May is here, caps and tassels are being carefully placed on bright young heads, and a fresh crop of seniors will be streaming out of colleges, degree in hand. Surprise - there's a whole new set of ropes to learn as an employee, even if you have a few internships under your belt. More subtle dynamics are at play, as there are more personalities to rankle, more office politics to navigate and tougher critics of your performance. Another big difference? You will find yourself one of the few 20-somethings in the room, instead of being in the youthful majority.
Admittedly, your typical 43-year-old employee navigates their way through the same politics, personalities and performance measurements that you will - but they’re more experienced at it. Age and road rash and battle scars have their benefits — so let’s propose you benefit from mine. For the Class of 2012, here are some tips from a few decades of work:
No complaining. Paying your dues and doing menial work is the unwritten part of your job description. No one wants to work with a whiner or shirker. And snarky comments about co-workers simply make you a target for the office tattletale who never met a secret she could keep. Your poise, grace and agreeableness are what’s being measured here, so put a sock in it. You are entitled to not a whole lot more other than a fair and safe workplace. And if you hate your job and the company - then find somewhere else to work.
Respect the culture. The culture of your new employer is an opportunity for you to learn the rules of the road, and reach for success. No company is perfect. So before you start drafting a long diatribe of what you don't like, and yammer on about what you would do to fix all the flaws of management, remember this: if you had been hired to “get this place on the right track” it would have been mentioned in the job interview. Promise. Don't be the instigator of revolution so early in your career. Every workplace has something to teach you, even if you're thoughtfully and quietly learning you would prefer a different environment.
Listen twice as much as you talk. Easy to remember, as conveniently, that’s the proportion of ears to mouth. The smarmy know-it-all crashes and burns, and it’s usually rather entertaining for the rest of the office to watch. One of the smartest career moves you can make is to find a young peer in a department entirely different than your own. If you're in finance, befriend someone in marketing. If you're in IT, make a work buddy out of someone in supply chain. Over an occasional lunch or coffee, ask questions and start understanding what their function does, the challenges they face, who their internal customers are, and what keeps them up at night. And if they are curious about your role, all the better. Employees with connections throughout the company tend to be recognized as go-getters with a broader range of resources and experts than those who just cling to their department co-workers.
Perspective, please. Don’t be a diva, and hold off being the world’s harshest critic of the owner, president or executive director. Their typical day involves intellectual property litigation, chasing late paying customers, not being sure they can make payroll next week, disciplining an employee for harassment, learning their sole supplier of a critical part has shut down from a flood, trying to understand how the stockroom is being pilfered, renegotiating a rent lease, and being turned down for an expansion loan by the bank. Your droning nag that you deserve to be relocated to a cubicle that faces the morning sun, or your request to install a camera on your computer to enable your significant other to watch you all day, or pouting that you weren’t given the coolest smart phone or newest chair, lacks all perspective on what management is dealing with. Sit on your hands, quit squirming, and move on.
Behave every day like it’s going to show up in the newspaper. Admittedly, every senior professional recalls their own memorable list of screw ups, bad ideas, poor judgment and red-faced moments. And my, how the internet and e-mail can exponentially blast your mess-up across continents, industries and chat rooms. A bad day (or two) will happen at work – guaranteed. Learn from it, apologize quickly, clean up your mess, make sure your co-workers know it was a teachable moment and that it won’t happen again. It’s a rather high likelihood that no medical attention was required, although I've seen a fire department visit along with the evacuation of several floors because an intern shoved several overly-large bagels in a toaster and walked away in oblivion as they caught on fire. Mistakes happen, and we are not perfect. But trust me: lying, antics, thoughtlessness, creating distractions, crudeness or disregard of who’s the boss (have no doubt, the customer is always the boss) and you’ll be out on the street in no time flat.
