By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Director, Yeshua Institute
In the course of my career, I’ve had the opportunity to give many college graduates their first professional positions. I hoped they learned from those experiences. I know I did.
If you find yourself in the ranks of Newly-Graduated and Newly-Hired (NGNH) this year – or if you know someone who is – please indulge me in sharing what I learned from them with the hope that it will make your new position less stressful and more satisfying.
Of course, no two NGNHs are alike – at least not the ones who crossed our thresholds. Each was unique. And yet, most of them behaved in fairly common ways, based on what seems to be several common assumptions.
Eager to impress
Nearly all were eager to impress – but many were too eager. They seemed to assume that if they didn’t make their mark almost instantly -- really impress all their colleagues -- they would be out the door with the day’s bulk mail.
Maybe there really are workplaces like that. But if so, you’re better off putting them in your rearview mirror sooner rather than later. Most reputable employers want to see you crawl before you walk and walk before you run. As you gradually grow, so will their trust in you. Start crawling.
Rather than trying to impress a team of seasoned veterans with your raw genius, really listen and try to learn all you can. If you do that much, you will impress your boss and co-workers much more than if you treat every encounter as an audition to affirm your brilliance.
Ask before you act
As you get settled in and better understand the workplace ecology, look for ways to quietly contribute. But as a rule, especially at the earliest stages of your employment, ask before you act.
I am not exploring new ground when I tell you: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” So is the road to the unemployment office.
My over-eager mistake
Let me illustrate the risk by telling a little story on myself. Back in my 20s I was serving as a columnist, covering a state agency’s administrative hearing about the practices of a land development company operating on an Indian reservation. I was not there as an objective reporter but as someone representing a publication that was opposed to the behavior of the development company. I was very publicly an advocate.
That helps explain why at one point I found myself interrogating the development company’s CEO. The procedures in the hearing were much more informal than those in a court of law, and at one point the attorney prosecuting the case felt comfortable asking me to briefly sit in for him so he could make an important phone call.
My job -- as I should have known but didn’t -- was basically to take up time and space until the attorney could return to the hearing room.
That’s the part I didn’t get. So when my chance came to examine the head of the company, I was full of myself and jumped in with both feet. Having studied the case for months and confident that I knew all I needed to know about the company’s behavior, I sought to expose precisely where the company was derelict.
I asked him what the company had done for the tribe. I asked what kind of opportunities the company provided local workers. I asked what impact its practices would have on the natural resources. When I had finished grilling the witness, the hearing examiner called for a break.
I was all set to give myself a big pat on the back when the attorney I had filled in for rushed up and asked me what I thought I was doing.
“Exposing them,” I said, more than a little self-satisfied.
“Are you crazy?” he asked, clearly agitated. “When you brought up those topics, you opened the door to his attorney letting him talk about all of those things under cross-exam.”
“But they’ve done a rotten job across the board,” I insisted, more than a little self-righteously.
“You watch,” he said. “Up until now we have done a good job of not letting them put lipstick on their pig. But now that you’ve opened the door to letting him go on and on in cross- exam about what a wonderful, ecologically responsible company they are and how what they’re doing is so good for the tribe and its members.”
“But that’s all garbage,” I replied.
“Yes, it is,” he said. “But now all that so-called garbage will be part of a glorious record that we won’t have a chance to refute.”
And you know what? He was right.
God bless him, he forgave me.
It probably didn’t hurt that with his formidable skills he was ultimately able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. I congratulated him and apologized again. What else could I do?
“Just don’t forget what you learned here today,” he said with a big smile and a friendly pat on my back.
And I didn’t, as you can tell.
The biggest lesson
When you’re the new kid on the block, the problem is not what you know, but what you don’t know.
When you’re new, that list extends way beyond your vision.
Give yourself some time. Listen. Ask a lot of questions – respectfully. Pay attention to the answers you get. Don’t run with the ball until you know the turf.
