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Advice for Acing Your First Job

If you’re just starting your first corporate career*, you’re probably basking in the glow of “I have a job! Financial independence! Success!” You’re thinking you’re going to ace the job as long as you don’t make a fool of yourself by being 2 hours late first day to work. 


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While most people strive to not make a bad impression, they’re less focused on making a good impression, which is far more important.

It’s a lot easier to overlook an over-performer who is late a few times, than the under-performer who is also late. (See how the sentence is even framed differently?)

This guide comes in no small part from my experiences at Bain. Frankly, the fact that consultants learn these skills so quickly and so early is why we’re often seen as being on a “corporate fast track.” From that perspective, this guide might be useful for anyone needing a refresher on how to immediately win with a new manager. After all, every time you get a new manager (via a new job, a new company, a new role), you’ll have to prove yourself to some extent over again**! This guide is also not all-encompassing, there certainly are many other things you should be doing from day one. However, in the spirit of prioritization, this guide tackles the most common mistakes I believe fresh grads make.

* Including startups post-30ish people… basically for any job where you have a manager and you’re not hired to hustle and hack independently
** Yup you read that right, you have to prove yourself to your new team, even if your old team thought you were awesome. Think of it this way, Just because someone’s online dating profile is awesome, doesn’t mean you won’t want to meet him or her in person. The resume, even when bolstered by glowing reviews, only means so much, because your work success is a function of not only you, but also your team (including your manager)


How do you know you’re doing well in the workplace? Technically speaking, when you’re outperforming the level at which you’re supposed to be working at, which happens because your manager gives you challenging assignments, which happens because s/he trusts you, which happens because you’ve proven yourself. Politically speaking***, when people know you’re doing well on the job (imagine the impact of having the CEO personally championing you for a promotion!), respect you and want to work with you, and you have built a brand of awesomeness for yourself. 

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Fresh grads often take a long time to prove themselves on their first job because they…

  1. …walk in the door thinking they’re awesome (and therefore are slow to learn the skills they need technically need)
  2. …think about everything only from their perspective (and therefore are slow to manage their personal brand )

Even if you’re not a naturally egocentric person, this will still be true. There’s an inescapably strong bias to assume that you will do well at a job for which you successfully interviewed for. It seems obvious doesn’t it? But here’s a counter-example: at some point in the corporate hierarchy, you may be interviewing for a promotion to become a manager, even though you’ve never really managed people before!

In other words, don’t view an interview as a test of whether or not you will do the job well, view an interview as a test of whether or not you will be able to learn how to do the job well.

The interview doesn’t prove to anyone you’re awesome, only that you can be awesome. Acing a case interview does not mean you’ll crack every case that comes. It means you think logically enough that you can learn to solve cases that come.

Starting with the mindset that you’re already awesome is a block that slows down your learning and prevents you from actually being awesome. In fact, most businesses plan a 3–6 month window where fresh hires are basically deadweight. Ouch.

This guide is about showing you how to cut that 3–6 months down to 1–2, so you come flying out of the gate where everyone else is tripping over themselves, and set yourself up on a virtuous cycle for success.

***People may dislike this term, because the ideal is to strive for an company culture that eliminates politics by being totally transparent and open and honest. That’s great, but I want to be realistic. Politics will exist as long as implicit, unseen, subconscious bias exists, which may arguably be part of human nature


First, why is it not true that you’re awesome? Didn’t you just get the stellar job because of your awesome GPA or great experiences?dilbert_career_office

My first consulting project required a few primary research interviews. My manager asked me to lay out the questions I wanted to ask, then send them to her for approval. Then for each interview, both she and the other consultant on the case were to be present when I actually called the interviewees and conducted the interview. My reaction was o_O How inefficient is this??? I know how to interview someone and take notes for crying out loud!!! Plus, since the manager’s calendar is always packed, it was taking so much more time to drag on this process involving her at every step of the process. Out of childish arrogance, I actually snuck an interview by myself. She was not pleased.

But fact is, every time she and the other consultant reviewed my work, they vastly improved it. They streamlined my interview questions so much they were unrecognizable (surprisingly, they were the first to teach me the MECE principle). During the interviews while I was struggling to take notes, they were thinking ahead and asking smart questions — following relevant paths while leading away from rabbit holes in a way I couldn’t possibly have done.

