Some Quick Sage Advice for Young Employees Early in Their Careers

Posted on Dec 10, 2012 | 81 comments


My wife & I have a close friend who recently entered the workforce for his first-ever job. On his first day of work my wife was kind enough to write down words of wisdom from her years on the job.

I don’t write about Tania very often – mostly at her request. Otherwise I’d shout from the mountain tops how smart & capable she is. She’s a Brown undergrad, Wharton MBA, ex strategy consultant and ex Googler. She’s worked for L’Oreal, Accenture, Virgin Mobile & BSkyB (one of the leading media companies in the UK).

She is the disciplined, organized and detail-oriented member of the Suster household. And she’s one hell of mom, with her super-motivational schoolwork & music completion charts with daily measurements and appropriate rewards for hitting milestones.

You know now why I would take her advice for new employees. She’s “type A” and I’m “type ADD.”

She gave me a special one-time permission to write about her in a blog post so I could publish the advice she gave our friend. So consider this my first-ever guest blog post. With a tiny bit of ghost writing from me ;-). Cheesy stock photo mine, not hers.

Hope you enjoy.

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Secrets of the real world – stuff I learned the hard way

General Advice

  1. Don’t expect constructive feedback without asking directly for it. Most businesses have formal programs in place to give you feedback. Most bosses are too busy to put in the real effort to help you. Many just ask you to fill out the forms for them. It becomes more administrative than constructive. If you ask for feedback in a pleasant, non-defensive way you will likely get it.
  2. You won’t really have a mentor unless lightening strikes. But if you seek one out, most talented employees would gladly become your informal mentor. This can be your most valuable career management tool so use it. It can be a great way to build advocates that will move mountains for you in the future.
  3. People won’t communicate expectations clearly (you must ask, clarify, ask again). Knowing the expectations of your senior employees (and peers) is invaluable to your success and asking people’s expectations is the clearest way to get them to think about it in the first place. The easiest way to beat expectations is for you and your boss to agree them two-ways and check on progress periodically.
  4. Constructive criticism stings, but we all need it. So seek it out, push for real feedback and be open to hearing it whether you agree or not. If you’re defensive you’ll never get real criticism. It’s much easier for your boss to avoid the confrontation or putting the time into thinking through what you could do better.
  5. Don’t overly rely on HR. Make your boss and her boss your primary allies. Your career is best navigated though line managers. HR should be able to manage the sensitive information you give them separate from your line managers but in my experience they do not so be careful. They are not your free psychoanalysts.
  6. Show up early. You may be a morning person – you may not. But nothing gets noticed more than which employees constantly turn up late. Even if bosses say they don’t care – they do. Nothing tarnishes your reputation more quick than being THAT person. The one always slipping in late.
  7. Be humble. Nobody cares where you went to school or how great of a student you were. Get over yourself. Don’t be arrogant. Don’t try to act like a managing partner from day 1. It’s OK to be junior. Nobody expects you to be managing the whole division. In fact, they’ll resent you if you try to act like you are.
Working with Your Boss
Sit down with your boss asap and tell her you want to do an amazing job. Ask her:
  • What could I do to exceed your expectations? What have past employees done that made your life much easier? What tips would you pass along from the most successful employees who have had this job?
  • What is the worst thing I could do in this job that you want me to avoid?
  • Whom should I emulate? Who is great in this role that I should learn from?
  • How can I best help you?
  • Where is the best bar around here? [Kidding, that's Mark ad-libbing. don't ask that!]
What to do in Your First Weeks
  • Interview your peers, people in your role/team: set up a meeting and ask them same questions as above, plus:
  • How can I best work with my boss, what does she love/hate?
  • What mistakes did you make that I can avoid?
What is Your Job, Really?
  • Your job is to make your boss’s job easier – to help your boss succeed.  Always have that in mind even if it’s not in your immediate job description
  • NEVER bring your boss a problem without bringing him a few potential solutions (I wrote about this here “Bring Me Solutions, Not Problems”). Be associated with problem solving, not problems, it creates a positive halo around you
  • Say “yes” to work even when don’t want to. Everybody loves employees who take on projects with enthusiasm. The world is filled with people who sigh when assigned work.
  • BUT if you do become overwhelmed with work it’s ok to say “I need your help prioritizing my tasks because I have too much on my plate.”  Make it a positive thing. The worst thing is to take on too much work and under-deliver.
Other Notes
  • Schedule in your calendar and in your bosses calendar a few check in meetings and ask for feedback and make it a formal conversation. Prepare them in advance by providing a list of the things you’re working on developing and tell them you’d love feedback on how to improve at those things.  You might want to preface with “I want to learn how I’m doing so I can improve, please give me constructive criticism!” Mostly you don’t want them to feel like these meetings are obligations, reasons for hours of preparations or ways for you to be defensive about your job.
  • So take the feedback on and don’t get defensive. The more you get positive measurement on your work the more likely your boss will be aware of it at the annual review time. Make sure to thank you for his time (he is likely busier than you are, after all!)
  • After you feel stable in your role and with your relationship with your boss – make sure to get to know your boss’s boss. Don’t let your boss love you but his boss not know who you are! This WILL come in handy in your career but you have to manage this cautiously.

