Shakespeare in the workplace, Part 1
Shakespeare in the workplace, Part 2

First Quarter: Onboarding for college grads

51NV1sxy92L._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_This post of my new First Quarter series (on transitioning into the workforce for college grads) will be on the first two chapters of The First 90 Days by Michael D. Watkins and how I find they can be applied to entry-level hires.

I teach seniors and Master's students and when the top students fail to shine in their work after graduation, I sometimes hear the comment that superstar students don't necessarily become superstar employees because real life requires very different skills from college.

I don't like that explanation because I feel that sometimes it might be made by people who envy or resent those students who got As in college and it is just a little too convenient to ascribe the underwhelming performance of college superstars to an intrinsic inner flaw on their end. If those students were smart enough to figure out how to get As in college (by gaining good study habits etc), they should be smart enough to figure out how to succeed in the workplace. If you view their lackluster career as an onboarding process gone wrong (as I do), however, you can take important steps to remedy the situation and help them perform at their full potential in today's economy.

Top college students who fail to become top contributors in the workforce under-perform because they haven't been taught the new skills they have to gain in this new phase of their life. In that sense, they make the first mistake identified by Watkins's in his book: "sticking with what you know", i.e., assuming that "you will be successful in the new role by doing the same things you did in your previous role." 

I will have plenty of opportunities to write posts about onboarding books out there, including Watkins's, so this post isn't meant to provide a comprehensive overview of his book. I'll focus here on the introduction and the first chapter.  The introduction provides a list of key tasks for the new onboarding leader. I've put in bold those that may be most relevant relevant to the new grad.

  • Prepare yourself. Take a mental break from your previous job (time in college or in a graduate program), don't assume that what made you successful in the past will continue to.
  • Accelerate your learning. You need to understand the company's structures, systems, products, culture and more. You also need to decide what you need to learn and how and when. 
  • Match your strategy to the situation. Are you joining a start-up? a company in the middle of a turnaround?
  • Secure early wins. Build your credibility and create momentum, identify ways to create value. (This point is at the core of the capstone project for the Master's of Science in Analytical Finance at my institution, which I supervise. I have them replicate part of an existing paper to establish their credibility and then determine how they can extend that paper's results in some way to create value to their company. They find it uncomfortable at first but by the time the project ends they are usually happier about the process.)
  • Negotiate success. Figure out how to build a productive working relationship with your new boss. Discuss expectations, working style, resources and personal development. Also develop an gain consensus on your 90-day plan.
  • Achieve alignment between the organization's strategic vision and your strategic intent.
  • Build your team.
  • Create a coalition. "Your success depends on your ability to influence people outside your direct line of control."
  • Keep your balance and perspective by creating and maintaining the right advice-and-counsel network. 
  • Accelerate everyone. 

I found the transition risk assessment table p.14 (Table I-1) quite interesting because it puts into focus the major transitions a new grad faces: joining a new company, entering a new role, moving geographically (at least for most graduates of the university where I work). Some may also enter a company where major change is already going on, which adds another dimension of risk. 

In Figure I-4, Watkins also recommends establishing key transition milestones by mapping out your first 90 days. The checklist at the end of the chapter offers valuable food for thought, in particular "what are some traps you might encounter?" and "How can you create virtuous cycles and build momentum?" For a college grad, I think a trap is to be boxed into a role that vastly underuses one's abilities and training. Another trap is to want so much to demonstrate one's skills that one ends up alienating colleagues.

No one achieves transformational change on his or her own, especially not an entry-level grad. Recall the "build coalitions" above. If you feel underused, spend your time observing your colleagues, how they interact with each other, who spends his time in the office of whom, how the meetings are run. The sooner you'll figure out how the web of power runs through your department, the better off you'll be in the end. 

