Commencement addresses are commencing. The season is upon us when eager and optimistic college students will be entering the workplace for the first time to begin a career that could last upwards of 40 years.
It’s an exciting time but not one without understandable angst. Before a grad crosses this threshold from student to employee, it’s in his best interest to consider the monumental culture shift he’s about to experience.
The entry into the workplace for the very first time delivers an abrupt and unexpected shock to the psyche. It can be disorienting, overwhelming, and alienating. He’s about to enter a world that lacks the prescription and predictability of the college life he knows so well.
Following is a reflection of the social skills and soft skills new grads need to mitigate this cultural tumult and to get their workplace reputations started on the right foot. This is the real world where you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Giving some strategic forethought to this unique time can help a new grad avoid some of the frustration, confusion, and disappointment as she embarks on this new journey.
Here is the advice and wisdom I would share if I were to address a graduating class. They’re lessons learned from my years in the trenches.
1 - Focus on Creating Relationships
You’re brand new. You probably don’t know anyone. No one really cares one way or the other what’s going to happen to you. You are the nameless, faceless new kid.
To change this, make it your number one priority to create relationships right away.
Give your new colleagues a reason to get to know you. To make favorable first impressions, be mindful of how you present yourself and how you communicate. Proactively introduce yourself. Look people in the eyes and offer a firm handshake. Have a sentence or two ready when they ask about you.
Hi, I’m Jenna. I’m new on the accounting team. I just finished up at UMass where I majored in finance. Even though I am now in the working world, I’m hoping to continue volunteering with animal rescue and playing soccer. (This serves as a hook for a further inquiry).
So, how about you? (This is a broad rebound. How they respond will give you clues about their priorities, interests, or capabilities. Then inquire further.)
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Ask people about themselves that goes beyond their job responsibilities. People connect with other people mostly on a personal basis.
Look at the items they keep on their desk and ask about them.
Eavesdrop on social conversations colleagues are having and chime in.
Introduce yourself to all admins and ask their advice about who you should meet (They know everyone and will probably give you the lo-down on who to meet and who to avoid).
2 - Be Strategic in Your Relationship Building
Focus on building a network of colleagues who can help you succeed at your current job but also advance your career. Keep in mind that a workplace is a heterogeneous place. Typically there will be people of different generations, cultures, philosophies, politics. Embrace what they can teach you.
Your goal isn’t necessarily to become friends with your new colleagues. You may, but that’s not the objective. Instead, you are intentionally forming relationships that will outlast this job and could pay dividends for many years of your career. As you will one day learn, you will probably get most of your subsequent jobs from people you have relationships with.
Be very mindful of the relationship you form with your boss. Keep in mind, bosses are human and flawed people. They have their own agenda. Try to look at their role from their perspective. Consider the stress of responsibility they carry. They won’t necessarily be your guidance counselor but if you operate to ensure the team’s success, you will incentivize him or her to support your growth.
Soon after starting your new job, sit down with your boss and ask, “How can I offer you the most value in my position?” After she picks herself up off the floor, she will give you the clues. Listen carefully. These are her priorities and probably what she’s measured on. If you do this right, she may become your biggest advocate getting you on the radar of people well above her.
As time goes by and you form some relationships, continue to invest in them. Seek out opportunities for mentorship relationships. Evaluate who has taken some interest in your success. Most people feel inspired to help others who appreciate their experience and wisdom.
John, I have really enjoyed getting to know you over my first few months. You seem to know a lot about the business. I would love the opportunity to learn more from you. I’ve heard of some companies having mentor programs. I’m not sure if this company has something like that but I can see value in the arrangement. Would you be open to doing something like that with me?
To make a mentorship relationship work, be coachable. That means have the guts and humility to accept direction and feedback. Be brave and request it proactively. Then assess its merits and course correct your behavior and performance accordingly.
3 - Learn to Communicate Well
Relationships are formed through the conversations you have. Live conversations. Rely predominantly on face-to-face interaction or voice exchanges especially when starting off. Take the extra time to walk by someone’s office or call them on the phone. Chances are a quick question can turn into a more engaging conversation. This is when people get to know one another. By taking advantage of every opportunity to have live dialogue, you’ll build rapport faster.
Be mindful of any habit you have to rely extensively on technology to communicate. While everyone these days is attached to their phone, be different and put yours away. This alone will set you apart from your peers. There is a time and place for electronic communication but it’s far more productive to discuss complex ideas or questions live. It’s more efficient and avoids the perils of things getting lost in translation.