Welcome to the rest of your life, I know you will do great!

[What advice do you have for employees? Would love to hear in the comments section more advice]

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    thanks, peter. and congrats!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    If your boss is too busy to spend time – it is definitely not a great sign. BUT it is not uncommon either. If you are polite about how you ask and keep your meetings short usually you can get on their radar. And if you’re prepared for the meeting even better. The key is – you have to ask.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I think you’re missing the point. It is not that you don’t bring your boss the problem, it’s that you don’t bring it to them without thinking through how it might be solved first. Don’t make them do all the work.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    As I said in the post – stock photo was 100% me. What can I do to improve? I know how bad they are when I see them but don’t have ideas to find higher quality images. Advice?

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Or the saying is …

    Behind every successful man is a very surprised woman ;-)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    amen, lee

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    thanks, chris! and I certainly hope RR is going well for you. say hello next time I’m in town.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    many people who read this column have young employees and from the feedback I’ve gotten it seems many appreciate our publishing so they could forward to newbies

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    good thoughts. and always dress and act one level above your current role

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes. Excuse culture is terrible. I know too many people like that.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    It was literally in the email sent to our friend and I thought it was cute so I included it.

  • http://www.dailygrommet.com Jules Pieri

    Thanks for asking…I’m GREAT ever since Rakuten invested in Grommet. Nice to be in that Pinterest etc. portfolio. I love those guys.

  • pixiedust8

    I’m talking about bosses being too busy (consistently) even when you ask. I once had a boss who met with me twice during my first three months. (There was no training and no one even introduced me to my coworkers or the client; I had to take the initiative there.) If you are in the kind of situation where you are just handed a pile of documents, then sometimes, you need to cut your losses.

    Everyone is busy, but part of a boss’s job is to manage his/her reports. I make it a priority, even though I don’t always have time. My husband used to be really bad at this, but worked hard at it, and just got glowing reviews from his reports.

  • http://www.ChrisNorstrom.com Chris Norström

    Hey Mark,
    Did you get the calendar I sent you in the mail? It was delivered the last week of November according to the Delivery Confirmation.
    It’s a gift to you and I just want to make sure you got it.
    - Chris

  • http://byJess.net/ Jess Bachman

    It’s not about high quality photos… its about creativity. Also it’s a good idea to avoid people with corporate fauxhawks and shit eating grins.

    Pictures hit a different part of the brain that words, so they don’t need to be so literal. I would have chosen some evocative images like these, courtesy of the LOC

    http://lcweb2.loc.gov/service/pnp/nclc/03200/03204v.jpg
    http://lcweb2.loc.gov/service/pnp/fsa/8e11000/8e11000/8e11048v.jpg
    http://lcweb2.loc.gov/service/pnp/nclc/03700/03772v.jpg
    http://lcweb2.loc.gov/service/pnp/nclc/01300/01345v.jpg

  • http://about.me/jerryhingle Jerry Hingle

    Great advice for young professionals. But I must make an edit to the part: “Say yes to the work even if you don’t want to.” Taking on too many tasks just to make a good impression will get you nowhere if the work you put out there isn’t high quality. Many times young professionals take on too much work and thus produce half-effort work. Instead, focus on how you can best contribute and make that your top priority. Say yes to work, but know when to say NO.

  • http://twitter.com/LarryEmmett1 Larry Emmett

    I would agree with all of this HOWEVER, it needs to be done subtly lest you be THAT gunner in the office everyone hates. Type A strategy with a Type B application. Not everyone in the workplace is as gung-ho about your future as you are so get all of this in but don’t make it the focus of conversations or people will think you’re more concerned about yourself than the team.

  • http://www.AskAuntieArtichoke.com Judy H. Wright

    Hello from a Parent Educator and Business Owner, This is why it is so important that kids learn how to work and cooperate at home. Owners and bosses do not have time to re-parent the young person who is used to getting praise for breathing or doesn’t know how to problem solve.

