My Best Career Advice for Those Starting Out in Their 20’s

Tips for Your 20's and Beyond
Jennifer Lake Zapwater Communications
All Photos in this Blog Post are by Cecilia Austen. Check out her Etsy shop here.

Today, I’m sharing some of my best career advice for your 20s and beyond. The topic was inspired by an upcoming interview with Anneliese of Southern Belle in Training. Topics range from my love of United Airlines to my Sail to Sable capsule collections. I hope you’ll read it when it launches in a few weeks!

In the meantime, one of her questions stuck with me – “What’s your best career advice for those starting careers in their 20’s?” In the past, I’ve shared tips here and there. But today, I wanted to go much more in-depth.

Jenn Lake Career Advice

Listen, not everything that I’ll be sharing below will translate to you and your job/career path. However, I hope some tidbits strike a chord and save you from possible mistakes in your early years!

Why Am I Qualified for this Topic?

If you’re new to Style Charade, you may wonder – why in the world are you qualified to talk about this topic? For the past 17+ years, I’ve worked full-time in public relations. At 26, I was promoted to Vice President at my former agency, and I’m currently the Senior Vice President at a phenomenal agency in Chicago.

I’ve been at my current agency for more than 11 years. There, I lead new business development and our key agency accounts in fashion, lifestyle, wine & spirits, consumer goods, travel, real estate, interior design, home goods and hospitality.

Yes, it makes me super uncomfortable to list my resume like a laundry list! However, I wanted to give a baseline for why I’m qualified on the topic at hand. 🙂 Plus, I’ve worked alongside, managed, and mentored hundreds of communications professionals throughout my career. It’s been enlightening to witness so many different journeys and outcomes.

Jennifer Lake Zapwater

Best Career Advice for Your 20’s

Before diving in, this advice definitely works beyond those individuals in their 20’s! Frankly, I need to remind myself about these lessons all the time. Also, some lessons may sound a bit cliché, but I truly believe in the value they hold. Without further ado, here is my best career advice for those just starting out and beyond.

Jennifer Lake Office Decor
Photo by Cecilia Austen. Check out her Etsy shop here.

Action, Not Reaction

Be solutions-oriented. In every career, you’ll come up against roadblocks. No matter what your job entails, tackling problems and encountering unexpected issues comes with the territory. Be a part of the solution, not the problem. One of the best ways to show value to your company and team? Contribute actionable ideas.

As I like to say, action, not reaction. Don’t swirl in the problem. Instead, spend time on possible paths forward. Your managers will thank you, and your team will be better because of it.

At the same time, I’m not saying to hide from your feelings. It’s extremely, extremely important to process your emotions. My main point is to try your best to prioritize ideas and solutions in tough moments.

Zapwater Chicago Office

Positivity Equals Productivity

Stay positive. Don’t get stuck in the muck. Toxic teams lead to bad work and even worse results. Research shows that positivity equals productivity. In my experience, staying positive allows teams to thrive and focus on delivering their best work. Choose to look at the bright side.

Surround Yourself with Good People

Seek to work closely with individuals who lift you up. Negative team members drag you down and you get caught in quicksand. Trust.

When someone speaks poorly about someone else in the company to you, stop those conversations in their tracks. Don’t engage in those superfluous discussions. Question those who do. Those habits are deeply rooted in personal insecurities, displacement, and gaslighting. Notice the pattern and rise above it. Easier said than done, but a mindset to maintain nonetheless.

Choose to build people up, and steer clear from those who tear others down. Work diligently to remove toxic people and patterns in company culture. Keep things professional.

When you choose to be respectful to others, others will be more respectful of you. Plus, I’ve found individuals who choose healthy habits and respectful attitudes to be promoted much more quickly.

Work is Business, Not High School

Work can feel like high school at times. To be clear, work is NOT high school. It’s business.

Treat it as such.

Jennifer Lake Zapwater Communications Chicago

Work at Your Job for at Least a Year

After seeing countless resumes in my career for all levels and positions, I am always shocked to see the amount of “job leaps” in a single year.