Some key differences
When you’re migrating from college to corporate America, one thing you need to do is realize that they are very different ecosystems. In some college classes it really doesn’t matter much if you show up. In a workplace, presence is everything.
As I used to tell our new hires, “if you’re not here you’re no good to us.” Period. Spare no effort to show up – and on time.
Also, you will probably have to learn how to tell time differently. In a college environment, things can move a lot faster. You morph from raw freshman to wise senior in just four years. You go from knowing almost nothing about a topic to thinking you’re a master of it in just 15 weeks.
I learned my lesson about time after I’d been with a company for about a year or so and was asked by my boss to share an idea with the top leadership team. They eagerly endorsed it. I was ecstatic. So right after the meeting I looked for the tech guru who would be overseeing the proposal and asked him to lunch, eager to know when we could get started.
“Probably in about a year,” he told me. I was shocked. “Wait, they loved the idea. Aren’t we supposed to get going on it right away?” I asked.
He managed a patient smile and replied: “You heard all the other things we’ve got on our plate just now. We won’t be able to get to your idea until we’ve cleared our plate of one or two of the other urgent things we discussed today. Then your idea will rise near the top.”
When he put it that way, it made a lot of sense. Obviously, corporate management issues were a lot more complex than undergraduate projects. Going forward I needed more patience than I had ever needed before.
Situations, timetables vary
Perhaps that company’s pace was slower than is typical of companies today. For example, not long ago I visited a dynamic health and technology startup that reviews and refocuses its top goals every quarter. In that environment perhaps my idea would have been addressed in 13 weeks, not 52.
Even so, expecting immediate attention is unrealistic – unless you can yell “Fire!” and not regret it.
Best to learn your employer’s pace and try mightily to conform your expectations so that you don’t live in a perpetual state of frustration. Meanwhile, do what you can to be helpful without chasing glory.
More We, less Me
For much of your life you’ve been in an educational environment where most of the emphasis has been on individual performance. But if you were lucky enough to participate in a team sport, perhaps you were lucky enough to learn how important it is to be able to function as part of a team.
As it turns out, that may be the most important skill you can master on the job.
As one sage put it to me several years ago: “There is almost nothing that you can accomplish by yourself that is worthy of your time and effort.” Accomplishing really big things requires teamwork.
In fact, when you’re new on the job, people will probably be more concerned about how you play well with others than what you can accomplish on your own. Resolve to be a good team player. Work on your relationships. Ask help – and be sure to express gratitude when you get it.
You won’t be undermining yourself in your new role. You’ll be giving your new co-workers hope – hope that you can grow and contribute over the long haul.
Psychological studies show that many people are afraid to ask for help because they don’t want to look weak or incompetent. However, it’s much better to share your ignorance with your team members than to prove your incompetence for the record. When you trust others, it helps them to trust you.
As a journalist I was taught that “the only dumb question is the one you don’t ask.” After decades surviving in tumultuous, sometimes toxic environments, I still swear by that wise observation.
Learn, learn, learn
Last thing: Treat every moment in your new role as a learning opportunity. Learn. Learn. Learn.
When you do something right, learn from it. When you contribute to a team effort, learn from it. When you stumble and fall, learn from that too.
When you suffer an inevitable setback, don’t beat yourself up. Don’t fall into the trap of seeing it as validation of your inherent inadequacies. Don’t tell yourself you’re not cut out for the job.
Instead, tell yourself that the problem is you have not yet developed the skills you need to succeed in this one endeavor. But you are learning. Already.
At the end of the day, your focus should not be on seeking ways to highlight your strengths or get feedback that affirms your skills, talents and worth. Instead, frequently ask yourself three questions:
- Am I in learning mode right now?
- Am I looking for ways to contribute in small ways to the group effort?
- Am I building the relationships I need to play a helpful role in what we are trying to accomplish here?
And no matter what happens, be sure to remember that God loves you ... God always loves you.
Make that the centerpiece of your values and the basis of your personal value and you will feel better and do better.