By Stephanie Crysel
I was almost hyperventilating the day I received my first job offer. At 21, I had gone through three on-site interviews and waited a week to hear news. Any news. It was 2013, the job market was brutal for my field, and graduation was just three weeks away. So when my phone lit up, I practically sprinted out of the Chili’s where I had met my mom for dinner. The caller seemed to revel in slowly reviewing the job details and interview process, noting how there had been other candidates also in the pipeline. At last, he arrived to the conclusion: they wanted me! It was all I could do not to “whoop” out loud. I could now call myself a “Young Professional.” I had arrived.
Or had I? The doubts began to flood in. I remember immediately feeling the need to re-read the job requisition. It was a real job, with a real company, where everyone was already productive and professional. What did I know about analytics or consulting? The honest answer was nothing. Looking across the table at my mom, though, those doubts morphed into determination. She got her first job at 14 and had paid for two degrees in four years before even arriving to where I now was. She proceeded to become an operations hotshot at an international company, all while her male managers told her that she shouldn’t even be in the workplace. My mom was a bonafide badass in fuchsia lipstick. I would not fail.
When I arrived on my first day, I was prepared to show that I brought something to the table. And if it turned out that I didn’t, I would make everyone believe that I did until I could figure it out. A classic “fake it until you make it” scheme was born – and it worked! Here are a few easy strategies I deployed to appear as though I belonged in my first job.
1. Sit up! Your posture matters. Remain cognizant that body language is key when no one knows who you are. I made a rule that I would always have part of my shoulder blades touching the back of my chair, with my legs either crossed or ankles tucked under the seat. Later in my career, I received feedback that I always appeared engaged, awake, and focused. However, I promise that was not always the case.
2. Carry a notepad. If you think that you’ll remember the request your boss made 15 minutes ago, think again! Whether you are going through new-hire training or have a weekly 1:1, keeping a list at all times will not only make you look prepared, but feel prepared as well.
3. Dress nice when you don’t have to. I once witnessed a remarkable transformation when a colleague got promoted to management. She switched overnight from casual tees and flip flops to blazers and blouses. Now, both of those things are fine if they’re within company policy, but the juxtaposition of these two images caused an involuntary double-take. Which one was the real her? Was she faking now, or was she faking before? In an office environment where subtext can overpower actual words, I saw that it put people on edge. I decided to always dress a hair nicer than was required, so that my image would be the last thing standing in my way when it was my turn to lead.
4. Frequent the coffee machine. Small talk is an art, and even the most timid of souls can conquer it! Forcing myself to converse was key to my goal of becoming a bright, positive addition to office culture. I wanted people to light up when they saw me turn the corner. The communal office area is where people take breaks from the grind, and what a perfect time to strike up a conversation. I didn’t need any extensive background to make people like me, but once they did, I found that more training and learning opportunities came my way. I’ll also share this secret: after about one month, I didn’t need to fake the small talk anymore. Practice makes perfect!
5. Create a career document. Every project you are put on, meeting you lead, and accomplishment you make should go on a “Career Document.” Practically speaking, I used to always look up the job description for the level above me and group my activities under the different requirements. If I found myself lacking in one area, I could easily strive to fill it before the next promotion opportunity came. When it is time to make your case, you want to be prepared.
6. Follow the five minute rule. No, not the food one. Arrive a few minutes early! It sounds dramatic, but even the most boring of meetings present an opportunity. Your future boss could be sitting next to you. Or maybe these are your future employees. Being early allows you to snag your favorite seat and put on your best face before others arrive. It also projects the image that you care. When you’re new, apathy is the last impression you want to project!
7. Make your manager’s day easier – or at least more pleasant. Being in management, I’ll tell you that it’s rare to be asked how my day is going. This happens to be totally fine with me, as I am usually too focused on the well-being of my teams to care. But when someone does take the time to check, it stands out in a positive way. While you are still fresh and have the brain space, ask your supervisor if there is anything that they would like to see the team accomplish in the future. Bring it up in later conversation, letting him/her know that you are actively thinking about it. I’m so glad I did, because my first boss ended up being my future colleague. Every relationship is important.
8. Remember that new hire training gives you an advantage. It’s simple: always look for ways to improve a process. Your fellow employees have probably been doing things the same way for years, because that’s what they were taught. Superiors love people who can simultaneously get in the weeds and think big picture like a leader. But how to demonstrate that without being asked? I encourage you to always ask “why,” and don’t be shy to volunteer a fix. I once even requested to lead by saying, “I haven’t had much exposure to the engineering team, and I think that would be a great relationship to forge between departments. Would you mind if I reached out to so-and-so to get his opinion on streamlining __?” I mean, with that initiative how can they say no?
Ladies, I ultimately had to accept that it is perfectly okay to feel lost at your first job. Fortunately, careers are a marathon and not a sprint. Setting tiny standards and living up to them was the first step in my career, and looking back now I wouldn’t change a thing. The meetings will become more clear, colleagues will warm up to you, and that first promotion will taste so sweet. Until then, sit up straight, be social, and take great meeting notes – even if it’s just a word you need to Google later. You won’t regret it!
Stephanie is a marketing director and branding enthusiast living in the Raleigh area. On weekends, you can find her traveling, house flipping, genealogy researching, and volunteering with the local Junior League.
Featured Image by Ivorymix