Yes, companies experience layoffs, downsizes, etc. This fact is especially true during a pandemic, so people will have “blips” on resumes. Plus, not all roles or companies are also a good fit. Some company cultures are incredibly toxic (see above!). If it’s impacting your physical and mental health, work diligently to find a sustainable solution or exit strategy. No amount of harassment or toxicities that impact your health are worth it.

Outside of those situations listed above, where possible, try try try to at least give a workplace one year of your time. I’ve seen so many people succumb to the “grass is greener” mentality. No job is perfect, and we all grow through the natural process of acclimating to a role and work environment.

Plus, while you’re investing in a company, a company is investing in you. It takes time to settle into your position and to develop a rapport with colleagues and your manager. Give it time!

Jennifer Lake Christian Louboutin

Don’t Run from Something, Run to Something

When/if the time comes for you to find a new job, don’t rush the process. Instead, do your research – visit Glassdoor to read employee reviews, look for company awards and/or articles about company culture.

Also, there’s no such thing as a “quick fix” with new jobs. If you’re having issues with your current job, don’t race to find the next best thing. Ultimately, find a company and position that you’re extremely excited about. It’s worth the wait to find a something phenomenal, not passable.

Best Personalized Stationery
Photo by Cecilia Austen. Check out her Etsy shop here.

Find a Mentor

Mentors are a gift (and superb ones are hard to find). Seek out a mentor who will help guide you on your path. Keep in mind, mentorships only work when there’s a give and take. Be prepared to walk alongside your mentor on their journey. Don’t just take – make sure to encourage and share insights!

Moreover, find ways to demonstrate your care for them on a personal level. Ask about their family or weekend. Keep tabs on how things are going and follow-up accordingly. That healthy relationship development will only strengthen the mentor/mentee roles!

Dress for the Job You Want, Not the One You Have

Sounds crazy materialistic, no? Well, I’ve found first impressions matter. Lasting ones are even more important. The way that you dress for your job is one way to show your outlook on the world and business.

Yes, athleisure and casual outfits are new “office” norm. However, some of my greatest professional mentors valued how they presented themselves both on and off screen. You are your brand.

Best Chicago Public Relations Agencies

Positive and Too Nice are Different Things

There’s a difference between staying positive and being too nice. When you’re fortunate enough to be in a managerial role, there are times you must remain firm and draw lines in the sand with your team.

Listen, it’s never fun to be the “bad guy” or to be the one constantly delivering critiques and constructive criticisms. However, I’ve learned that when you gloss over necessary feedback, tangible takeaways go in one ear and out the other. Be direct, but always remain rooted in fairness. 

This lesson reflects the gender disparities in the workplace. When women are seen as “too nice,” they get trampled and viewed as weak. When men are too nice, they’re seen as heroes and the “good guys.” Insert internal scream here.

At the same time, without going down a big gender/ workplace rabbit hole, this lesson is still important and applicable across the board. Choose to be positive and kind, while remaining firm and standing your ground.

Jenn Lake Career Tips
Photo by Cecilia Austen. Check out her Etsy shop here.

Being a Manager is Tough. Give Yours Grace.

After time, you will one day become a manager. Sometimes, I joke that leadership is as much about having major responsibilities as it is about having a target on your back.

Try to give your manager grace, where possible. Often, workers have “a-ha” moments later in their careers and realize why a past manager made a hard decision, engaged in a tough conversion, or chose a certain path. I know I did.

Evaluate why your manager is making certain calls. Not only that, assume there are several aspects of a situation to which you might not be privy. I found this exercise to be extremely helpful in my 20’s. “Why are they making this decision?” “How does this help the team?” “How can I help them in the process?” Dig a bit deeper and try to consider the bigger picture.

Jenn Lake Job Advice

Pick Your Battles

Pick your battles. I’m still working on this one! No matter where you’re at in your career, when conflicts arise, prioritize which challenges are truly worth battling. 

It’s PR, Not ER

This is my all-time favorite phrase in the PR industry. Keep in mind, we aren’t curing cancer, people. At the same time, PR ranks as one of the most stressful jobs in the world.

