11 things to know before starting your first job

It’s been over a decade since I’ve finished school I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on my studies and career, specifically regarding what can help and hinder success. This post is a list of things that I’ve learn over the years based on my experience as student, employee and manager. It is primarily aimed at the corporate workplace, but most of these points also apply to tertiary studies and informal work settings. Initially I wrote this simply to get some of my thoughts on “paper”, but ended up posting it since it may benefit a few readers.

1) Be present, engage, and keep a notebook.

Being present isn’t just about showing up for work at the right times (I would hope that bit is obvious), it’s about making sure that you are mentally present in every interaction at work. It doesn’t matter if you are having a one on one conversation, a meeting, a call, watching a presentation, or sitting in a seminar.

Many people struggle to give everything their full attention for 8 hours every day, and if you’re one of them you should keep a notebook to make notes during all meetings. Not only will this force you to pay attention, you’ll also have a record to refer back to in case you forgot something important. It means that if something interesting comes up during a meeting, you’ll be able to engage, contribute and ask insightful questions. As an added perk, you won’t end up embarrassing yourself by asking something that was already mentioned and answered multiple times earlier in the meeting.

2) Accept that you will make mistakes. Learn from them, but don’t dwell on it.

Unfortunately you will inevitably make mistakes. Accept responsibility, make sure that you understand what you did wrong, and figure out how you can adjust your behavior to avoid making the same mistakes again. Be open and honest with your manager about this, because not only are you displaying maturity and responsibility, you are accelerating your professional growth by working with your organisation to become more effective and efficient at your job.

If you’re serious about your work, chances are certain mistakes will stay with you and you will take it personally from time to time. It’s a process, but you need to train yourself to think about mistakes as opportunities for growth.

3) Humility is integral to success

The second worst thing you can do is to refuse to admit that you’ve made a mistake, and the worst thing you can do is blaming your failures on someone else. You may be able to get away with this occasionally, but when people catch on it will destroy your relationships with them.

It doesn’t matter how well you performed in your studies or how well you are currently performing in your work, you need to acknowledge that your are not perfect and that you don’t know everything. In my experience, most employees who end up on compulsory performance management or fired (in a worst case scenario) get there because they simply can’t accept that they’ve done something wrong. If you can’t identify what you’re doing wrong, you will keep on failing because you can’t change your behavior.

Who would you rather work with: Someone who is arrogant and thinks he/she is better than everyone else, or someone who values those they work with and it open to accept input from others?

4) Stay out of office politics.

As hard as it may be, do not make a habit out of saying negative things about your coworkers at the office. Yes you will get frustrated and you will need to vent, but the office is not the place to do it. Talk to your girlfriend, wife, grandma, dog, psychologist, the wall or anyone that isn’t a coworker. The only upside of complaining about coworkers to other coworkers is that you get rid of frustration, but the downsides can have serious consequences.

It doesn’t matter how much you think you can trust someone, chances are it will get out and a relationship is compromised. Even if it doesn’t get out, the people that you are complaining to will wonder if they can trust you because you may be doing the same to them. Rather take a breath, give it time and decide whether the issues is important enough that you should discuss it with the person that you’re upset with in a considerate and diplomatic manner. If you stick to gossip you’ll be labelled as someone that can’t deal with conflict directly, someone that is possibly insincere in interactions and worst of all untrustworthy. It should be obvious that none of these will make you a straight shooter for management.

None of this means that you can’t listen to other people complain, but don’t jump on the bandwagon and don’t base your opinions of individuals based on the perceptions of one or two other people. Form your own opinions, and try to be objective.

5) Your boss is not the only person that you need to impress.

Tempting as it may be, don’t only focus on trying to show off how much value you add to your boss. In most organisations, your direct line manager is only one of the people that will decide your fate when it comes to increases, bonuses, perks, and promotions. Of course you should do everything you can to meet the objectives that your manager lays out for you, but you’ll make it much easier for him or her to compensate you when the rest of the business understands why he or she is doing it.

Value every relationship, including your peers and subordinates. If you have the respect of these people you will also have their support which means it will be easier for you to complete the tasks associated with your role on a day to day basis. It also makes it less likely for people to be upset when you earn a promotion because they’ll understand why you are being compensated. That said, you’ll never be able to keep everyone happy and you also shouldn’t get fixated on doing that. As long as you can earn respect and keep good relationships with the majority of your coworkers you’ll pave the way to professional success.

6) Think big picture

Learn about the business and the industry that you work in. Being good at your role is great, but you’ll hit a ceiling if you don’t get an understanding of how everything fits together. Moving up in the business often means interacting with different divisions on a more regular basis. As a junior, understanding the context of your organisation and the work you do is an advantage. In senior management it’s a requirement.

