Not just a job: 7 tips for new grads with new jobs

John Hillen offers his best advice for new graduates starting new jobs but there also is something in here for all of us.

As the Executive-in-Residence at a business school with over 4,000 students, I get a lot of chances to talk with students about jobs and careers. Given that it is graduation season followed by (hopefully!) entry level employment, I share here what I’ve been telling new grads about their first job:

No doubt all of you have gotten great advice of what to do when you show up for your first post-college professional job: “work hard,” “be a team player,” “be on time,” “look them in the eye,” “don’t hit reply all,” and so on. All good practical advice meant to help you succeed in your first real job.

Then there is the inspiring but probably unhelpful advice given in many virtue-signaling commencement speeches about “following your passion,” “being true to yourself,” “building your own path,” or even “put something back into the flow of history that will help your community 40 years from now.” Now, if you are one of those once-in-a-lifetime iconoclasts at 22 years old, this is great advice.

There is a place for that thinking, of course, but for new grads/new employees it puts you at the center - indeed top - of your new universe - when instead I think most of you should be thinking about how you fit into and serve the greater enterprise you’ll join.

If you want to follow a passion in your first job and you’re not working for yourself, park your own passion for a bit and see if you can figure out what the passion of the company is. Then try to make that passion your focus. Don’t worry - being a part of a larger human enterprise and team will not rob you of your individualism or humanity.

Both sets of advice - the “head down and work hard” school and the “make a dent in the universe school” miss the mark in helping new grads and new employees with what usually takes 15 years for professionals to figure out: the difference between a job or series of jobs…and a career.

Day one of your first job is not only around the corner, but day one of a long career starts on the same day! They are two different things.

Of course, you must buckle down and succeed in your new job – because success and accomplishment in what you are being paid to do underpins everything. But you also need to take steps during your first job to shape your career. 

It’s a little extra work, and a different mind-set, but it helps you in the day-to-day as well. 

So, here are seven tips I learned that will help you not just with your job but in starting and shaping your career:

Learn to Manage Up

This is a hard skill and you need to work on it early. The last time I failed to effectively manage “up” – I got fired. And I was an award-winning CEO! Do not take for granted, even after your first week on the job, that you and your boss are on the same sheet of music about how you will be successful in her eyes.

Don’t wait on the HR system to capture it in the evaluation process. Ask! Have a regular dialogue with your boss where you have a simple conversation about expectations and feedback. “What’s going well? What’s not going so well? What could I do better? What do you need from me? Here is what you could do that would help me hit your goals.” It’s amazing to me how many people (including me at times) are happier to operate in the dark.

Model the “Wells

Dr. Robert Franklin, a former president of Morehouse College, told his college students to be “Well-Read, Well-Spoken, Well-Traveled, Well-Dressed, and Well-Balanced.”

I could go on and on about the wisdom of this advice – and advise you to look up Dr. Franklin’s own explanations for it, but it really speaks for itself.

Think of the people whom you don’t yet know in a way that their special or unusual talents are evident. Until you know that – if indeed you ever find those out -- you’re far more likely (and so is your boss, customer, or co-worker) to have a good impression of someone with characteristics of the Five Wells.

In our new book we add two further “Wells” for leaders. Be Well-Reflected and Well-Experienced. Those two are also very healthy behaviors even in your first job where you are not leading anyone yet.

Observe and Recognize Behaviors

Speaking of behaviors, turn yourself into a behavioral scientist at work. And observation is your method. I’ve always been a mimic – but with a purpose and a discerning eye. I would look around the organization and see whose behavior was garnering positive responses and results, and whose was turning people off and impeding progress. Then I’d try to understand and model the former behavior in a way that was authentic to me.

Simple, eh? But you’d be surprised at how many people are blind to this process.

American business titan Warren Buffet said that a key for him was “emulating those you admire and adopting the qualities they possess.” Study after study has shown that the single biggest influencer on culture in a workplace is the behavior of its leaders. Learn how to tell good from bad behavior in subtle ways and if you integrate your version of the good into your own behaviors, other people will see it and mark you as helping create a positive and successful climate.