Public relations is not for the faint of heart, and I can firmly attest to the fact that the fast-pace industry drives anxiety, nerves and stress at times. Okay, like all of the time. 🙂

Therefore, stay grounded. Some situations (and people) will make it seem like weight of the world is on you/your team. However, there are much bigger problems happening around you. Keep things in perspective, and do your best to focus on options and opportunities.

Expect the Unexpected

Expect the unexpected. 2020 made this lesson loud and clear for all of us. It’s okay to reinvent yourself and your career path. Be open to change, and don’t be afraid to take calculated and informed risks along the way.

Giambattista Valli Pink Outfit

Active Listening is a Superpower

Listen more than you speak in meetings. I learn SO much more from being an active listener in a meeting. Also, truly listen to everyone in the room – not just executives. Being a sponge is key no matter what stage of your career.

Read the Room

Do your best to “read the room” in every room. What is a person’s body language in meetings? How is their mood? What’s their tone/inflection and eye contact? Some of the best moments in my career rested in analyzing non-verbals, not verbals. Often, it’s what people aren’t saying that matters.

Jennifer Lake Chicago

Collaboration Over Competition

Value collaboration over competition. Sounds like something you’d wear on a t-shirt, right? Haha. However, it’s 100% true.

Chess Not Checkers

When people ask me about my career and how I got to this point, I often explain that I’ve always viewed my job like chess, not checkers. Very Queen’s Gambit, no?

In all seriousness, I encourage you to think about things five moves ahead, not just one. It’s important to see the big picture and to create a plan of how to get there. Funny enough, while I’m already nearly two decades into my career, I’m still thinking 15 years ahead. I encourage you to do the same.

Ultimately, the journey and individual moves may not be what you originally anticipated, but the path forward should lead to an end goal.

Don’t Burn Bridges or Hold Grudges

Don’t burn bridges or hold grudges. You (and those around you) are going to make mistakes along the way. Own up to yours, apologize often, forgive quickly and mean it. Expect others to do the same in return.

Jennifer Lake Best Career Advice
Photo by Cecilia Austen. Check out her Etsy shop here.

Be Resilient

One of the biggest lessons that I’ve learned is that no two careers are alike, but the single most important personal characteristic to help you in your career? Being resilient. Very resilient. Sometimes, your career will feel like you’re taking one step forward and eight steps back. Honing the ability to bounce back when it feels like you’re up against a wall is extremely important.

Jennifer Lake PR Agency

In Closing

Lastly, I read a phenomenal letter from Redbox founder, Gregg Kaplan. He wrote the message to his son, and I strongly encourage everyone to read it. The takeaways are amazing, and I found myself nodding along the entire thing (#3, #8 and #9 = #preach).

He wrote: “If there is no other lesson I teach you, let this be the most important: you are largely accountable for the decisions and actions that happen in your life from this point forward.” 

Therefore, I leave you with this – my best career advice is take control of your future, and be ready for a wonderful, challenging, and beautiful road ahead. Good luck – you’ve got this!

Jennifer Lake Office Decorations

All photography in this blog post was captured by Cecilia Austen for my feature in The Everygirl. Please support and shop Cecilia’s Etsy shop here, where she has a range of affirmation cards and beyond.

Leave a comment

View All 4 Comments

  1. J
    Jill wrote:

    This is really great, realistic advice. I’m nearing 40 and have been in my career for a long time, but all of this rings true. Thanks for sharing!

    Published 2.22.21 · Leave a Reply
    • J

      Thank you so much for the feedback! I sincerely appreciate it, and I hope you have a wonderful week ahead.

      Published 2.22.21 · Leave a Reply
  2. H
    Hannah wrote:

    Thank you for being transparent and sharing your career advice with us!

    As I’m forging my own DIY/freelance path, I’ve found having mentors to be invaluable. I’m glad you mentioned that as being important!

    Hannah | The Outfit Repeater

    Published 3.6.21 · Leave a Reply


Sign up to receive Jenn's weekly newsletter, filled with exclusive content, sale alerts, and more behind the scenes charades!