    You do have a smart cookie for a wife. Bet your kids will do great in the world of work.

  • Beebee

    I did this in my earliest career-track job and burned out quickly. When you have a boss who works 60+ hours and you’re trying to keep pace, it leaves no time for actually developing the skills, hobbies, etc. that make you an interesting person to work with. Instead, I’d advise to work smart–accomplish something every day that you can go back to your boss with if asked and that demonstrates you use your time well.

  • http://twitter.com/topGetter Chris Thompson

    Hey Nolan, let me take a stab at why. I have a team of interns and I curate a number of pieces of content to coach them up–goal is to “maximize their external value in the labor market”. External b/c if the player maximizes their external value it will also be maximized internally and won’t have the shop/firm specific idiosyncratic risk. This post just got added; its IDEAL that they don’t hear it from me; I don’t want to transfer my idiosyncratic risk of management style etc to them that is why this type of post is ideal…I can say “don’t take it from me–look at the best practices from XYZ” and apply them.

  • http://twitter.com/topGetter Chris Thompson

    I feel like the central command/military ethic is not always in line with the maxim of private sector organizational leadership, b/c all top programs (consulting shops, funds, MBA programs etc) subscribe to “don’t come to me with problems, come to me with solutions”. It means performing the due diligence on the potential solutions, tradeoffs, and one’s recommendation and why, to tee it up for a group lead. I like to add “don’t ask me something you could ask Google, or Quora, or best practice comps”. I rarely ever know best, b/c no one person is the top SME in a vertical.

  • http://twitter.com/topGetter Chris Thompson

    Agree. Unilever in their grading includes “external/market orientation” which is a section about valuing networking and consumer validation. I like to add a “non redundant” network b/c there is more value if there is less overlap.

  • http://twitter.com/topGetter Chris Thompson

    my attempt to add one more small thing that didn’t seem to be mentioned..pretty obvious “checklist/reminder’ type of thing–I like to ask team members what is their end goal or what would be a great spot for them in X years that is not this company.

    If they say that in 5 years they want to get into Wharton’s MBA program, for example, I will go and find Wharton’s templates/frameworks for achievement and application evaluation criteria and tell them to grade themselves NOW on these and we will grade them continually on how they improve on these criteria with concrete work items from their current role.

    This way it takes ME and MY OPINIONS of top behavioral traits out of the equation and they can validate vs. a trusted source that symbolizes where they want to be. Its great b/c I can say to them “ok what you did is a 7 on Wharton’s scale. A 10 would have been if you did xyz and abc; that is what a 10-player would have done”.

    I suppose its full disclosure with an agreed 3rd party goal cited; they seem to like it.

  • dotty

    Yeah, she’s supermom. Got it…. otherwise a good article.

  • dotty

    I have to agree. As a recruiter I look at people who arrive late (though a common norm now in start-ups and certain industries), as being, for lack of a better word, “lazy”. Or certainly not as committed.

  • wfjackson3

    If I was giving advice to myself, it would be to know what you want and make decisions based on that information. Nobody will go out of your way to help you if you can’t articulate what you are trying to do for your career.

  • http://www.unitedvirtualoffice.com/ David Nikolic

    Thanks Mark for your sound ideas for young startups, it really going to benefit.

  • http://velocitylocal.com/ Velocity Local

    Now these are wonderful advices. I’m glad you wrote this down. This situations and advices are real. We should internalize them before going to work everyday. Where did she get this advices from?

  • http://atcounseltable.com/ Alex

    My number one piece of advice: read Both Sides of the Table.

  • ueberfliegernet

    fantastic advice, totally agree with all the points! Especially number 5. don’t overly on HR is so important – I think most people figure this out quite quickly once they join but it can still make the first few months easier if you know ahead of time. I think it goes hand in hand with the more generic advice that one should understand informal networks and decision processes as opposed to formal/administrative processes.

  • http://tdp.me/ Jay Shirley

    Hi Mark,
    I really enjoyed this post, but my curiosity was piqued at the mention of your wife’s schoolwork charts. I’m actually working on a system for households that sounds similar (and have an individual system already launched).

    Do you think you or your wife could send me either some pictures or a brief write-up on how it works?

    I even think these types of systems can be very powerful for new employees in their career. My technique I wish I used from early on is to write down what I want to accomplish tomorrow, and then record if I was successful for that day. If I wasn’t successful, I try to identify why. This has helped me learn to better manage my time, the expectations I set and feel better about my own achievements.

    This has never taken me more than 10 minutes, on average about 3-4 minutes and is hugely rewarding.

    Thanks very much!