Job Seeker Blog

The First Year on the Job
CampusCareerCenter.comYour long-term career success can depend upon how well you do during your first year in the work world.

Every year, thousands of college students from all over the country work hard at planning their careers, honing their interview and resume writing skills, and preparing for their job searches. Many will find good jobs and start work with high enthusiasm and energy...only to be disappointed in the results. Why? Because most of them will overlook a critical step and make much of the hard work that went into finding a job worthless. Many of them just haven’t learned how to go to work.

Does that sound a little strange? I mean, you just graduate and go to work, right? Far from it, although most graduates assume just that. Most managers and executives I have interviewed complain that new hires don’t understand what it takes to successfully enter a new organization.

Starting to work in an organization is a unique and critically important time that requires you to have a special perspective and use special strategies to be successful. You need to recognize that the first year on a new job is a separate and distinct career stage. It is a transition stage; you’re not a college student anymore, but you’re not really a professional yet, either. It is only by considering the first year on the job separately from the rest of the career ladder that the world of work begins to make sense.

Savvy graduates know that many new graduates hang on to their student attitudes and behaviors too long. But few realize that it also takes time to understand and earn the rights, responsibilities, and credibility of a full-fledged professional. There is an intermediate stage that lasts from the time you accept your job until about the end of the first year that can make or break the early part of your career.

There is a different set of rules to follow during this breaking-in stage. Because you’re the “new kid on the block,” people will respond to you differently, work with you differently,and judge you differently. You, in response, have to approach them differently. There’s a special game being played during the first year, and most graduates don’t know all the rules. It’s only by learning those rules that you can get the strong start your career needs.

Because a strong start is essential to a successful career, it is unfortunate that so few students know how to break in with a company. The key is to come in with enough savvy to have appropriate expectations and attitudes and to know how to establish yourself, to learn the “way things are done,” and to figure out what you need to do to earn credibility and respect. Most new college graduates are way off base on all of these.

What makes the most positive impression is not showing how much you know, but rather demonstrating the maturity to know how much you don’t know. It matters! The way in which you enter a new organization and a new job will have a major impact on your success within that organization. Much of your early career opportunity and success will be charted by the impressions you make on the people you work with and the perceptions they develop of you in the early weeks and months on the job. Research suggests that how you approach your first year will have a major impact on your future salary, advancement, job satisfaction, and ability to move within the organization—and your own feelings about success and commitment to the job.

Your challenge in the early months will be to use the strategies discussed in this article to help you establish your reputation as a bright, capable, and valuable employee, worthy of the respect of your colleagues. If you are successful here, you will quickly be given opportunities to make a real contribution to the company and to make yourself visible to upper management. If you then take advantage of those early opportunities by demonstrating what an outstanding performer you are, more opportunities to succeed will follow. Edgar Schein, a noted management author, calls this the “success spiral.”

Mess up your introductory months and you may find yourself labeled as “immature” and relegated to lesser assignments while your colleagues—and competitors for promotions, I might add—are busy impressing the boss with their professional maturity and success on juicy assignments. That’s not to say that an entire 30-year career is made or broken in a few months’ performance. However, the simple fact is that it can take years to recover from a poor start.

The crux of the problem for new hires lies in how they try to make a positive impression. Conventional wisdom says that you need to show your new organization how smart and talented you are by using what I call the “big splash” approach. Your natural tendency is to charge ahead, trying to make big contributions and dream up great ideas for new initiatives or changes to impress your colleagues. The problem is that if you do that before you have earned acceptance and before you understand your new organization well, you will most likely only stick your foot in your mouth and embarrass yourself. You may think you know how to make a good impression, but experience says you probably don’t and that you should proceed with caution.

What makes the most positive impression is not showing how much you know, but rather demonstrating the maturity to know how much you don’t know. That means eyes and ears open and mouth shut at first to learn as much as you can about the company and the people in it. You need to learn the ropes, to understand the nuances of how things are done before you can have any hope of making intelligent suggestions for change or getting new ideas accepted. You might have an idea for the best new design of a product the company has ever seen, but you can’t sell it until you understand the way the company works. Managers know that college has given you only part of what you need to be successful, so don’t make the mistake of believing that you are ready when you first walk through the door.

Every company has its own personality and culture. That, in turn, translates into unique sets of rules and norms—often unspoken and informal—about how you should behave in the organization. Organizations want employees who “fit” the culture and enthusiastically embrace it. It is critically important that you take the time to understand the culture and politics of the organization. If you don’t, you are almost assured of making many dumb and embarrassing mistakes that will hurt your career. For example, one new hire was quick to criticize a project only to find out that it was started by one of his senior managers who still believed in it. He blew it because he didn’t understand the importance of being a team player.

