Alexandra Levit: How to Succeed at Work

The career expert says networking and visibility are just as important as hard work.

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When workplace expert Alexandra Levit first started working in corporate America, she thought that if she worked really hard and turned in great work, then she would excel. But instead, she discovered that success had as much to do with networking and visibility as it did with output. She wrote a book to help other young professionals in her situation, They Don't Teach Corporate in College, and slowly transitioned into a career of working for herself. I recently spoke with Levit, a speaker and writer, about how 20-somethings can better navigate their career paths. Excerpts:

[For more, read: "Tim Ferriss: How to Work the Four-Hour Week."]

After you graduated from college and started working, what didn't you understand about corporate America?

I thought that if you just worked really hard, you would automatically succeed. If you sat in your cube and churned out work, then you would get promoted. But the business world is not that simple. It's more based on relationships with people and the visibility that you generate for yourself and what people think about what you're doing. What people think of you is much more important than the work product or the amount you're churning out.

As a result, I had several setbacks where I would watch people with half my work product get promoted because people knew who they were. They were out there, networking.

What did you do to fix that situation?

I started taking personal development courses that taught cooperation, diplomacy, and polishing the package you present to people. It focused on how to dress appropriately, how to be more assertive, and how to relate to people. I came into my own and finally started getting promoted.

What mistakes do you think 20-somethings make now when they start out in corporate America?

We've seen recent 20-somethings come into the workplace feeling very entitled, because their parents raised them to feel very special. They've always been guided very carefully and had everything given to them, so they come into the workforce expecting the same things. Those of us who have been here longer, we're like, 'We had to pay our dues, the current generation of 20-somethings isn't as patient and willing to do that."

How did you make the transition to working for yourself?

It was a slow transition. That's something a lot of people don't know, that the way a lot of us do it is more cautiously. I was working in my marketing job until my baby was born. I was gradually working more on my own but keeping my corporate job part-time to keep money coming in and to keep my experience fresh. It was better for me to be in the trenches with my audiences.

Was the decision to work for yourself driven partly by a desire to have more control over your schedule?

The career that I was headed to in the marketing world -- I was a vice president when I left -- was headed toward 80 hour weeks and always being on a Blackberry and having to fly somewhere. Even before my baby was born, I knew that wasn't going to work for me. I wanted flexibility to do things and not feeling like I was missing things, and to see him before he went to bed at night.

Do you think more young professionals will choose that path of self-employment because of all the economic uncertainty in corporate America?

A lot more people are interested given the recession. They're like, 'We can't trust corporate America, look at these crooks running the place, I'll be more successful on my own.' That is not always the case. You have to be a certain type of person to make it work. Not everyone wants to worry about where their next paycheck is coming from. It's a lifestyle you have to think carefully about.

[For more, read: "5 Reasons to Start a Business in a Recession."]

Do you suggest making the transition slowly, like you did?

I can't believe people who say they're going to quit their job in this economic. Yes, slower is better. It gives you the opportunity to test the waters a little bit. Before I was full-time with career advice, I was testing the waters to see if I could do marketing work and freelance that way. I hated that. I thought, 'If I'm going to do marketing work, I may as well be in an office where I can have camaraderie with other people and work as a team. I had no desire to be on my own for that.'

What's your advice for someone who wants to eventually be self-employed?

Do an apprenticeship, or just talk with other people who work in the area you're interested in. Make sure you're well connected in the entrepreneur community.