I remember fondly my time at my first job out of university and subsequently the times when I joined new companies and teams. The first days were always exciting, special and a little bit intimidating. I had the privilege of working with some remarkable colleagues, bosses, and mentors. There was always plenty to learn and to grow as a person. Over time some common themes emerged, that helped me settle into new work environments quickly and successfully. If you are starting your first job after school or college or have recently joined a new team this is what you need to know.
Get a notebook and write notes
This is by far the simplest, yet most important recommendation. It always surprises me when I discuss a work result with someone and give feedback and they are not taking notes. How on earth are you going to remember every remark I made? The answer is most of the time: you will probably not.
One of my former bosses said: “If you do not take notes during a meeting, you are not participating.” I agree. I have never seen anyone that I professionally aspired that did not take notes during meetings — no matter what the hierarchical position they were in.
So, get a notebook and start taking notes! During meetings, conference calls, and just for yourself (e.g. todo lists). Taking notes itself is the one crucial part, the other one is the notebook. I have seen so many times people writing on some random sheets of paper and afterwards not being able to find their notes again. That will not happen with a notebook. Personally, I prefer to have a nice-looking notebook. My notes are very valuable to me and they deserve to be in stored in a valuable place.
Take on responsibility for bothersome work
While being a junior employee comes with certain advantages (e.g. no one expects you to be an expert in everything), it certainly comes with certain disadvantages. One disadvantage for sure is when it comes down to annoying tasks like organizing a time slot for a call or taking meeting minutes. The rule of thumb: if nobody else on the team wants to do this task, consider it should be yours.
Call me old fashioned but this is just part of how a hierarchical organization works. And even if you are working in a super flat organization like a start-up: offering to take on responsibility for bothersome work shows your commitment and will be very much appreciated by your (more senior) colleagues.
You are busy at work and so are your colleagues and especially your manager. As a manager I find it extremely cumbersome when I have to check if someone really has done their assigned tasks. It is just taking up my time and I must keep track of multiple to-do lists: my own and the ones of my employees.
Of course, this sounds like a “no brainer”. However, the complexity comes when there are different channels where you get tasks assigned. There were two to-dos in an email, then you ran into your boss on the hallway and she asked for something and finally there is an active Slack communication where tasks are assigned. From my experience, this almost always results in certain things being “lost”.
However, this can be avoided. A notebook where you write down to-dos on the go, together with a digital to-do list can work wonders. Make sure to keep track of the tasks that were assigned to you and follow through on them. Your manager and colleagues will be impressed with your diligence and reliability.
Be concise in written communication with a clear “so what”
I remember a lesson during one of my first days as a management consultant well. I was given a task to draft some slides for a proposal we were working on. I completed it and sent the slides through. As I had a little bit of extra time left I did some additional research around the topic and drafted an email with a couple of bullet points and sent it to the person I was working for. Later when I met the person he told me: “Thanks for the slides, they were spot on and what I was looking for. Regarding your second email with the additional research. I wasn’t really sure what to do with that. What were you trying to tell me? Reading that felt like a waste of time.”
While I had done the additional research with the best of intention I had failed to clear the “so what” test. When I put myself in the shoes of my manager I could understand his irritation. The additional information did not have any impact on the proposal itself, nothing would needed to be changed because of it. It was to a certain extent interesting, but some of the points were contradicting each other and overall it probably left him more confused about the topic than anything else.
Before you hit “send” on that e-mail, ask yourself: What should the recipient do with that email? Are you giving a recommendation? Are you proposing something? Do you just want to inform? Are you asking for something? Do you need a decision to be made? If you cannot answer what you would do with that email as recipient then do not send it!
I always recommend keeping emails short and sweet. People generally lack time and no one wants to read through a whole paragraph of text and to distill the key points themselves. Make it easy for the recipient of your email. Structure your text in bullets points Try to keep it down to 5 bullets or less. And be sure to make clear what the “so what” is.
Observe and learn
Every organization is different, every team is different and so is every manager. When you start working for a company you will most likely not know the culture, rituals and habits in detail. That is no problem though because there is an easy way to get customized: observe and learn. Watch how your manager and colleagues are handling meetings, sending e-mails, interacting with their superiors. Is it quite formal? Is it more laid back? What appears to be important for everyone? What do they not care about so much?
While it may be totally acceptable in one organization to send an email to someone without any salutation, in another organization this might be considered rude. While in one context it is acceptable to directly write to the company’s board, in another context that might be unthinkable. One manager likes to receive information via e-mails, another prefers having face-to-face conversations. You will find out all these important details very quickly. Just do not assume that because you have done something in a certain way somewhere it will automatically fit in this new professional environment. If you are unsure ask. Your colleagues will be most likely supportive because they will be impressed by your sensitiveness and self-awareness.
Ask for, be open for and act upon feedback
A good manager will give you regular feedback anyway. However, do you know what makes it easier for someone to give you feedback? If you genuinely ask for it. Sometimes junior employees are afraid of feedback because they fear to hear all the things they are doing wrong. That is not the point of feedback. First of all, feedback should be balanced and highlight the positive aspects, as well as the negative. And more importantly: feedback is the only way to learn and develop. If someone spends time and thoughts and gives you honest, constructive feedback consider it as a gift and take notes! If you are unsure about what the point is they are trying to make, ask clarifying questions and try to rephrase their feedback.
Once you have understood the feedback, the most important point comes. You must decide if you want to act upon the feedback and try to change your behavior. While feedback is always a gift, it does not necessarily mean you always have to agree with what you hear. Reflect upon what you were told and if you agree make sure to act upon it.
Many additional recommendations on how to be successful in your career and how to be efficient at work in general exist. While one could assume that the points I made are common sense, reality has proven me wrong many times. These recommendations are not the holy grail, but if followed, will help to give you a solid start in your job and even more throughout your entire career.