Pay attention to “the way things are done around here.” Watch your colleagues, paying attention to the things they spend their time on. Learn what the norms and values of the organization are by watching how others behave. Find out the basic mission and philosophy of the organization. Understand what people expect of you, particularly the accepted work ethic and social norms, and the limits. Pay attention to the political climate and how people communicate and work together. Find ways to “fit in.” And remember, you can’t change the culture until you are accepted into it.

You must place a premium on impression management in your first year. As one manager explained at a training session: “You’re in a fishbowl right now. Whenever you start any job, there are a lot of people watching you and trying to assess your ability to succeed.” Those people will include your peers, subordinates, and bosses. Another put it even more strongly: “The first impression you make is the last impression you make.”

Everything you do early on will be magnified. As you progress in your career and build a good professional reputation, your track record will give you a safety net to cushion you against mistakes and interpersonal gaffes. But in the first year you have no track record, so it’s the impressions that count. Even the smallest mistakes are magnified in impact when you’re new.

Since every organization is different, it’s difficult to precisely define the “right” impression. That’s why the first element of a good impression is the savvy to read the organizational environment. You want people there to notice your professional maturity, not your college student ways. They are looking for someone who has good judgment and can build good relationships with colleagues. They want to see a readiness to change and learn, plus a healthy respect for the experience and expertise of older employees. They want to see that you have confidence in your potential but humility about what you can do at first. They want to see that you have your expectations in check and are willing to work hard to learn how to make a contribution. Most of all, it’s an attitude they’re looking for that says you are realistic about your role as a new employee and are willing to do what it takes to earn your spot on the team.

Like it or not, you’re going to be the “new kid” at work. It’s hard to overstate the importance of understanding how big a role “being new” plays in everything that happens. Most new hires I’ve talked to don’t really enjoy the feeling of being new. But just because it’s uncomfortable doesn’t mean you should ignore it.

What I’m suggesting is that you learn the art of being new. It requires a new way of thinking. The more you understand about being new and the better you become at acting like and being a new employee, the better off you’ll be in the long run. That’s contrary to traditional thinking, which says you need to stop acting like a new employee as quickly as possible. Effective new employees understand the importance of the transition period. They accept their role as the newcomer and attack the tasks of learning the organization and getting accepted with vigor. Every organization has its rites of passage before you can become a full member of the team. You’ll have to pay your dues—just as everyone before you has while earning their places in the system.

A major frustration of many new graduates after being on the job a short time is that their expectations are not met. Frustration is nothing more than the difference between expectations and reality. If you work at keeping your expectations realistic, you won’t be disappointed. Expect to be surprised: The odds are that many things about your job will not be what you expect them to be.

It’s important to remember that the image the recruiter painted of the company is probably a bit too rosy. And it’s doubtful you’ll receive the same attention from others in the company that you did while being recruited. The real world is different from textbooks. The reality of your first job is that it probably won’t be nearly as glamorous, as important, or as high level as you thought. You can’t expect everyone in the company to drop what they are doing just to help you. The way decisions are made won’t be nearly as logical as you expected, often because of politics. People skills and teamwork will be much more important than you had ever imagined. New graduates often comment on how different the challenges are from what they had expected—how much more pressure they feel, how many more extra hours they work, the types of tasks they must perform. Most employers are frustrated with the naive expectations of new graduates, so you’ll score lots of points if you work to keep yours realistic.

The single most important person in your first year is your new boss. It’s likely that working for a boss is unlike any other relationship you have had in the past. You have to be sure that what you do supports your boss. It is your boss who sets the agenda. Learn what your boss wants, needs, and expects—and then do it. Bring your boss solutions, not problems. If you make your boss look good, you will succeed. Most of all, remember that it takes skill to be a good subordinate; you can’t become a good leader until you’ve learned to be a good follower. Remember, too, that a bad boss is not a legitimate excuse for a poor performance.

Once you accept the unique nature of the transition from college to work, it can be lots of fun and a terrific start to a successful career. But remember, it is your responsibility—not your employer’s—to make the transition a success. The good bosses will help, but it’s your career. Also, you may not like conforming to your new employer’s culture, but in time you will be able to assert your individuality and find your own style. As one new hire put it, “You have to earn your pinstripes before you can shed them.” Get yourself accepted by the organization and respected by your colleagues, and become productive and then—and only then—will you have the right to assert yourself in the organization. That is the art of being new.

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