For today's post, let's talk about things young grads should do before they take their first job and start their first 90 days. They don't have the leverage of leaders in transition described in You're in Charge, Now What?, The New Leader's 100-Day Action Plan or The First 90 Days; yet it should be obvious that the time to prepare to make a good first impression is before that first impression, and that means not only before the job started but even before they (you) have accepted the job.
I'm not talking about making a good impression at the interviews, which goes without saying (how are you going to get a job if you don't make a good impression?), but about gathering as much information as you can so that you can prepare your transition plan or quarterly plan with all the knowledge you need at your disposal.
First, do your research online about a company that is interviewing you. You can't ask good questions - and especially good follow-up questions - if you haven't done your research. Interviewers often ask students if they (the students) have questions for them (the interviewers). It helps to have two or three questions that you ask everyone to see what their answers are and in particular if they differ. You don't want to overdo it and convey the feeling that the company has to convince you to take the job, so what I find the most useful is to make interviewers talk about their own work and their observations of the division you'd be hired for.
During the interview, you may want to ask about:
- the challenges and opportunities your interviewer sees for the division for the two years ahead,
- a project they've worked on over the past year,
- what they have seen young hires (like potentially you) struggle with on their first year on the job,
- what qualities top performers (among the young hires) had.
Then make sure to take as many notes as possible when you can because it'll soon become a blur and you don't want to forget any piece of information.
When you interview with the person who would be your direct supervisor (or later when you meet that person, if you don't interview with him), you want to pay particular attention to how they define success - which you can phrase as "what are your objectives for the department?", and you might ask how they imagine you could help them achieve that goal - and the challenges and opportunities they see ahead.
Deciding between offers
Let's assume you have the choice between multiple offers. Of course there's no one-size-fits-all answer to which job you should choose, because people do tend to look for "stamps for approval" on someone's resume, so picking the offer from a Big Name company might work well in the long run, unless you know you wouldn't stand the corporate environment and would self-sabotage in grand style if you didn't work for, say, a start-up.
If you have offers from companies of similar stature and reputation, I like to recommend picking the job that would allow you to be closest to the core of a company's business, if possible. Companies with clear career paths (with upward trajectories) and track records of internal promotions tend to be better choices than companies with flat structures. You should be able to get a clear answer about what you'll be judged on for promotion and when (under which time frame) you should expect that review to happen.
You also might want to consider the risk involved in taking the position, for instance given the business outlook of that division. It is also worth knowing if your manager would be someone inexperienced in managerial roles (which you might guess by looking at that person's LinkedIn profile, although be aware that some people aren't afraid of changing their past job title to their new one when they get promoted, so it looks like they've had their new title for much longer than they really have, and may later make an innocent smile and pretend they made a mistake when they updated their profile if you comment on it). As a more experienced hire, you would be able to negotiate a better offer that would compensate for the risk you're taking. As an entry-level grad, you don't have that leverage. You either accept the risk or you don't, but it is helpful to be at least aware of the risk, so that you can take action quickly once you're in the job if it seems that the situation is not going well.
Once you have accepted an offer
The biggest mistake college grads make when they enter the workforce, I feel, is not to understand the people aspect of career success and promotion. You get promoted because someone puts your name up for promotion and fights for your case. This person is likely to be your manager. To succeed, you want to understand how this person defines success so you can align yourself with those objectives. You never want to overshadow your boss. You want to make your boss succeed so that you in turn can succeed, and how are you going to make your boss succeed if you don't even know how he defines success?
But you also want your boss to be aware of your contributions to his team's success, because you'll meet plenty of people eager to take the credit. Even nice people who view themselves as "good guys" sometimes fall prey to the temptation of inflating their contribution on a project because they gave you a word of advice once in front of the vending machine. Also do keep in mind that people change jobs and that might include your manager before he gets to promote you. So you want to have more than one potential ally at the company.
You'll argue that this is not something to know about before you start the job, but it is critically important to keep it in mind so that you can define the image you want to project and the first impression you want to make before day one. (In the same way bullies pick targets that they think will let them get away with the bullying, people steal credit from others whom they believe won't speak up if they find out. And no, texting all your friends that your colleague is a jerk or venting on your restricted Facebook page doesn't count as speaking up. Sharing an issue with someone who can do absolutely nothing about it is not speaking up and it is not standing one's ground. It is taking the easy way out to feel better without changing anything to the situation that bothers you.)
Similarly, you won't be able to decide who truly has the decision-making or resource-allocating power in your department before you start, but you want to come in on your first day determined to observe as much as you can so that you can learn all this for yourself.
So before your first quarter begins in the workforce, make a list of the questions you should have gained answers to by the end of your first 90 days, and of the qualities you want others to associate with you. Later, review those lists every week - ask yourself how you plan on gaining information about those questions and embody those qualities this coming week. You should also review how you had planned your previous week and whether you did get the past information you were counting on or embodied the qualities that are important to you. That will help you identify any inconsistency and take clear action to stay on message.