The first chapter, "Prepare yourself", highlights the following four components to the onboarding process, all of which are relevant to the new grad:

  1.  Business orientation (understand the business environment).
  2. Stakeholder connection (identify key stakeholders and build productive relationships)
  3. Expectations alignment
  4. Cultural adaptation, including (this is where Watkins's book gets extremely valuable in providing a structured framework to think about those issues, so you'll have to get the book to read the full details):
    • how do people get support for critical initiatives?
    • what is the purpose of meetings? (forums for dialogue and real discussion vs opportunities to ratify agreements reached in private)
    • how is conflict handled? (is there open talk about the issues?)
    • who is recognized and promoted? (individual star performers vs team players)

I also found that Watkins delivered a lot of value when he asked the reader to assess his vulnerabilities: what kind of problems do you gravitate toward, and so what are your blind spots (tasks you would rather not do but should do to be effective)? He also advocates to watch out for your strengths (think of the "hammer in search of a nail" metaphor), relearn how to learn and rework your network. Also, watch out for people who want to hold you back, which for college grads may mostly be former classmates envious that they got a better job than they did. 

New grads should take an honest look at what they think has made them successful so far in their career and reflect whether there are new skills they need to develop. Hopefully this would be explained in a meeting with their/your new boss when discussing their career path and metrics for promotion, but it is safe to say those key skills for an entry-level grad will probably include, whether the grad is told so or not:

  • conscientiousness (reliability),
  • communication skills,
  • levelheaded-ness and poise under pressure,
  • ability to follow directions,
  • sense of initiative,
  • ability to receive feedback including negative feedback (don't get defensive, don't argue, rephrase what you have just heard so that you and your interlocutor can make sure you heard the feedback correctly, agree on specific behavior changes that can easily be observed),
  • ability to get along with other teammates including difficult teammates,
  • ability to anticipate questions (thus researching their answers ahead of time),
  • ability to read a situation in a political context correctly (understanding what your boss's problem or concern is, not trying to make suggestions to solve a problem before you've understood what your boss's real problem is and how he will judge options; or understanding what truly matters for a consulting client, not trying to force cookie-cutter solutions on him),
  • thinking outside the box,
  • adding value to the team.

It is also always a plus for a new hire's career when he can read accurately people's motivations behind their attitude toward him. Look out for a post on how to succeed at office politics soon!

Comments

Even though your blog is titled "Engineered" I think you might be teaching more management & finance classes than straight engineering so what I say below may not apply as much to your students. Nevertheless, as an engineer with more years than I care to recall in the field, I have a few comments about college vs the "real world" at least as regards technical subjects.

For starters, I'd disagree that someone smart enough to get A's is de facto capable of succeeding in the workforce. Would you say the same if they were considering acting? Basketball? Teaching? My point is that different careers require different skills and often temperaments than that required to be an A college student. The workforce requires "soft" people skills that are not required or selected for as an engineering student. They can no more acquire these skills by dint of having recognized them as necessary than they can speedily acquire the skills to act, teach, play professional sports.

Next I'd say that many of the important skills on the job often have little to do with what is taught & valued in engineering schooling. Students spend a lot of time studying low-level details and laboriously solving equations. A EE becomes familiar with using Laplace transforms, transistor amplifiers, state machines reduced by hand, carry-lookahead adders, etc. On the job there are software tools to automate all of these. The skills needed in the workforce are higher-order *applications* using these blocks. A dozen lines of Verilog may imply more flops and combinational logic than the student had created by hand in all her/his years of schooling.

Lastly, I'd add that in the workforce new students have to make an unexpected leap from the concrete and understood to the abstract and vague. There may be nobody at a Google or Broadcomm that understand a given product from the lowest level to the highest. A good engineer has to give up a love for total understanding, ironically an understanding that is tested for and rewarded on small blocks of knowledge in college, and replace it with a gestalt that captures what the product does and needs. Then, and only then, can they apply their skills to the particular piece they are assigned without getting trapped in a local optima. This is where I bet many of your underperformers lie trapped. They know a lot about how to do their specific assignment but aren't capable of doing more than asked; they are trapped in entry-level assignments forever.

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