If you’ve recently finished school and are joining the full-time work force, welcome! You’re going to be spending a good portion of your adult life in the working world, so commit to making a good start. From hiring and mentoring literally hundreds of new grads over the years, we’ve observed what distinguishes the best ones. Some of these young men and women have gone on to phenomenal careers: leading companies, bringing new innovations to life, and making a positive impact on the world. Very few things are as rewarding as watching someone you hired right out of school go on to such greatness.
Drawing on our observations, we’ve put together a list of suggestions for starting out on the right foot. Without further ado, here they are:
1. First, some expectation setting. There are a few things you should accept.
- You often won’t know what you’re doing at the beginning. We’ve all been there: bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, wet behind the ears, green. It’s ok. The key is to come up the learning curve as quickly as you can. Doing so will help you in your first job, and learning how to do so will benefit you throughout your life: every time you change jobs, employers, or even careers.
- You probably don’t know just yet what you want to do in the longer-term. This is also ok. View your first job as an opportunity to grow as a person and learn about yourself: what you’re good at, what you want to do, and what you don’t want to do.
- You won’t know yet what’s most important to you. Again, use your early working time to figure out your “why.” Doing so will provide you with a personal compass of sorts, and having that benefit you immensely, in work and in life.
2. Make the right first impression. Treat everyone with whom you work with respect. Say hello when you arrive each day and goodbye when you leave. Be friendly with and learn the names of the supporting cast around you who quietly do their jobs on your behalf, such as security, cleaners, and receptionists. Arrive at work and to meetings on time, if not a few minutes early. Do what you say you’ll do. Be relentlessly responsive. Don’t ask for special treatment. Don’t traffic in gossip, and don’t speak negatively about your colleagues. In short, make it clear to everyone around you that you are a consummate professional.
3. Work at fitting in... Learn the rules right away – read the employee handbook if there is one. (In most instances now, it will be online.) Figure out the company culture. Is it formal or informal? Hierarchical or flat? Conservative or liberal? Adapt to your boss’ style as well, particularly with respect to how he or she likes to communicate – in terms of method, frequency, level of detail, and even time of day. Take note of how people dress, and select your work clothing accordingly. Remember the adage, “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” If you have tattoos, or body piercings, or brightly colored hair, get a sense (ideally before you take the job) if they will be acceptable. Many workplaces are becoming much more open to varying looks but not all are. If your appearance is going to be an issue, you’ll either need to change it or consider finding another employer that better lets you be you.
4. …and also at standing out. Develop at least an initial view of what you want your personal brand to be – what you want to be known for, and how you want to be seen. Tap into your strengths. If you’re a master party planner, offer to organize a team outing or the company holiday party. If you’re into sports, join or set up a company team. Become the go-to person for something important, like producing a particular management report that’s regularly reviewed by a senior exec. Particularly in big companies that hire a large number of new grads, it’s the things you do to positively stand out that get you noticed by the higher-ups. These things often have the potential to become catalysts for putting you on an accelerated track.
5. Mind the (blurry) line between work and life. Decide how you want to position work in the context of your broader life. For some new grads, the early working years are a time where they’re willing to work extra hard and learn as much as they can, before they have other obligations to manage (like a family) that will require re-prioritizing work. Make sure your expectations for work are aligned with your manager’s and your employer’s more broadly, again ideally before you accept the job. If you don’t want to work long hours, for example, you probably shouldn’t take a job with an investment bank or consulting firm.
Inversely, be careful about how much of your outside life you bring into work. We’re all human: we all have a life outside of work, we all have challenges, and we all have bad days. Still, do your best to maintain a sense of professionalism when you’re at work. Some of your co-workers will certainly be willing to lend a sympathetic ear at times, but don’t treat them as your therapists. Don’t overplay your weekend exploits. We were all young and fun once (really), and we have all done some foolish things in our youth, but it’s better if you’re known at work more for your actual work than for your play. And be mindful of how you use social media: LinkedIn is a work-focused platform. Particularly if you list your current role in your headline, when you say something on LinkedIn, you are implicitly representing your employer. Most other social media platforms are more personally oriented. Keep them distinct. Above all, never put yourself or your employer in a bad light by doing or saying something unforgivable on social media.
6. Build good habits. Make sure how you approach work aligns with your values. Don’t let your job turn you into someone you’re not. The late Clay Christensen is known for sharing a story that he wouldn’t work on Sundays because that was a day of faith for him. He indicated he was more than willing to put in extra hours on any other day to make up for what might otherwise need to be done on a Sunday, but Sundays were sacred for him – literally – and he never, ever compromised on this point. Determine what’s sacred to you and stand firm to protect it. As well, build relationships (and your network) before you need them. It’s always easier to ask someone for something if they already know you and you’ve previously built “relationship capital” with them. Be humble and be a team player. When you make a mistake, admit it, and figure out what you should have done differently. Ask if you’re not sure. And don’t get so focused on getting ahead that you trample over your colleagues. From the beginning, and throughout your career, remember where you came from and who helped you get to where you are.
7. Be open:
- To a variety of tasks and experiences. Even scut work can be a learning opportunity. You’ll take something away from everything you do, even if it’s getting clear about what you don’t like to do. If your job is routine, do it well but ask for more responsibility or additional tasks as a way to gain broader experience and a higher profile
- To learning. Ask questions, even if they seem basic. Again, it’s ok. We’ve all been there. Demonstrate an interest in what your group, division, and company do more broadly: how they make money, how they’re organized, and how they deliver products and services to their customers. Go to Town Hall meetings, ask to have coffee with people in other groups to learn about what they do, read the company website and press releases – whatever helps you learn. And though you may be “done” with formal schooling, remember that you should never stop learning. Commit from the start to being a life-long learner.
- To feedback. Even if it’s not offered – which is the sign of a bad manager – ask for it. You won’t agree with everything you’re told. Some of it will invariably be unhelpful or flat-out wrong. Still, take from it what you will, adapt accordingly, and move on. Be known for being coachable. It will make your managers much more likely to give you stretch roles and prospective hirers much more likely to take a chance on you.
- To change. Workplaces are dynamic. They rarely stay the same for long. People come and go, cultures evolve, business circumstances change, economic conditions vary. These changes won’t always be good for you. Many of us have been in the wrong place at the wrong time: laid off, passed over for a promotion, feeling under-utilized, etc. Adapt as best you can, and keep your options open for when you need to exercise Plan B. And always remember the adage, “When one door closes, another one opens.”
8. Be patient. In all likelihood, you’re not going to experience a meteoric rise to become the next Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, or Mark Zuckerberg (sorry). The vast majority of us have to put in the hours and the years. Promotions aren’t automatic: they’re earned and they’re in limited supply. Get clear on what’s needed to advance and put in the work.
9. Be fearless. Bring your energy, your passion, your fresh perspective and your commitment. Exude confidence (without being seen as arrogant). Above all, get in the game. As Teddy Roosevelt said 100 years ago (with an upfront apology for his early 20th century male-centric references): “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
10. Take a long-term view. Entrepreneur and investor Mark Ein puts it well: “It’s a small world and a long life. Treat people well, build relationships, develop your reputation and take a longer-term view about your decisions and actions...The deeper you go into your career, the more you[‘ll] appreciate that it isn’t just your recent history that matters but the full body of your life’s work that [determines] your opportunity set and your ability to most effectively pursue those opportunities. Build a broad network of strong, trusted relationships and be known as someone who people eagerly want to collaborate with…Along the way, avoid the short-term wins that may hinder your long-term goals and trust your internal compass to keep you on your path to your true north.”
Best of luck to you, and again, welcome to the working world!