As a career coach, I work with a many people who are new to the professional workforce. They’re either fresh out of college, in their first job, or a few years into their career, and something just isn’t clicking for them. I often spend a lot of time discussing the norms and unspoken rules of the business world with young professionals who are navigating their first job. Inevitably, as we do this, my clients express frustration.
“Why aren’t we taught these things in school?” they ask. “Are we just expected to know this stuff?”
The sad truth is, yes, you are expected to know how to operate in a professional environment at your first job and no, they don’t teach this stuff in school. Unless you’re lucky enough to have savvy professional parents—and they were smart enough to pass their hard-earned wisdom along to you—chances are great that you’ll spend the first few years of your career trying to figure out the basics. If you want to avoid the common missteps, here are four key lessons to help kick start your career and boost your professional prowess.
1. Timeliness (or lack of it) is always noticed
Many organizational cultures support a relaxed, even casual environment. People wander in late for meetings all the time, and missed deadlines are commonplace. But don’t let this lull you into a a sense of complacency, especially at your first job. While it might look like these things are “no big deal,” rest assured, they are always noticed.
You might not see the consequences from where you stand, but time management (or lack of it) plays an enormous role in building and destroying reputations. Your reputation is your biggest asset in the professional world. Don’t turn it into a liability!
Arrive on time for meetings and follow through on your promises as scheduled—even if those around you are not so courteous. Your behavior will stand out all the more, and it will demonstrate your respect for others and your unwavering integrity. These are the foundational elements for building trust with your colleagues. It’s those trusted relationships you’ll leverage to grow your career in the future.
2. Constructive criticism is a gift
No one likes to hear negative feedback, but in the workplace, sharing feedback is standard operating procedure. Your boss needs to be able to tell you what’s working and what’s not, and you need to be able to hear it, even if it’s a blow to your ego. This is particularly true at your first job, where pointers of any kind could be a huge unlock to your success.
Think of it this way: Would you rather be doing something wrong and not know about it? What if you suddenly found out that you’ve been making a horrible mistake over and over again for a year? Wouldn’t you wish someone had told you about it?
It’s better to know there’s a problem so you can fix it, than it is to carry on in blissful ignorance. When someone provides constructive critique, avoid getting defensive and making excuses. Provide a short explanation (only if absolutely necessary) but then, focus on listening. Ask clarifying questions to better understand what went wrong. Demonstrate you’re paying attention by nodding and making eye contact. You may even want to take notes if a lot of details are being offered.
Ultimately, constructive criticism is offered to help you improve. Your job is to accept it graciously for the gift that it is, and to integrate it appropriately into your work. It’s also worthwhile to note that not all criticism is offered in the spirit of growth. Always take into account who is providing the critique and consider their motivation. Some negative feedback should not be taken to heart.
3. Never wing a meeting with your boss
No matter how comfortable you are with your boss, they are still your boss. You never want to improvise a meeting with them. Showing up unprepared is disrespectful of your boss’s time. It’s inefficient and it also increases the likelihood that the conversation won’t go the way you want it to.
Always do your best to prepare ahead of time for any conversation of consequence. For example, if you’re having a quick check-in meeting to discuss a project you’re working on, review your notes and key measurements first. Plan to share what you’ve accomplished, what’s next up on your plate, and any obstacles you foresee in the future. If you need any specific support from your boss, ask for it directly.
Without this forethought, the conversation can easily go off track. You might get caught off guard when certain questions are asked, you might miss an opportunity to self-promote or get the help you need, and you might even accidentally talk yourself into a bad spot. Any meeting with your boss is an occasion for preparation.
4. Find a mentor
Lastly, it’s never too early in your career to find a great mentor. A mentor is someone who offers guidance and advice, shares their wisdom, and provides general support as you grow as a professional.
Look for someone who has what you want—the career path, the character, the experience, and so on. A mentor can be someone internal (within your organization) or external (outside of your organization). Each offers a different perspective; in reality, there’s no reason you can’t have both kinds of mentors.
A good mentor will help answer your questions regarding how to navigate the professional world. They will play an influential role in building your career, and you will benefit from their experience and knowledge. It can be a very rewarding relationship for both parties.
If you’re navigating your first job and trying to figure it all out, remember that you’re not alone. Few people simply understand all the quirks and nuances of the professional world from day one. Most of us have to learn with experience, through the painful process of trial and error. Take the lessons listed here to heart and hopefully you’ll experience fewer errors along the way!