First Quarter

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!

Before the First Quarter for College Grads

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. 

The First Quarter - Insights for Young Grads into their First 90 Days on the Job

51F3dWKdgyL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_ 41TTVVQDAML._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_ 51NV1sxy92L._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_I've been reading a number of excellent books on career transitions, especially the best-selling You're in charge - Now what? by Thomas J. Neff and James M. Citrin, The new leader's 100-Day action plan by George B. Bradt, Jayme A. Check and Jorge E. Pedraza and The first 90 days by Michael D. Watkins (also targeting new leaders), and it occurred to me there is nothing on the market specifically for young graduates entering the workforce in their first job, although part of those books are applicable to young grads too.

Political commentator often talk of a leader's first 100 days, but business people generally think in terms of quarters or 90 days (hence the title of Watkins's book), so I decided to inaugurate a new blog category, called The first quarter (meaning the first 90 days, although I suppose a sports metaphor would be fine too), where I will share insights into how young grads can take a great start in the workforce. 

Based on my own observations, I feel that we graduate many talented students but we teach them close to nothing about workforce success, in part because we professors don't work in industry to begin with, so we don't have much first-hand experience to share on that matter. Yet, we all have our own work environments to deal with, and our own insights into what worked and what didn't when we reflect on our own career, and the career paths of graduates that we can observe over the years and sometimes testimonies from graduates themselves. So I feel I have enough information at my disposal that I can share some lessons with young graduates or soon-to-be graduates.  

I was struck by the importance of helping young graduates take a good start when I read the Harvard Business Review's OnPoint special issue on how to be a better boss (read my post about it here). Two articles in particular caught my attention with respect to young graduates: 

  • a short one: Managing and motivating employees in their twenties, by Michael Fertik, especially when he wrote that "too many managers in their late twenties are threatened by supersmart colleagues in their early twenties",
  • and a longer one that should be required reading by anyone starting a career,  Pygmalion in Management, by J. Sterling Livingston, which was originally published in the July-August 1969 (!) issue of HBR that remains as relevant today as it was then. The author explained that it is particularly important to seize advantage of employees' first year because new hires' aspirations and their manager's expectations of them become colored by past performance after one year, and to make a company's best managers the new hires' first bosses, on the grounds that "[a] young person's first boss is likely to exert the strongest influence on his or her career." A lackluster first boss is a convincing explanation for the less-than-spectacular career that some excellent former students of mine have had, although they had both the analytical and interpersonal skills to shine in the workforce. It is easy to say of a great student who doesn't do so great in the workforce that there is more to success in real life than plain booksmarts, but I often feel that this reason is a bit too glib, a bit too convenient, especially for Lehigh students who are known to be very well rounded. Identifying early on a situation where one's boss might, even unwittingly, hamper one's career can help young graduates navigate quickly around an unexpected pitfall. A future post of mine will explain ways to do that. 

I'll finish today's inaugural post on First Quarter by linking to an old post of mine that has proved very popular: In Praise of the Career Pre-Mortem. In that post, I argue that all the college seniors about to step into the workforce should do a career premortem. From the post: "The idea is to imagine yourself five or ten years from now with your career at a low point. What could have happened to bring it there? While this is no fun to think about, the awareness of what could go wrong will hopefully motivate you to take action now, or better navigate potential pitfalls." The post provides some ideas in that respect to raise students' awareness.

Another way to identify potential pitfalls is to think about a recent setback and the story you told yourself about it. For instance, if you didn't get the internship you wanted, did you conclude that "to get a good internship there you need to know someone at the company; I didn't have a chance to begin with"? Or if someone you don't respect got an A and you got A-, did you think "oh she only got that grade because she fakes interest by asking all those questions in class and the professor isn't seeing through her games"?

If you explain a lot of things that happen to you through a specific lens (the same story comes up again and again and usually can be summarized in a sentence or two), then it should give you a clue of what could go wrong in the future. For instance, if you finally do get a job in a company you like, you might unwittingly come across as judgmental because you will keep rehashing in your head the story that people in positions of power at that company got to where they are through connections only and so don't really deserve their job. This is not a recipe to make allies, find sponsors and get promoted.

In the second case, be assured that professors have had students trying to fake more interest in their class than they really had to get a good grade since the beginning of time, and while you might worry we don't see through that game because it is the first time you've ever noticed something like that, we see quite a few of those kids every year and we're not that easy to take advantage of. (Some professors prefer to spend their energy elsewhere and not point out they see through it, but they see through it all the same.) If you really think the girl got her A when you got an A- because she participated more, then it's time to raise your hand instead of resenting her. 

Pay particularly attention to things that happen again and again in your life. Some people start every internship with high resolve and ambition but end up feeling dejected, underused, and quite angry at having wasted their summer in a dead-end job. Others keep attracting pseudo-friends who will take advantage of them. If you see a pattern in your life, it is worth asking yourself what you are doing to bring it about so that you can make adjustments and break the cycle, so that you'll take the great start in your career that you deserve.

I expect to have one new First Quarter post up on the blog every week, in-between other posts on business and education.