Written in February 2014 for Aureus Consulting:
For recent graduates fresh to the professional world, you may be comforted (or disappointed) to learn that starting a new job is rather similar to the first day of school. You’re eager to appear intelligent yet likeable. You wonder who you will eat lunch with. You worry about how you will handle the workload. In the beginning, you will need to learn everything: where the bathrooms are, how to submit expenses, whose toes not to step on, and so forth. During my first decade post-graduation, I worked at a non-profit organization, a high powered New York City law firm, an Irish software company and an Australian one, and at an English school for Japanese expats in Singapore. Every single time I moved into a new role, I encountered a fresh set of lessons to learn, difficulties to overcome, and-in some cases-cultural norms to adjust to. Since many young professionals come to Aureus Consulting seeking guidance on how to move their careers forward, I thought it would be helpful to compile a few of the tips, tricks, and suggestions that I’ve picked up along the way.
Ask questions. It’s tempting to try and impress your new boss with how sharp you are, but no one expects you to know the ins and outs of the company in your first few weeks. It’s important to ask questions if you don’t know something. If you’re too busy pretending to appear competent, you won’t actually learn how to be. This is something even more experienced professionals can struggle with. You might worry that if you require help, people might think you’re stupid. Or worse, that by asking for advice, you might somehow cause people to dislike you. Recent studies have discovered that that line of thinking couldn’t be more wrong. Wharton professor Adam Grant, Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, and persuasion specialist Robert Cialdini are among the large number of experts who now consider seeking advice to be one of the most effective strategies for encouraging others to warm up to us. So, ask away!
Accept that you will make mistakes. It will happen. It will be embarrassing. It’s okay. Mistakes can be forgiven and forgotten. However, one thing your superiors will not forget is if you try to cover up a mistake. Let me give you an example. Back when I was working as a paralegal in that New York City law firm (my first paying job after college), I once accidentally moved an important file from my team’s shared network drive to my desktop. When I attempted to return the file to its original location, I found that it would take over two hours. Instead of informing my superiors of the problem, I just prayed that no one would notice the discrepancy. Of course, they did and I was reprimanded harshly, not for accidentally moving the file but for failing to own up to my mistake. The error was a minor one but my poor handling of the situation caused me to lose the trust of my team, which took far longer to repair. If you do make a blunder, the best course of action is to admit it, apologize, and ask how you can avoid repeating it in the future.
Be aware of your own limits. You might be tempted to say yes to everything during the first few months on a job. It’s easy to understand why: you want to demonstrate that you were worth the chance the company took when they hired you. And while you should absolutely be tackling your new role with gusto, taking on more than you can handle can backfire, since the quality of your work is likely to decline. A growing body of research shows that people are at their most productive when they are allowed take short breaks during the workday and when they obtain six to nine hours of sleep every night. To quote Tony Schwartz, author of Be Excellent at Anything: “Human beings aren’t designed to expend energy continuously. Rather, we’re meant to pulse between spending and recovering energy.” So when your supervisor asks if you can take on another project when you already have ten on your plate, don’t be afraid to (politely) say that you won’t be able to at this time.
Be willing to adjust to a new office culture. Culture shock can happen to even the most prepared individuals. After all, it’s impossible to know quite how you will fit into a new environment until you’re smack in the middle of it. Whether you’ve relocated to another country or simply to a company with a different work ethic, I highly recommend you take note of the business habits of your colleagues. Are important decisions reached in a weekly meeting or through casual email dialogues? What is considered an appropriate manner of communication within the office? What are the leadership styles of your superiors? Does everyone attend the annual company baseball game even if they’re not required to? While you shouldn’t have to completely alter your work style or personality upon entering a new position, being aware of your company’s socio-cultural norms can only help you.
Find a mentor (or two). Who are the people at your company you wish you could be like? Ask them for advice on your projects and offer to help them with theirs. By actively getting involved in certain tasks, you’ll not only improve your knowledge base but you’ll likely gain a reputation as a supportive coworker. This isn’t just smart networking; this will also create a congenial work atmosphere that you can grow in. There is, however, a fine line between being helpful and being a brown-noser. If you’re not genuinely interested in emulating your boss, she or he will catch on sooner or later.
Don’t get discouraged. The honeymoon phase will wear off and you may realize your new job isn’t perfect. No job is fun every hour of every day. At some point, you may even feel like quitting. If you get to that point, take a few deep breaths. On tough days, remind yourself of why you took this job in the first place and what your long-term career goals are. Even if you do decide that this role isn’t the right one for you, it always behooves you to base such a choice upon rational consideration rather than your emotions of the moment.
The learning curve of any job is hard to predict from the outset. And much like the first few weeks of school, the amount you need to learn can sometimes seem overwhelming. The most important thing you can do is be open to absorbing new information, even if it’s as inconsequential as where the bathrooms are or what the trick is to getting the printer to work.