Career Focus

How to Navigate Your First Job


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. We often spend a lot of time discussing professional norms and the unspoken rules of the business world. 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 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 five key lessons to help kick start your career and boost your professional prowess.

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. 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 timeliness (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.

Constructive criticism is a gift. Accept it as such

No one likes to hear negative feedback, but in the workplace, it’s 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.

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.

When you don’t have much experience with this kind of thing, receiving negative feedback can be a little emotional. If you feel yourself getting angry or upset, take a deep breath. Don’t indulge those feelings. If you need a moment to process what you’ve heard, simply say something like this: “Thank you for the feedback. I’ll think this over and get back to you about my plan for the future.”

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.

Co-workers are not friends

This is a tough, but critical, reality to face. Co-workers are your professional peers; they are not friends. That doesn’t mean you can’t go out for an occasional cocktail after work, or discuss your weekend plans with one another. But remember that there is an invisible line that shouldn’t be crossed.

A little friendly rapport can go a long way in enhancing collaboration and teamwork, but too much can hinder your ability to be effective at work. When co-workers develop deep friendships outside of the workplace, they can create a number of different problems for themselves and others. If things go sour socially, the working relationship inevitably suffers and often the entire office ends up knowing personal details they’d rather not know. Conversely, a strong friendship can lead others to feel excluded. And, should one person gain supervisory authority over the other, concerns about favoritism will invariably arise.

In short, keep your professional relationships professional. If and when you part ways, they can turn into personal relationships.

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.

Get a mentor. Now

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 relatively new to the workforce 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!


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