5 tips for your first job

Summer jobs, internships, and part-time gigs in fast food seldom provide an accurate dress rehearsal for the “real world” of work. As a result, new grads are frequently surprised by their first professional experience — and not necessarily in a good way.

Rostislav Sedlacek | Getty Images

Rostislav Sedlacek | Getty Images

“Bart” left college with an excellent academic record. He had also held several student offices and been chosen for a couple of prestigious internships. Feeling well-prepared for his new career, Bart headed for his first day of work in a confident and optimistic frame of mind.

Six months later, however, Bart’s mood had changed from excitement to dejection. His manager seemed unresponsive and indifferent, coworkers ignored his ideas, and his mid-year performance review produced only a “meets expectations” rating. Work was not turning out to be anything like college.

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When making the leap from school to career, an understanding of basic realities can help to shorten the learning curve. So for this year’s crop of newbies, here are five fundamental workplace truths:

1. “Managing your boss” is a basic job requirement. If this is your first permanent, full-time position, then you have just acquired your first permanent, full-time boss. What no one ever tells you is that one of your key responsibilities is to make this relationship work.

Bosses are not like teachers, internship supervisors, or assistant managers at McDonald’s. This person can affect your pay, your assignments, your reputation, your future, and your overall quality of life for forty-plus hours per week. Like it or not, you will be together until one of you chooses to leave.

This particular boss may be friendly or remote, talented or incompetent, savvy or clueless, autocratic or inclusive — but it really doesn’t matter. You must figure out how to work well with whatever sort of manager you have. If you can master the art of “managing up,” your career will run a lot more smoothly.

2. Brilliance is not enough. You may be doing a bang-up job, but if no one knows who you are or what you do, good things won’t come your way. And if people find you hard to deal with, they are likely to avoid you no matter how smart you are.

“Jenna” greatly resented the fact that, despite being an extremely talented engineer, she was seldom selected for high-profile projects. But when a friend suggested that her exclusion might actually be caused by her extremely reserved personality, Jenna decided to make some changes.

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To correct the impression that she was an aloof, unfriendly loner, Jenna began asking colleagues for their opinions and occasionally joining them for lunch. Once people got to know her and realized how much she had to offer, Jenna was assigned to a new product team.

The moral of this story is that results are necessary for success, but not sufficient. Relationships and reputation are also key factors in the equation.

3. There may not be a trophy. The “trophy for everyone” culture has been hotly debated. Personally, I see nothing wrong with awarding a prize to each player on a team of six-year-olds. After all, who wants to demoralize a first-grader? But when twenty-somethings have been consistently told how incredibly special they are, the workplace can be a huge letdown.

“Glenn,” one of my coaching clients, frequently complained that his manager never offered enough praise for his accomplishments. He was also unhappy when he failed to receive as much public recognition as one of his colleagues.

Had he made these feelings known, Glenn would have been viewed as high maintenance and overly needy. Fortunately, he kept his thoughts to himself and gradually came to realize that no one receives continual applause at work.

4. Co-workers are not friends. A couple of times a month, I receive comments like this through our website:

  • “One of my colleagues refuses to develop any kind of relationship with me. If I attempt to start a friendly conversation, he says he needs to focus on his work. I think he is being extremely rude.”
  • “My boss recently moved my desk to separate me from a co-worker. Her annoying behavior causes me to react, and our conflicts have been getting progressively worse.”

You get to choose your friends, but someone else selects your co-workers, so the odds are quite good that you will not like all of them. But regardless of how you feel, you are expected to work with everyone in a pleasant, helpful, cooperative manner. You should also remember that some people undoubtedly find you irritating as well.

5. Learn to value history and experience. For her first appearance before the executive team, “Debra” spent hours creating an impressive set of slides. Graduate school professors had always praised her organized and thorough presentations, so she felt well-equipped to handle this meeting. But when the CEO interrupted after the second slide and suggested that she get to the point, Debra was completely thrown off track.

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Later, when she described this experience to an older colleague, he burst out laughing. “Sure wish I’d known you were going into the lion’s den,” he said. “I could have warned you that our CEO hates slides and always wants to hear the conclusion first.”

When you’re new, it’s important to “know what you don’t know.” If you take time to listen to the veterans, they might help you avoid some pitfalls. And if you show appreciation for their experience, they may be more open to your new ideas.

Commentary by Marie McIntyre, a career coach (www.yourofficecoach.com) and the author of “Secrets to Winning at Office Politics.” Follow her on Twitter @officecoach.

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