Rocket to the Top of Your Career

A star astronaut offers a flight plan for astronomical success in any job.



Leroy Chiao has literally reached the absolute heights of his profession: He’s one of the most accomplished and respected astronauts in NASA history.

During his stellar 15-year career, Leroy logged 229 days in space, flew three space shuttle missions and eventually earned the honor of commanding the International Space Station. He’s also one of only 166 people to walk in space -- a feat he accomplished six times -- and was one of the few Americans to ever pilot a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

We figured if this guy managed to overcome staggering odds (there aren’t many spaceman openings on the job boards, you know) to succeed in one of the most elite professions on Earth and above it, he must know something about building a career. So we put on our jet packs to catch up with Leroy, asking him to share his flight plan for success. (That’s right: We have jet packs in the office. Don’t you?) Here are his inside tips to keep you soaring toward your goals.

Be Prepared
“This is important in any aspect of life. You need to be properly prepared mentally and/or physically for any task. Learn what’s expected of you and make sure you familiarize yourself with all the requirements of any challenge. You need to walk yourself through them mentally to discover any possible gaps. Proper preparation will bring proper execution. Like we say, ‘Train like you fly, and fly like you train.’

“We prepped endlessly when I was training to build the International Space Station. I would prepare in a water tank in my suit 10 hours for every hour I walked in space. With that level of preparation, everything becomes second nature. In reality, nothing goes as planned -- but preparation offers you options.

“Once, I was piloting the shuttle, and as we were about 1,000 meters from the space station, all the alarms went off. There was a failure in the auto [pilot] system. Our ship started speeding up instead of slowing down. But my training clicked in and we ran the emergency procedures I was taught. I took control and stopped the spacecraft only 50 meters from the station. If I hadn’t gone to manual, we could’ve hit the station and killed everybody.”

Never Lose Your Determination
“This is a quality you’ll need to achieve any goal. In my case, it started way before I became an astronaut. NASA looks for persistence. The typical applicant goes through several interviews and rejections before they qualify.

“I put through my first application when I was still in grad school ... and I was rejected. And while I was disappointed, I was determined to try again and make it. So I finished off my Ph.D. and put in another application ... and I was accepted. I wasn’t going to walk away from a challenge.

“Never let anyone deny you your dreams. Never let disappointment get you down. And keep your focus on your goals. But remember: You need to work hard enough to achieve them.”

Be Innovative
“At NASA, you receive very specific training, as in any job. But you need to be able to take that preparation and use it to respond to situations that you may not have expected. You need to be able to think on your feet and show your boss you can be innovative to find solutions.

“After a launch, something unexpected always happens: It’s how you deal with it that separates you from the pack.

“Once, when I was on one of my space walks and working on the space station, I was using a foot restraint that allowed me to use both hands to unfold a giant antenna. But there was a piece of equipment in my way that wouldn’t allow me to reach the antenna. I substituted a tether for the foot restraint. This gave me the flexibility to maneuver around the obstruction and do the work without being bound by the restraint. It was dangerous, but I was able to innovate because I knew the task so well. It saved the mission.”

Remember: No Task Is Too Small
“As a kid, I worked at McDonald’s, and even then there was a lot of detail. Even though I was just making burgers, I had to get the right number of burgers done and out on time. You’re still learning to be a part of a team.

“This would carry over into my training sessions as an astronaut candidate when we had to go through systems checks over and over. We checked every last detail endlessly to see what the failures might be and how to deal with them. It was so tedious! But in flights, you have to recognize those failures when they occur and how to troubleshoot them. It could save your own life -- and those of your crew.

“Whether it’s reading a boring book for homework or doing menial tasks at a job early in your career, the key is this: Do the best you can. This way, you’ll learn how to be successful.”

Smoke out Your Office Enemies Now!

Which co-workers can you trust and which are out to shut down your career? Use these methods to test the staff and find out who’s on your side.



Sometimes, the office can be as treacherous to navigate as the prison yard at San Quentin. You may not wind up with a shank in your side, but there’s a better-than-even chance somebody wants to stab you in the back and use your stinkin’ carcass as a stepping stone for their own advancement.

Office predators are constantly looking for fresh prey to steal credit from, or dump on to cover their own crappy work or simply thin out the herd so they can stand out in a smaller crowd.

Face it, kids: It’s a jungle in there. And short of carrying an elephant gun in your computer case -- which we’re sure is illegal in at least two states -- we’ve got some strategic advice to help you identify office enemies.

Establish Attack Patterns
When you’re dropped in-country on your first day of the job, it’s always smart to start with a fact-finding mission. Figure out who’s armed and who’s dangerous by debriefing office veterans. There’s no use spraying ammo -- unless you know where to aim.

“When you join any company, there is real benefit to identifying the culture,” says Roy Cohen, a former placement counselor for Goldman Sachs and a career coach for the Five O’Clock Club, a professional counseling network. “Ask for full scouting reports about who you can rely on and who to be wary of. But do it in a way that makes it seem like you want to find the best method to work with everybody. You may get surface-y answers at first, but people tend to send signals about people that may indicate where you should place your trust.”

Don’t Play Your Cards Until They Play Theirs
You can ask for advice and talk to people to fit into the office environment, but never share secrets with your co-workers until you’re sure you can trust them. “It’s always best to do substantial research on your colleagues before you reveal too much about yourself,” says Cohen. “If you see them use information against other colleagues, you’ll know not to take them into your circle of trust.”

Make Allies in the Trenches
Sure, it helps to have the boss on your side, but you’ll find your most effective recon outside the executive offices. Secretaries, assistants, even the cleaning staff see how people really act -- and they know where their bodies are buried.

