FT and McKinsey Bracken Bower Prize
One Level Up

Jenny Palmer

Beacon Health Strategies

I was sitting in the divisional director’s office being given (in her words, not mine) a significant opportunity to showcase my skills and potential by leading on a large strategic project with CEO exposure. Having been unfortunately terrified of her since the day I started my job (or in reality, the day I shook hands with her at interview) I sat in a state of excitement and mild panic, spurting out a highly confident and sharp "yes" in response to every question that came my way. “Ensure you meet with all the relevant stakeholders," she told me, along with, “I expect you to continue to deliver in your job whilst you complete this”. She handed me a mound of documents and told me to arrange to meet with her in a couple of weeks to check in. I was so desperately eager to impress I didn’t think to ask any questions and promptly grabbed the papers and finished the meeting. In a slight haze, I headed back to my office with a vague at best idea of what I was being asked to do. I knew this opportunity was important to me but was I allowed to ask anyone for help? How could I juggle this along with my day job? And what exactly were "stakeholders"?

It was clear that my experience was not uncommon. From the many glasses of wine drunk with friends into the late hours of the night discussing how university didn’t actually prepare us for the real world, I did my best to stay driven and motivated and continued to navigate through the challenges my career threw at me. I was always rather jealous of people who had a defined career job like a doctor, lawyer or teacher, as they were given years of training on how to master their professions before setting off on highly structured career paths. Clearly it was not that simple for them, but for young people entering the world of business, what you do and how you become successful can all be rather opaque.

It soon became clear to me that I’d have to figure my journey out for myself, so I did my best to rapidly learn as I went along. My strategy resulted in many impressive successes and some rather exposing slipups butwhat I came to realise is that it doesn’t have to be so opaque. If you are motivated and driven, by getting to grips with a set of key principles, it is actually a fantastic time to be a young person in the employment market.
Recent reports show that global youth unemployment has been rising year on year since 2009, and that young people are almost three times more likely than adults to be unemployed. However if you cut through the statistics, being at the start of your career poses an incredibly exciting opportunity for high achieving individuals. Given an increasingly boundary less job market it is becoming more common and desirable to have a portfolio career. With a widening skills gap in many key roles for FTSE 250 companies and a net decline in the talent base within the 35-44 age bracket, this shift in career paths will have a significant impact on the global employment market, creating some fantastic opportunities. So the important questions become: how do you ensure you are on the right side of being a high achieving individual? How do you set yourself off on the right career trajectory, stay motivated and have fun? How do you get your one level up? Focusing on six principles from the start of your career will help you reach your next role and your full potential - your one level up: building your network, being smart about politics, delivering at work, being confident & brave, having fun, and knowing where you are aiming.

Build your network

I genuinely felt important. As horrible and arrogant as that sounds I felt important. And dare I go as far to say actually rather elite. After just two weeks on my graduate scheme, I was at the inaugural dinner, hosted by the head of talent management. Standing on a platform at the front of the room she was nearing the end of her speech. “You are the future leaders of the NHS,” she said, a line that became a running joke throughout my two year graduate scheme (and remains imprinted on a mug in my kitchen which still makes me smile today). The thing is, it was actually for the most part true, but at that moment did little to help my unnecessarily inflated ego. She continued: “Look around you: this is your network. Ensure you spend tonight making full use of this important first networking opportunity.” Along with my peers I nodded confidently and smiled at the person next to me with a knowing look. Inside, though, I literally had no idea what she was talking about. Clearly I knew it was good to network, to have a network, and do networking activities or whatever, but I had no actual idea what it really meant to network. Really. So I did the mature thing and strode confidently towards the toilets, feeling anything but important.

People don’t just use the word networking as a buzzword in business. They talk about it because networking is actually important for all kind of useful reasons. It can help you get a job or promotion, solve problems, access knowledge or advice and understand your customers better. Someone who is well networked is of high worth to employers; it is an explicit, acknowledged asset. Networking will help you test out how to explain your career and experience to people, including what you are good at and what you like (smug people call this your "career narrative", and really smug people call it your "personal value proposition"). It is regarded as the best way to get a job, as a referral from someone an employer trusts is far more valuable than a recruiter reading about you for the first time on receiving your CV.

After my personal failed introduction into networking, I soon became to realise that networking a relatively simple concept that much of the time is made to sound incredibly complicated. Your network is made up of people you have some form of affiliation with; from your colleagues to people you met at conferences to former university alumni. Even if you think you don’t have a network I promise that you will, and it will be far larger than you think. Networking is about interacting and building relationships with new people, as well as continued interactions and relationship building with your existing network.

Put simply, you network by getting in touch with people, and staying in touch with people. Social media is the most obvious way to network, and it’s great because it free, easy and instant. There are also lots of websites which contain good examples of networking emails to help you structure what you want to say when connecting with someone. If you don’t hear back from people don’t be offended. People are very busy, so don’t worry about reaching out again. Don’t also worry about whether you should focus on quantity or quality in your network, just get used to connecting with people and staying in touch. Remember that networking works on a big cyclical arrangement so keep reaching out and don’t be afraid to go higher than you think – keep getting to your one level up!


International Labour Organization. (2013). Global Employment Trends for Youth 2013.
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The global youth unemployment rate in 2013 was 12.6 per cent which is 1.1 per cent above the pre-crisis level of 2007 (11.5 per cent). It steady grew in the four years from 2009 to 2013.

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