How to stop being underestimated when you are starting out in your career

by | Oct 28, 2018 | Business conversations, Career Planning, Personal Brand

Work on your personal brand and next time, you might not be underestimated

Updated March 2021

In a workshop for early career professionals, we discussed the topic of perception and how people treat you, based on how they see you. The concern from the group of mostly young women was that sometimes they may be overlooked, not heard, or seen as the ‘Girl Friday’ (I cringe at the term, and the antiquated concept behind it!)… instead of being seen as the knowledgeable professionals they are already becoming.

This particular group reported that it was not so much a matter of being underestimated by their managers, but by outside stakeholders such as clients they are dealing with. The feeling in the group was that this was often based on youth, gender identification, ethnicity and even hair colour.

In my varied career path over the last 20 years I have certainly felt overlooked or underestimated many times. I remember feeling this acutely on the very first day of my career as a classroom teacher. My class filed in after that first bell, and along with them, a parent who promptly asked me, ‘How old are you?’

And fair enough. At 21, I really did look like a baby. But although I was just starting out as a teacher, I’d already had more experience than most people realised and more confidence than they expected! I’d done a 4 year, full-time, heavily practical degree, for which I received High Distinctions all the way through. I had worked in various children-related jobs to get me through my student days, including a babysitting service, various childcare centres, and a children’s party centre, where I was frequently left alone with high-level responsibilities in education and care. I did volunteer work in schools because I wanted extra experience. And I was the eldest of four children, and had grown up helping my mum with the little ones.

By the time I was unleashed onto the teaching profession, I was more than ready. I knew deep down that I could do an amazing job and bring new creative solutions to my work, and a tonne of energy. Pretty soon, my confidence and abilities became clear to those around me, and I gained all the parents’ and staff members’ respect and trust. That was despite breaking the industrial-sized photocopier in my first week on the job, failing to turn up to car park duty after school because I didn’t know there was a roster, and telling the principal to ‘cut it short’ in a staff meeting because I thought that was my job as the minute-taker!

In the business world, however, you don’t always have the daily opportunity to prove yourself, as I did each day in the classroom. Sometimes you have only a short timeframe to make a great first impression, or you only have a small part to play in a meeting. Yet your boss wants you to demonstrate why you were chosen – your abilities to contribute information and insight to help solve the client’s problem.

How will you ensure the client turns to you for advice, not just for a cup of coffee?

Read on below for tips to stop being underestimated…

While you cannot control the biases of other people, you can do some things to influence the way they see you.

If you know you have the permission and ability to add more value, consider some of the suggestions we came up with in our workshop:

  • Introduce yourself or greet the client with confidence. Say your name clearly, reach out and shake hands like you mean it, look the person in the eye and smile. A confident first impression is more powerful than most of us realise – it’s all subconscious.
  • Be extremely prepared for your meetings. Know the client really well and be ready with examples, data or other content that you can pull out to illustrate a point you’re making. Knowledge is power!
  • Take up space at the table. Physically sit like someone who has a right to be there! Back straight, shoulders relaxed, hands on the table – not hidden underneath, eye contact, no fidgeting.
  • When it is respectful and appropriate, speak up! Ensure you communicate, clearly and succinctly, information that can be helpful. Don’t let your great ideas and knowledge go unnoticed by waiting to be ‘invited’ to speak.
  • Set up some boundaries around how you expect to be treated. For example, have set times for responding to emails instead of responding as things come in (this also helps you become more effective at work) and don’t allow people to go on and on over the phone if you don’t have time for it. You can respectfully let people know your boundaries while letting them know that their needs matter – in turn, they will respect you as the busy professional that you are.

Being underestimated or overlooked are common problems in the business world, and part of being seen and heard comes with experience and knowledge. However, in my work I have found that people at all levels of their careers can do more to shape how others perceive them – so that they can truly operate at their full potential.

A lot of this is about personal brand clarity and confidence. Knowing what you bring to the table, how this helps stakeholders, and knowing how to communicate that when needed is part of building your personal brand. This takes some time and thought-work to really get clear on – and confidence is the natural by-product.

I would love to hear your thoughts on how you have found ways to tackle being underestimated or overlooked in your career.