Baked goods, and decent coffee, real cream. Bring those on your first day at work to share with your new department, and the place will be buzzing for a week. “Class act,” “nice kid,” “didn’t have to do that” will be the first impression you make. Better yet, don’t make that the last time treats appear. On big project deadlines, co-worker birthdays or Administrative Assistant Day, break out the bagels and muffins once in awhile. Trust me on this – nothing, but nothing, makes grown men and women move faster than unattended, unsupervised baked goods in the break room. It’s the best goodwill that $12 can buy.
Always schedule a one-on-one meeting in the senior leader’s office. As a senior executive, I would scratch my head when hires out of college set up a project meeting with me to discuss a new issue or need, and book a conference room to do it. You may be in a cubicle or open work space, obviously not a suitable area for an in-depth meeting, but a director or a VP has an office. Don’t make them leave it. The higher up the ladder an executive is, the more the world comes to them: it’s not the other way around. Unless they or their admin has said otherwise, assume you book the meeting in their office. It’s a sign of deference to their status, and busy executives don’t like to leave their command post. All their files, helpful materials, archived emails that might be of help in the discussion (not to mention emergency phone calls) - it’s all at their fingertips.
Figure out where the boss likes to sit and never sit there. You’d be surprised how many senior leaders have a certain spot they claim when in a team meeting around a conference table. It may be their own conference table; it may be a general meeting room. Often it’s an unspoken, unwritten rule, and it literally flusters a senior leader when they find someone has parked their tush in her or his chair. It may sound silly, but do NOT be the person who can’t recognize where the boss likes to sit. Where are the safe spots around a rectangular table? Avoid the “cross” which are the two heads, and the middle chair along the sides. Often the speakerphone sits in the middle, and the senior leader usually likes to be closest to the gizmos. Corners are generally the safest spot.
Do not be late. Your boss may be the tardiest person on the planet, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be prompt for a meeting she or he scheduled. It will get around, trust me, that you are timely and organized, even if you work (like the TV commercial) with a bunch of chimpanzees. If your boss is prompt, that’s even more of a reason to never be late. Call their admin if you even suspect you’ll be 5 minutes late. Customers won’t tolerate your being late or indifferent to their time, and if you can’t be courteous to the boss, rest assured you won’t ever be let near a customer. Worst sin ever? Being late to a meeting while clutching your paper Starbucks cup, proof you had time to stop by a coffee shop (Obvious Priority #1) but couldn’t get your act together to meet promptly with the VP of Finance (Unfortunate Priority #2).
The CEO is busy…don’t send them e-mails unless asked. A recent college grad, feeling equal to everyone and a bit overly-entitled, fired off a chatty e-mail to the CEO of a global corporation out of the blue, a “whassup” type note more appropriate for Facebook. While harmless, it so thoroughly said “not ready for prime time” about this misguided young man who felt he had access to the company’s top executive. His faux pas got around to HR as well as his boss - humiliating! Just because you have the e-mail of the company’s top leaders, they are not waiting in their office to chat with you, to give you exclusive career tips, or to reminisce about their college days. Unless they explicitly tell you “drop me a line any time, I really want to hear how things are going for you” then hands off the send key, sport. Besides, your supervisor's head would explode if they found out you were casually sending e-mails to the company’s C–level executives, unprompted.
Chill with the LinkedIn. You’re untested material, so there will not be a line of connection invites the day you start from your new colleagues. Actually, your colleagues are waiting to see how you turn out. So, sending the entire engineering staff and HR an invite to connect is only going to position you as too anxious, not willing to earn someone's respect, and a little clueless about professional connections. On the other hand, do make your employer confident and comfortable when co-workers check out your profile. Lose the summary that tells the world you’re looking for a job, and add your new employer, title and join some of their company and industry groups. You’ve now become part of your employer’s talent recruitment efforts, so make them proud.
Kelly Blazek shares job search and work success tips in her blog, http://kellyblazek.wordpress.com/ and is a frequent speaker at jobseeker groups on creating more powerful resumes and LinkedIn profiles. A Six Sigma Green Belt, she is available for one-on-one resume review consultations and is also a manufacturing communications adviser. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org