When meeting new colleagues, be proactive and introduce yourself. You’ll be nervous but it will be worth it. Have your two-sentence intro top of mind.
When I started my first job, I had to attend a company happy hour with a mix of employees from different company locations. I knew I had to just get out there. Like diving into a cold pool, I just stepped forward and started introducing myself. Two things happened from that boldness. One, my boss saw me do this and he was impressed. And two, the people I met remembered me long after so I set a reputation for myself from day one.
4 - Embrace Your Ignorance
When you start in the workplace as a new grad, you will not know things. You’ll be clueless about everything from procedure to culture. Do your best to keenly observe and try to figure things out first. However, there will come a point when you just won’t know the answer.
So ask for help.
Don’t be afraid that colleagues will judge you for not knowing things. It’s expected and understood. Plus everyone else has been in this same position before. Leverage their empathy while you have it.
When you do make a mistake, which you inevitably will, be brave and fess up. Everyone has made mistakes before and by owning up to it you will protect your early reputation as being honest and courageous. If you run from your mistakes, you will eventually get caught or you’ll suffer the fate of probably making the same mistakes again.
Don’t deny yourself these valuable learning opportunities.
5 - Learn to Work Well with Others
Get comfortable with the idea of working with different kinds of people.
The workplace is a little microcosm of the rest of the world. You may not agree with everything you see or hear but that’s okay. Someone else’s opinion is just as valid as your point of view. Accept and respect that there will be differences in the workplace from generational to political. Keep it professional and don’t be baited into gossip or in choosing sides. Learn to play nice and keep your decorum.
Get comfortable working in teams. Sorry to say, even the introverts will have to work in teams. Every employer seems to expect this skillset. Approach these interactions strategically. By first observing the dynamic among teammates, you can get a sense of who is respected and who isn’t. This can help you navigate your work relationships.
But learn how to participate in ways that add the most value. Initially, observe and listen more than talk but eventually bring forth suggestions or solutions confidently. Your ideas may or may not be embraced but that’s not the point. The point is to exercise your muscle of confidence.
6 - Default to Being Proactive
Unlike college where everything is outlined and predictable, the workplace is not. Answers are not simply given. They are sought and found or sometimes invented. You are in your new role not to be fulfilled but to solve problems.
Take it upon yourself to push outside the defined job description. This is your time to develop a habit of being creative and finding solutions. This will serve you for the rest of your career. While it’s both scary and exciting to venture where you’ve never gone before, the rewards can be worth it. Realize that being bold brings rewards the meek can never claim.
7 - Have Patience and Humility
The start of a new job is a time of non-stop learning. It’s a time of absorbing everything you can. From how to be a productive employee to how to be a respected colleague. This processing takes time and in some ways never really stops.
Try to be patient as you work through this uncomfortable stage. It won’t last forever. You’ll know when you’ve earned your stripes when you are able to teach instead of just learn.
But remember everyone must pay their dues. The youngest generations entering the workforce may not want to accept this. Employers are not obliged to consider your needs or interests. You are there to help solve their problems.
Even if you don't think you should pay dues, you eventually will. It may not come from hazing or sabotage by mean-spirited colleagues, but it will come from the mistakes you will inevitably make. No one climbs the learning curve without scrapes and bruises.
8 - Stay Optimistic and Focused on Your Bright Future
The beginning of your new career is an exciting time. Probably never in your professional life will you come to a job with more hope and optimism. The working world is fresh and abundant and you only see unlimited potential. Hold on to this perspective for as long as you can.
Part of the culture shock will be interacting with difficult people who have grown a thick hide of cynicism about the workplace and their progression in it. Yes, the workplace is rife with politics and unfairness but so is life. Try to rise above all of this and be smart about navigating around workplace toxicity. Leave it for those that have nothing good to say.
Like how it goes in life, everything in your workplace will eventually change. People will come and go, organizational priorities will shift, your capabilities will grow. Your mentors will retire or your company will get bought out.
Remember the only constant in all of this is you and no one will care more about your career and your development as much as you do. Prioritize investing in yourself from the earliest days through how you comport yourself in all you do. This will become hardwired and will be the biggest factor in your eventual success.
Who in your life could you share this advice with (if not yourself)? Share this post with your HR department who may find it helpful as an on-boarding resource for new graduates/new employees.
What other advice would you give new graduates about how to start off well in their new jobs? Share it in the comments section.