Learning & Development

Volunteering for the Hard Projects Early in One’s Career

Most organizations are structured as a pyramid, with a large number of entry-level workers at the bottom, fewer managers slightly up the chain, even fewer directors and vice presidents, and only one CEO. This means when a more senior position opens up, there are typically multiple internal candidates (not to mention external applicants) for a single role. Consequently, it can be challenging to stand out among the crowd, especially early in one’s career.

At the same time, making a solid early impression in a company can be the key to a long and successful career with that organization. This is one of the reasons former Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi once advised workers to “volunteer for the most difficult projects early in your career.”

Early Risks Pay Big Dividends

At first blush, that advice may seem dangerous to the timid. “What if I fail?” one might ask. “Shouldn’t those projects be handled by more seasoned company veterans?” One of the benefits of volunteering for such challenging projects early on, however, is that an organization’s expectations are relatively low for less experienced employees.

This creates a potential win-win situation.

If an employee succeeds in the challenging assignment, that worker will be seen as a rising star. If he or she falls short, it may be attributed to the person’s relative lack of experience, but his or her initiative and ambition will be viewed with high regard.

Seasoned Employees Still in the Mix

While volunteering for difficult projects early in one’s career is sound advice for green recruits, it’s important to point out that this does not mean that more seasoned and senior employees should be inclined to rest on their laurels. Hard work and initiative are important throughout one’s career. It can be hard for new employees to stand out and set themselves up for advancement. Many are understandably wary of biting off more than they can chew lest they struggle to complete their existing workload or fail in any challenging work they volunteer for. But taking some risks and throwing one’s hat into the ring for challenging work can be a great way to stand out from the crowd and earn respect early on in the corporate journey.

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a Contributing Editor at HR Daily Advisor.