Do you believe practice makes perfect? By your first day of the job, your manager had been doing that job for so many years and gotten so good that s/he has been promoted, that THAT is precisely why even for the most mundane tasks s/he will still know better than you. In the words of a friend who was an investment banker, on how investment bankers learned to work Excel magic so fast (knowing all the keyboard shortcut, the hands are like… carpal-tunnel-crazy-speed-10x): “well after awhile you realize, you either get it done quick, or you don’t sleep.”

The faster you convert the need to prove you can do the job by yourself into a desire to learn how to do the job better with others’ help, the faster you will actually be able to do the job well by yourself and prove it.

Even if you were hired because you are a savant in your field, the company will most likely have a standard way of doing things that you are not familiar with. If you are a developer, they may have a preferred style for writing and organizing code, of managing commits and comments. If you are a business analyst, there may be a set process for market sizing, a specific partner resource to work with for expert interviews or financial data. This effectively resets your skill level to beginner. That’s why some companies recruit on-campus with a clear career path (and in fact, it may be hard to get a job at these places if you’re not a fresh graduate anymore because they don’t know where you fit on their path!) — they want to shape graduates from various backgrounds/ schools into working the “company way.” That’s part of what building a corporate culture is all about!


Second, what do you mean think about everything only from my perspective? I have no idea how else I should be thinking about things.

Your manager’s job is not to manage you. His or her job is to achieve business goals via having you as a resource. At the same time, your manager has…

  • …his or her own career goals in mind. What if your manager greets you with a smile but secretly hates managing other people, especially fresh grads? What if s/he loves managing people but has no time because the business hasn’t allocated her work properly and overly burdened her with both management and actual work deliverable responsibilities? What if s/he is completely checked out because s/he has secretly been applying to other jobs****?
  • …a personal preference and style for management and working with others. What if your manager is very laissez-faire and doesn’t give you any direction but has no problem yelling at you when you ultimately get something wrong? What if your manager is very controlling and walks by your desk every hour casually checking in on your monitor?

Oh and by the way, all of those nuances above not only extend to your manager, but also your team, since everyone on your team will impact your work success. (Remember group projects and how you’re always waiting on that last someone to get their stuff together?) You need to get a pulse and read on your manager and team members ASAP!

People are, for better or worse, terribly susceptible to bias. When you make someone happy, they’ll remember you. If you are the reason, by the work that you do, that your manager gets promoted for exceeding business goals, s/he’ll fight to keep you working with him/her (which may mean a promotion for you!). This is often why consultants get re-hired. We do great work, our clients get promoted, and they hire us again.

If you’re not the reason your manager gets promoted, then definitely don’t be the reason s/he does not get promoted. If that happens, you’ll start a vicious cycle where people actively avoid working with you!

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The faster you realize your success is not about being awesome yourself but about making other people awesome, the faster you will actually be seen as awesome.

****If your first manager is totally checked out, then that unfortunately wasn’t a great staffing call by the business. But there may not have been other options, or the business may not even have known about it. You should still try your best anyway (who knows? your departing manager may hire you some day!), and then definitely ensure that your old manager and new manager get together and talk extensively about all the awesome work you’ve done


Let’s pause for a moment, because I’ve delivered 2 very paradoxical truths: To have a good career…

  1. …you must have the technical chops, but to have these chops means recognizing you do NOT have them and always humbly learning from others.
  2. …you must have a good brand for yourself, but to build this brand means NOT focusing on yourself but focusing on helping others achieve their goals and their successes.

Reread until it sinks in, please!

Now let’s get to the how. Your manager likely is familiar with all of the above (having probably lived it himself/herself a few times already!). Your manager is going to walk into his/her first meeting with you somewhat excited about working with someone new, but also somewhat nervous about working with someone unproven and untested.

If you’re like I was and all the other fresh grads out there, you’ll be prepared to speak with confidence phrases like “yup, I totally got that, get it, that’s very doable, sure, no problem, you want it by the end of the week? no problem!” And your manager will nod having heard it all before.

