portfolio & reviews (“brag folder”), books and subscriptions (deductible business expenses).

This is all good kung fu, and thanks for the reminders, please keep them coming.

Marcella
Marcella
9 years ago

I’ve been working since leaving university with my degrees for 8 years and the idea of sending a “thank you note” on nice stationery is just weird (especially in the context of interviewing for a new job) and honestly, something I would perceive as unprofessional. As a hiring manager it would make me wonder if the candidate had any idea how to conduct themselves in the workplace! This is not a nice afternoon tea or birthday present for which you’re sending Grandma a thank you note. It’s business. I agree on the lunch with a mentor and keeping your resume… Read more »

sfkiddo
sfkiddo
9 years ago
Reply to  Marcella

I agree with Marcella: I’ve been working much longer than 8 years, but find the “send a handwritten thank-you note on stationery” advice to be old-fashioned and out of touch. When we were in the transition between the email and snail-mail cultures 10+ years ago, it could maybe make you stand out. Maybe. It’s now more likely that the person will find it in their mailbox 6 months after you interviewed.

Beth
Beth
9 years ago
Reply to  Marcella

What do you do if you don’t have an email? I’ve been to a couple of interviews that have gone through recruiters and never been given more than the recipients’ names. (no emails or phone numbers allowed, no business cards given out during the interview).

When my company hired, we didn’t give out emails either even though we didn’t use a recruiting agency.

Suggestions, anyone?

Marcella
Marcella
9 years ago
Reply to  Beth

Beth, doesn’t that tell you something then? You shouldn’t be attempting to contact them. They don’t want to be contacted.

If the company isn’t giving you the email address or phone numbers of the people interviewing you, it means they are basing their hiring decisions on your resume, your performance in the interview and any references they might call. That’s what most good companies do, they judge all candidates equally, based on a set way of selecting people. Judgemend is not based on things like who is sending little thank you notes after the interview.

Sustainable PF
Sustainable PF
9 years ago

Practice your interview skills regularly!

When you are awaiting an interview you have a lot of pressures and stress. So why not keep those interview skills up to date? Practice some of your “war stories” every few months to keep them fresh. You’ll be far more prepared for that last minute interview.

Karen in MN
Karen in MN
9 years ago

Another person here saying that a “thank you note on nice stationery” will get you exactly nowhere in my business, except typecast as totally clueless and unprofessional. Worse if you’re a woman, it can actually backfire by making you look like some kind of a sorority chick light weight with no experience. A brief, professional email, and did I say very very brief? saying how much you are still interested in the job, is much better and indicates that at least you know this is how people in the business really communicate. But let’s be real here–nobody is ever given… Read more »

LC
LC
9 years ago
Reply to  Karen in MN

Actually, as a hiring professional in senior management, I disagree. I think several commenters are mistaking “stationery” for something unprofessional – flowers, informal, etc. I believe the implication is to use nice letter head or high-quality resume paper for a brief thank-you to reinforce your interest and offer your appreciation for their giving of their time to review your qualifications. I rather appreciate *qualified* candidates who take the time to go above and beyond, as well as to demonstrate their interest by highlighting it in a follow-up note. While I would not hire someone on the basis of a thank-you… Read more »

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
9 years ago

In addition to blogs and books, I follow my bosses and coworkers on Twitter and LinkedIn. That way I can see who they’re following, what they’re reading or retweeting, and I can post interesting stuff I see too.

I advise caution on this though! I only use my Twitter account for professional reasons, but my colleagues often mix personal and professional. It can be a useful tool if you’re smart about it.

Justin
Justin
9 years ago

Great tips April!

Personally, I think the mentor tip is golden. Everyone has heard “it’s not what you know, it’s WHO you know”, but don’t take action with that knowledge!

Most of us are too afraid or caught up in doing our own things, but having a successful career is just a few intentional lunches (or happy hours) away.

John Corcoran
John Corcoran
9 years ago

April: Great article. I am an attorney with a small firm, and I’ve found that taking mentors and other more experienced attorneys out to lunch on my dime has been money well spent. It’s a great way to forge a stronger relationship with those who have more experience than you. It also can result in great referrals and open doors to others.

Paul
Paul
9 years ago

I very much agree with the “mentor” suggestion. We all learn from others.

Cat
Cat
9 years ago

I’m in the process of negotiating my salary. I’ve waited over 6 months to do it because I was told that if I was patient the time would come. Now I’m up at bat and the negotiations are tough! But I know the only way to improve my finances is to make more money, and the only way to significantly make A LOT more money is to switch jobs. BUT I see value in the things that I am learning where I am and I have a “brag folder” except it is more of a binder of my accomplishments at… Read more »

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