7) Work hard

Be very honest with yourself about the amount of hours that you’re putting in every day. If you’re getting paid to work 8 hours a day, make sure that you do at least that. It’s very easy to fool yourself into thinking that you’re working hard while not spending a lot of the time engaging with what you’re meant to be doing. There is a direct correlation between the amount of time you spend working and the responsibility, perks and compensation that you’ll end up getting in the short, medium and long term.

In the short term the organisation will see that you’re working hard, but that’s not really what it is about. In the medium term you will add value to your team which your manager and team will appreciate. This is important, but also not the main point that I want to make here. In the long term, putting in the hours will make you more effective and efficient at your job. The more time you put in now the faster you will become an expert and eventually a master at what you do. Have you ever come across the 10,000 hour rule? If you haven’t it’s worth looking it up on Google, but for now just always be aware that practice makes perfect.

I can’t stress enough that you need to be honest with yourself about how much time and effort you’re putting in. There is no point in trying to pretend that you’re working hard if you’re spending all day randomly browsing the web and hanging around on social media sites. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t do those things, but be aware of how much time you spend on it. Any manager worth his or her salt cares more about the value you are adding than the time you’re putting in.  It’s your responsibility to put in the time to ensure that you deliver what is required and add value to the organisation.

8) Root for yourself, but also know your limits

As a manger the easiest way to accidentally derail an employee’s career is by giving someone a promotion that they are not ready for. Likewise, if you push for a role beyond what you’re currently capable of you will end up coming short and making yourself and everyone around you unhappy. Once you’re in a more senior role going back is very difficult, if not impossible. It will undoubtedly damage your reputation, and possibly your self-esteem.

Coming back from this is possible, but a lot harder than just hanging on a bit and making sure that you’re capable and ready for new responsibilities. There’s no simple answer to knowing when you’re ready, but you can start by reflecting about your work and your performance on a regular basis. Also speak to your manager and leaders/coaches/mentors in the business to help you grow and gauge your performance.

Consistently identifying your growth areas and working to bridge these gaps will mean that you will know when you’re ready for the next level, in addition to getting there much faster.

9) Practice your public speaking

The fear of public speaking is recognized as one of the most common fears in the world, possibly number one depending on which study you look at. During my undergraduate studies one of my lecturers forced us to regularly give feedback on work during class, which I hated at the time. He explained that he knew it was uncomfortable for us but that the more we get out of our comfort zone the easier it will be for us to speak in front of groups. He was right, and changing my thinking from avoiding public speaking to actively seeking it out has benefited me throughout my career.

As much as it used to stress me out, these days I hardly ever get anxious about speaking in front of big groups. Sure every now and then you’ll get a big presentation that is and should be stressful, but for the most part public speaking just becomes another routine yet enjoyable part of everyday work life.

It may seem like an oddly specific point to include here, but you’d be surprised how often it is required irrespective of the industry or type of organisation that you work for. Some jobs will require it right from the start, and in others public speaking will start becoming more and more important as you progress and become more senior in the organisation. Even if it isn’t required though, having strong public speaking skills is a huge confidence boost. It will help you feel comfortable to speak up, ask questions and make contributions during meetings.

So get out of your comfort zone and practice, practice, practice. Then practice some more until public speaking becomes second nature to you.

10) Find a job you love, and you’ll never work another day.

Don’t choose your career because of status or salary. If these things are important to you, factor them into your decision but make sure that you are okay with doing your job for at least 40 hours every week for the rest of your working life. Your office will become your home away from home, and your coworkers will become your second family. It is the reality of the modern working world.

How do you make sure that you pick a job that will make you happy? There are many answers to this, but my advice would be to find something that you enjoy because of the process, not just the result. For example, pursuing a career in writing because it will give you the image of being intelligent and sophisticated is a bad reason to do something. However, pursuing a career in writing because you enjoy writing is a good reason to do something.

Why? Because becoming a writer won’t guarantee that you receive positive feedback and admiration. What it will guarantee is that you will write, a lot. The results are not guaranteed, the process is. If you’re interested in pursuing a career, find out what you’ll be doing on a day to day basis. If you enjoy those activities, you’ll enjoy your job.

11) Be a decent human being

Nice guys don’t really finish last, because unless you interact with no other humans in your job, success also means being well liked. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t stand up for yourself and it also doesn’t mean that you should try to win a popularity contest. What it does mean is that you should be considerate towards the needs of your peers, subordinates, managers, and clients. In every situation, try to put yourself in the shoes of others and ask yourself what is important to them.

You will rise or fall based on your reputation and you earn a good reputation by being dependable, helpful and respecting the needs of others.



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