What if instead you spoke (just as confidently!) in phrases like, “yup, I understand what you’re saying right now, but since we’re just starting to work together, I want to check in with you after I’ve dived in a little deeper to make sure I’m understanding correctly; end of the week sounds fine but I’d like to give you a status update before then to make sure I’m on track with my work. By the way before we leave today, can you send me some samples of work that you really like so I can get a sense of what your style is? I know I’m new, but I’m very confident in my abilities to learn quickly how to do well here!”

If I were your manager, I would be so happy I would… I don’t know, because it hasn’t happened yet!

Jump the gun — you want to do what your manager wants you to do and you asked to do it before s/he even suggested it!

That’s the underlying rule behind my tips below, the 4 most important things I think you should get right on day one.

Tip #1: Kill the radio silence

Even the most laissez-faire manager will probably want you to check-in a little more frequently than they’d normally prefer on your first job together (especially if it’s your first job period). From a manager’s perspective, once your first meeting is over, s/he is kind of thinking… what are you doing? Are you doing it right? Are you just sitting there and procrastinating on Facebook with no idea of what you’re doing? Maybe you’ve felt the same about suspect group members on group projects before?

Proactively tell your manager you want to check-in once a day, not necessarily in-person based on schedules, but at minimum with an end-of-day update. This probably seems ridiculously tedious, but think of it these ways:

  • You will, faster than everyone else, figure out how to do things the “right company” way and therefore get the reins loosened up much more quickly. Daily check-ins, when done right, after 1–3 weeks can give your manager so much comfort that you can change to weekly check-ins for the next few months.
  • If you don’t speak up yourself, your manager is going to feel like s/he has to nag you (and may actually do it if they’re not so easy going). What would you prefer?
  • Bonus: these emails are a great way for you to keep track of what you’ve been doing as a to-do list, and a great list of proof points for your manager to refer back to when writing a review of your work!
 
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When you check-in with your manager, either in-person or in an written email, take 30 minutes (seriously, because this will also improve your ability to summarize information succinctly) to appropriately structure the check-in with these 3 parts:

  1. Bottleneck to goal — What you need your manager’s help with (see tip #3)
  2. Plan toward goal — What you will do through to next check-in & beyond, assuming bottlenecks are resolved
  3. Progress toward goal — What you did since last check-in, justifying why there’s a bottleneck now

(This may seem in exact reverse order, but it’s a part of Bain’s “answer-first” training. In the professional world, it’s much more efficient to basically take things from a logical order, and reverse them. But that’s a separate story.)

If the check-in is via email, put the month/ date first, so your manager can easily organize your check-ins in a folder.

In sharing progress, share work samples, even if it’s just an outline or a rough idea, and then gradually fill it out. Your goal is to erase the question: “what is that kid doing over there” from your manager’s mind. Again, I understand there’s a natural tendency to wait until the final moment to show off something amazing — so impressive to go from zero to hero right? But remember, the reality is you’re not that skilled yet (and certainly not in the company’s way of doing things), so you’re probably going to go from zero to redo. Checking-in will catch mistakes early and actually enable you to be a hero. Remember the paradoxes!

Tip #2: Slice deadlines

This marries super well with frequent check-ins. Because you’re not that skilled yet, you’re probably going to need to go from zero to ok-draft to getting-better to awesome. If you ask your manager when s/he wants the completed product, s/he’ll probably think…

Hmm, we need to have a completed product by Friday, but I am out in meetings all day Friday which means I need to look at the product on Thursday, but that means by Thursday it should be roughly finalized, which means that we need to allow all of Thursday and potentially half of Wednesday for revisions, which means I need to see a first draft early on Wednesday, which, gosh, given that today is Monday, means that we need to get started ASAP!

Jump the gun, tell him/her you want to share a draft by Wednesday, and then share a more final version by Thursday. Slice that deadline into smaller, mini-deadlines! Even if that draft is nothing more than an outline of what a deck will look like, or a few napkin-sketches of what a prototype will be. By the way, this technique is good for procrastinators, and is also why procrastination just won’t be successful (I wrote separately about procrastination here). 

wally explains it all

By giving these mini-deadlines with your manager, you also practice time management. If it’s Tuesday 5pm and the draft is not done, you should not stop work until it is, because your manager is expecting something from you (and you want to make a good impression but showing that you can uphold deadlines that you set for yourself right?). This might sound harsh, like I’m telling you to ruin your life, but it’s actually the exact opposite. See, fresh grads don’t know time management (my theory is that there are too many distractions in college for people to actually practice the rigor of time management that the workplace requires). Time management, however, is one of the most important soft skills you need to learn for a happy work-life balance. People learn from trying and making mistakes, and trying again. If Tuesday 5pm was way too little time, then you’ll learn to set a looser deadline the next time. If by Tuesday 3pm you’re finally logging off Facebook, you’ll learn to not procrastinate next time.