Be Curious

I have a friend who ended his career as the CEO of a $12 billion global health care company. When he started he was simply a financial analyst in the corporate development department – not exactly at the center of the action in a firm that made its money from medical devices and other innovations.

But he was remarkably curious. He sat at lunch with the scientists and doctors (uninvited sometimes). He volunteered his extra time to help them in their work with his financial skills. He asked questions of them to learn how they made decisions and processed information. His curiosity and willingness to follow it with his time and energy to help others eventually earned him the CEO role.

Genuinely curious people who are willing to take on extra duties to learn new things stand out right away from their peers.

Build A Strategic Network

About halfway through their career, most executives learn the secret contained in Sid Fuch’s book Get Off The Bench. That their strategic network and strategic relationships are the most powerful asset they have. And then they scramble to assemble this critical foundation of most successful careers.

But, as Sid points out, if you wait until you need a relationship, it is too late to build it at that point. So, start now. A strategic network is NOT the 10 – 12 people you work around everyday that help you accomplish your job. Or your close professional friends. Network scholars call those operational and personal networks.

Your strategic network is composed of people outside your immediate professional circle who might help pull you into certain circles, provide key information, or open future opportunities.

It might not be obvious at this stage in your career about how they could be relevant but as you deliberately form a strategic network it becomes clearer. For instance, you may have nothing to do with finance in your company right now, but you well might down the road. And getting to know someone in the finance department now gives you a connection there for the future.

Like all good relationships, it has to be based on reciprocity and trust – not just something transactional. And in-person! Not virtual. You may ask what you could bring to a strategic relationship at this early point in your career. Well, perhaps nothing tangible right now – but willingness counts for a lot. Try this: end every conversation with a senior person with “and please do let me know if I can ever do anything for you.” You may get some bemused looks from a senior executive, but they will also mark you as someone who knows how to build a network or relationship the right way.

Keep Score

Your generation has been brought up in a much more collaborative and team-oriented environment than mine. And, on balance the world is probably a better place for it. But the team orientation can hinder your understanding of your own accomplishments in your first job. I’ve found that young professionals with four or five years on the job sometimes have a hard time articulating their achievements. They can talk about the team they were on at this company or that company, and what the team did. But when I push for individual accomplishments they often come up dry. But I was likely looking to hire an individual – not a team.

You need to keep score at the individual level and assemble a body-of-work for which you can take credit or ownership. When you leave your team, they are not coming along to help you manage your career – you’ll be on your own. Sort of like an athlete who gets traded to a new team. The team stats are NOT coming with him – just his own and how they contributed to the team results. Know your stats and how they made the team accomplish things. None of this kind of thinking is meant to encourage not being team oriented or piling up self-serving results. But, YOU are the one who will make a move in a few years and you need to have evidence of who you are and what you can do – not the resume of your old team.

Be A Systems Thinker

Too many new employees are in the dark about how things connect in their enterprise because that information is not in their welcome packet or it might seem like it's none of their business. But you become so much more effective – so much more powerful in your ability to contribute if you know why things are the way they are. Why do you use this tool or vendor rather than that one? Why does the CEO announce this financial goal one quarter and a different one the next? Why did your competition go one way and your company went a different way?

Ask, probe, inquire! Most people don’t. It is easier for them to try and fill in their own theories sometimes. I guarantee you that in your first week on the job you will run into the mid-level manager know-it-all (usually in the break room, they tend to hang around there…a lot!) who will give you a cynical and incomplete explanation for these or one hundred other questions of the sort.

Find out yourself how it all connects and why the enterprise does things the way it does. When I ran organizations, I would not only try to find out what my shareholders wanted from me and the organization, but what their shareholders wanted from them, and what a further set of shareholders wanted from my shareholders’ shareholders and so on.

Everything connects – mostly for understandable reasons – and you’ll be better at your job and able to see more clearly into your future if you learn to put these pieces together of your own accord.

So, you’re off to your first job post-graduation. Have fun in it, contribute, make a positive difference,….all that good stuff. But remember that you are not just starting a job but starting a career. The earlier you layer on these actions and mindsets, the less likely you are to look back in three years and say with regret: “I wonder how what I just did helps me with what I want to do next?”