“It’s good to get to know everyone in the office environment,” says Cohen. “People below the management level often have a good perspective on everyone’s true behavior and habits. They’re exposed to people as they really are and can give you good insights into who to trust and who to look out for.”

If There’s Smoke … Let Your Co-workers Help You Find the Fire
Keep your ears open for any bad news that might surface about you. If somebody’s cooking up foul rumors, “ask your co-workers where they heard these rumors, then go to that person directly -- as quickly as possible,” says Holly Green, CEO and managing director of The Human Factor, a management consulting firm. Tell the cook you’d like to help him whip up a better batch with more accurate information.

Green points out that letting rumors run wild is like leaving a fire unattended. Put your enemy at ease by letting them know you’ve come armed with the best intentions. Green suggests saying something like, “I am assuming you had good intentions, but can you help me understand why you said XXX? In the future, if you have any questions about me or something I did, please let me know. I really want to work effectively with you, and that would help a lot.”

Stay Focused on Finger Pointers
Fingers are often loaded … and will eventually point at you! If there’s someone in the office who’s the Babe Ruth of the blame game, get on their team ASAP. “If you see someone deflecting responsibility from themselves by blaming other people, disable their digits by offering to help them solve the problem early in the game,” says Cohen. “Offer to assist them in finding a solution without engaging in a blame game. This will prove you’re task-oriented and someone they can rely on -- plus you’ll build political equity in the office.” Bottom line: You’ve just slipped into a finger-proof vest!

Make Sure You’re Really in the Crosshairs Before Firing Back
Hey, Mr. Sensitive, not everybody’s out to get you! If you think someone’s unnecessarily tearing up you or your work, make sure you’re not just freakin’ paranoid. “Before you do something that might label you a troublemaker in the office place, do a reality check with your colleagues,” says Cohen. “But don’t do it in a way that suggests you have a problem with this person. Ask [a colleague] if they have any recommendations about how you can best develop a successful working relationship with your tormentor (but don’t call them that -- try “co-worker” instead). You may learn that this is just their working style and not a personal vendetta.”

Job Fair Play

They may be called career “fairs,” but they’re hardly carnivals. Treat them as daylong job interviews -- with multiple suitors -- and you’ll be poised to land a plum position.



We know all’s fair in love and war, but what’s fair at a job fair? Are certain questions off limits? What should you wear? How do you set yourself apart from the pack?

To get you the answers you need, Men’s Life Today interviewed a trio of experts who make a career out of helping others find careers. These in-the-know people are Eric Winegardner, a vice president at Monster Worldwide, parent company of the Monster Web site; Allison Nawoj, corporate communications manager for the CareerBuilder Web site; and Andrew Cronan, human relations professional and executive director of career services at New York’s Fordham University

Men’s Life Today: Are companies that show up for job fairs really hiring or are they just trawling for resumes?
Cronan
: In this economy, no corporation can afford to attend a career fair if it doesn’t have jobs to offer.

MLT: What if the companies coming to the fair are not on my short list of places to work?
Cronan
: Don’t rule them out. Even if an employer is outside your current industry, you never know what positions the company may have available or how its representatives can help you.

MLT: What’s the best way to prepare?
Nawoj
: Visit the Web sites of participating companies, read their press releases and search local newspapers for information on them. Also scour job boards for openings at the respective companies. Arrive at the fair ready to speak about those specific positions and explain why you believe your skills match the job.

Cronan: Don’t show up asking, “So what jobs do you have?” or worse, “What does your company do?” Also, to ease your nerves and get you in the habit of selling yourself, ask a friend or family member to help you practice your elevator speech -- a 30-second pitch that sums up your skills and offerings.

MLT: How long should I spend there?
Winegardner
: Plan to stay the entire day and see everyone. Yes, everyone. You never know when a connection you’ve made will lead to a job. And make sure to also speak with the people waiting in line with you.

MLT: What should I wear?
Winegardner:
Consider this your first interview. Dress at least one level above what you’d be wearing on the job.

Nawoj: Err on the side of conservative. You only have a few seconds to make a good first impression, so do it right.          

MLT: What should I bring?
Nawoj:
Make sure you have plenty of updated resumes -- and make sure they are proofread and free of errors.

Winegardner: If you are exploring more than one sort of job, be sure to bring resumes tailored to each type of job you’re seeking. Also bring business cards and don’t forget to ask the interviewers for their cards. You don’t necessarily need to bring references; in fact, keeping them aside can provide you with a good excuse to follow up.          

MLT: What’s the best way to manage my time?
Winegardner
: Begin with the companies you’re least interested in. This will give you the chance to build your confidence and practice. Just don’t wait too long to meet with the companies you really want to target. It will be harder to make a memorable impression on someone at the end of a long day.

MLT: How long should I expect with each recruiter?
Cronan
: No more than five minutes, maybe less. Recruiters will decide within the first 45 seconds whether your resume is going into Pile A or Pile B and also whether it’s going to the top or bottom of those piles. Make eye contact, use a firm handshake, speak clearly and have a rehearsed introduction ready to go. End your introduction with a question, which will help you engage the recruiters.

MLT: What if they ask about my salary requirements?
Cronan
: It’s a “gotcha” question. In all likelihood, they are trying to see how you handle uncomfortable situations. Stay calm and instead of answering directly, say you’d love to hold off on the compensation discussion until you can meet them for a follow-up. Likewise, you should not bring up salary yourself.

MLT: How should I wrap up the exchange?
Winegardner
: Something along the lines of “I’d love to stay connected with you. What’s the best way for me to do that?” If all has gone according to plan, you’ll be well on your way to scheduling your second interview.