Tip #3: Ask answers

In the above tips, I’ve advised you to:

  • Instead of: When would you like me to check-in? Say: I’d like to check-in daily because we just started working together & I want to make sure we’re always on the same page, is that OK?
  • Instead of: When do you want to see this? Say: Given that the finished product is on Friday and we probably need a few days to iterate on changes, I think I’d like to share a first draft by Wednesday, is that OK?

Following that same logic, do not ask questions outright; rather ask if an answer you have is right (state a hypotheses you have and ask for feedback) — The right question to ask is actually an answer! 

are there any questions?

This shifts the burden of thinking on you, which is beneficial because it…

  1. …hones your skills faster
  2. …frees up more of your manager’s time (for which your manager will be very grateful)

When checking-in with a bottleneck, even if process related, you can apply the same logic: Instead of: I need you to tell me what the growth rate for the industry was over the last 5 years. Say: We need the historical growth rate, I’ve been talking with some colleagues, and it looks like the best way to get this data would be to consult with an expert panel, which will cost us $X. Would you agree with that approach? If so, I’ll reach out to experts tomorrow morning.

The implication is also that you never say “I don’t know.” When your manager questions your work: Instead of: I don’t know why that looks weird. Say: Good question, I haven’t thought about it that way but I’m glad you brought it to my attention. I think it may be because of X reason, but let me look into it a bit further and get back to you.

For a manager, if you don’t know why something is the way it is with your work, then who does? Moreover, your manager’s confidence in your work and you comes entirely into question the minute you don’t know. Even for work that you did not do (but that you are now responsible for), “I don’t know” is not a valid excuse.

I’m going to stop here, because I wrote an entire other post on when & how to ask for help that you should read with more insight.

Tip #4: Be like 007

Remember the section on how your success = helping others succeed? Well, first you need to know how other people define success. You need to do some sleuthing. Before I start a project, take on a job, I always do my due diligence on the business and the team I’m going to work with, especially focused on my manager.

Here are some questions to think about:

About the business… (I assume you’ll have asked tons of other questions already before having accepted an offer, but these are more poignant with respect to career development)

  • What are the mission, vision, values, and culture of the business?
  • How well does the business support professional development, coaching, and career paths?

Get the skinny from: friends of friends (i.e., your personal contacts) who work there.

About the team…

  • How long have the team been working together? 
    Is it a tight knit group that’s been the same for a long time and you’re the new person, or is it a highly fluctuating group where everyone is kind of new to working together?
  • How does the team work together?
    What are team norms? E.g., weekly check-ins together, team works rather collaboratively on one big project, or team functions as loose association of individuals working on totally different things.
  • Are there team members that I will need to directly work with?
    If so, you should do research on that individual as well, trying to gauge his/her working style and professional goals/ motivations, similar to the manager questions below.

Get the skinny from: your potential manager (of the team), the potential team members directly.

About the manager…

  • What is his/her working style?
    Does s/he like working together in collaborative settings, or prefer his/her own space and privacy to think? Is s/he all about the bigger picture or should you present the details?
  • What is his/her management style?
    Is s/he more laissez-faire or more controlled? How frequently would s/he want to check-in with you? Does s/he want to see all your work before it’s released? Is s/he very direct or more subtle, requiring you to read between the lines?
  • How is s/he with respect to professional development?
    Does s/he like helping develop others? Is s/he more about coaching, asking questions and prodding you to figure out the answer yourself, or more about giving you direct feedback, which is more efficient but may blunt your opportunities to learn?
  • How is s/he with respect to receiving coaching from you?
    Great managers become better managers by asking you for help and welcoming it.
  • What are his/her professional goals?
    Is s/he actively looking for a new job or new role?
  • What are his/her business goals with respect to our work together?
    Is there a very tight deadline the business has with very far-reaching targets meaning we should click ASAP so we can move fast?

Get the skinny from: both past and current individuals that the manager is managing at the current and previous companies (you’ll want to know if someone left the company because of an experience working with the manager). Preferably personal contacts.

To be honest, it’s never too late to conduct these questions, even once you’ve started a job. It’s common knowledge that a mismatch in a role has a magnified negative effect on productivity and potentially even on culture (e.g., one bad apple can rot the whole bushel). Granted this means that you should conduct the research before you take the new role, but even if after day 1 you discover a mismatch, say something! While all but the most enlightened companies will be upset at this waste of their time (recruiting is very expensive), if at the end of a horrible year you quit or are fired anyway, that level of upset will be at least as high anyway. What will change is that you’ll have saved both of you that horrible year. (Frame it as such and maybe they won’t even get so upset, good luck!)

If the research shows that there are a lot of un-ideal things, take these into account as you apply the tips above. Be fluid and adaptable, and always read people and situations.

For example, friends have told me that their direct reports check-in too much, for the most mundane tasks, and this interrupts their own work. This phenomenon could be a consequence of any mix of 3 potential things:

  • The business has mis-allocated a greater % of the manager’s time to work than should be. The more you manage someone, the less “real” work you should have. But again because by definition managers can do the work really well, some businesses try to cram efficiency.
  • Your manager may not want to manage you. Management is not for everyone, but some individuals end up in these roles anyway.
  • The assignment is not challenging enough. If you’re doing everything exactly right from hour 1 to hour 24, maybe you should ask for more challenging work (before you ask to check-in less, since again, your goal should be to get challenging work that requires you to check-in and grow)

Remember: while the company doesn’t know you’re awesome yet, it at least thinks you have the potential to be awesome. That alone is worth the right to negotiate for a role where you’ll actually be able to prove you’re worth it.


And that’s it! Take these 4 tips to heart, and honestly, you will really impress! You’ll know how to work the work, rather than just knowing how to do the work. Best of luck, and please leave comments with questions or other tips you’ve personally found useful!

And if you liked this and are curious what other lessons I took away from consulting, you can find another article I wrote about that here.


NOTE FOR MANAGERS OF FRESH GRADS

I’ve been trying to emphasize that success is a two-way street, both parties have to emphasize with one another. So this post has shared the manager’s perspective with fresh grads. (Hopefully I’ve represented it well!) Conversely, managers should also encourage and support these practices. They may feel tedious, especially if you’re used to managing more experienced folks, but it’s important to the long run success of your direct reports. I’ve jotted down a few analogs that I think are important to keep in mind for each tip:

  1. Kill the radio silence — to the extent that it’s in your power, give an assignment suitably challenging that will merit more frequent check-ins. Actively devote time to review and respond to check-ins. The first slide I ever made for Bain was an absolute disaster, not because it was bad objectively (I think anyway), but because it wasn’t Bain-style. What would have been better? You spending 30 minutes at the end of the day to summarize everything wrong about it, or you taking 5 minutes, 3 times earlier that day to look at pencil sketches? A good rule-of-thumb for these early check-ins: don’t let your direct reports do anything on computer that they haven’t sketched out by hand.
  2. Slice deadlines — hold your direct report to the mini-deadlines! Being nice is helpful in the short run, but hurtful in the long run. Think like a parent and remember, you’re not trying to be best friends, you’re trying to be a good professional coach and mentor.
  3. Ask answers — don’t give direct answers, push your direct reports to solve it themselves or propose a hypothesis first. This is also a great pattern to practice in terms of providing coaching not feedback.
  4. Be like 007 — encourage people to do due diligence (everyone is always so lazy about it because they don’t realize how important it is until something doesn’t go right!) by being transparent yourself. Share with your direct reports your own development goals and strengths/weaknesses as a manager. And above all, encourage them to coach you on how to do better. Finally, do your own due diligence on your new direct report! Don’t just take the fact that they’re now working for you as a given, especially if you did not participate in their recruitment process. Talk to the folks who interviewed them, read their resume. This will also support you in trying to give them an appropriately challenging assignment as discussed in #1.

The post was originally published on James' Medium page


These are the things I muse about while building an on-demand rental & delivery service for outdoors recreational equipment. Check it out at www.lastmingear.com.

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