Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Making the transition from a student to a professional

You are a recent university graduate; you worked incredibly hard over the last four years and secured excellent grades; you were active in extra-curricular activities, were a Teaching Assistant or a Resident Assistant, or an Orientation Leader; you took the recommendation of the career counselors and attended all the career fairs held at the university and even did a summer internship; you put your resume out there and performed well in the interviews. You did all the right things in school and you have its reward in your hands – an offer letter from a well-known  company with a good salary and even a signing bonus.

A few days away from the joining date and you are extremely excited about starting this new chapter of your life of having a “real job” and making “real money”.   Your degree, laminated on a plaque, hangs proudly in your room.  You are stocking your wardrobe with the smartest office wear and making sure that there are enough socks and dress shoes in your arsenal.  You are ready for the upcoming experiences and challenges, but there is also that slight nervousness.  There is nervousness about not knowing what to expect over the first few days, uncertainty about whether you will be able to do a good job on your deliverables and impress your bosses, doubt about whether your colleagues will brush you off as a rookie or whether they will give you the appropriate respect and credibility.   

I was exactly in this situation a few years ago where I didn’t know what was in store for me in my first job and I had no idea on how to be successful in it.  But, I was lucky enough to have an experienced and nurturing manager and also a very dynamic mentor who made my transition into the workplace a little smoother.  There is no doubt in my mind that if I was not surrounded by these people, I would not be in a position where I am today.  I want to pay that favor forward, which is why I decided to write this article and include the various “best practices” and “lessons learnt” along the way during my experiences in various organizations. 

What gives me the authority or standing to provide this advice?  Not much really, I am not a top-level executive or a celebrity, but I do have a few years experience of working in various large organizations.  Also, I have had the pleasure of working with some incredibly talented individuals who have taught me various things along the way and I want to consolidate that learning and make it available to anybody interested.  The results of this desire are the points and recommendations mentioned below.  Some of these points are things that people already know (through life experiences) or quickly learn in their first job, but it might be helpful for some to read these points in one place anyway.  My hope is that these will enable recent graduates to make a good impression in their first job, make their transition into work smoother, and even inspire them to share your own similar tips and recommendations with others. 

These are based on my experiences of working in Technology for financial institutions, but these principles could be extended to other roles or firms as well.

1.  Be yourself: This point is about etiquette, behavior, and environment in the office.  You will instantly realize that the feeling and atmosphere in an office is quite different to a school. Depending on the company, the setting can be professional or casual.  But, even if the setting is professional, do not think that you need to look and act exactly like the rest of the people.  Employers are not looking for robots. 

There is no doubt that you will be judged on your behavior, speech, and looks, so some adjustments in the way you communicate and dress might be required.  But, above all those characteristics, you will be judged far more on your skills, productivity, and professionalism.  These things matter more than the way you look.  So, there is no need to lose your individuality just because you work in an office. With that said, it is also about striking the right balance and common sense.  Don’t wear torn jeans to the office because it’s the latest fashion and talk in a way that offends people. 

We hired a recent graduate whose hair looked like a bird’s nest.  It looked like he hadn’t had a hair cut in months and just rolled out of bed.  In reality, he used to get regular (and expensive) trims at fashion salons but this was his look.  And it didn’t matter one bit, even in a bank.  He dressed well and was very diligent in his work.  He was technically brilliant and that mattered more to us than how he looked.

2.  Get to know the people:  Usually your manager will officially introduce you to the different members of your team.  But, if that has not happened, take the proactive approach and introduce yourself to others around you.  You will be spending a lot of time with these people, so get to know them and their role within the team.

3.  Understand the organization: It is useful for new hires to not only understand their role within the team, but also the role of the team within the group, and the role of the group within the whole firm.  It is very beneficial to see how the different teams fit together.  Try to find the answer to the question – what is the impact to the firm if our department ceases to exist for a few days?  This will help you understand and appreciate the business and industry better. 

4.  Identify resources available to you and use them: Companies invest a lot in people development and provide many training resources that can be easily accessed by all employees.  Most companies will have “university” links on their intranet with online courses relevant for your role and industry.  Identify these resources and take a couple of hours every week to learn something new and relevant.  If workload does not permit to do this during office hours, get to the office an hour early once a week for this learning.  It is worth it.  Also, the intranet might be full of information mentioned in point 3 regarding how do different departments interact with each other (with tools like process flows or organizational charts).

5.  Do the little things that make a huge difference: This point includes general recommendations on topics of emails, appointments, and documents with a view on being more productive and also doing the right thing.
  • Make “Calendar” the start-page:  Every time my Outlook is launched the calendar is the first thing I see and, within seconds, I have an idea of how I need to plan my day.  Instantly I am able to see where my busy and free timeslots are and am able to plan things around it.  I an unaware if such functionality exists with other tools like Lotus Notes but, if it does, I highly recommend doing this.  Also, I like checking the calendar before leaving in the evening to check whether there is an early meeting the next morning. 
  • Adopt a good e-mail filing method to make your searches quicker: In your career you will find different types of email filing methods amongst your co-workers.  One type will have their Outlook extremely organized; they will have hundreds of folders within their inbox with titles like “Project XYZ: Phase II - Jan to March 2010” and others with just one inbox where they keep all their items.  I used to have many folders with things nicely filed in them but soon I found myself in situations where an email could potentially be filed under multiple folders.  So, I decided to quit that system and switched over to having all the emails in one inbox.  Find a filing system that works for you; the ultimate aim is the ability to find items quicker.  For me, just having one main inbox folder did the trick. 
  • Size matters: Most companies have a cap for each individual on the amount of data that can be stored on the email servers.  If that limit is breached, you can not send any new emails.  So, be respectful to your own inbox and the inboxes of others as well.  There will be times when you will have to send screenshots or large documents via email.  Before sending the email out to the recipients, send a test email to yourself to check the size (or just look at the size in the “Drafts” section).  Generally, sending emails greater than 1 MB in size is frowned upon.  Try zipping the contents or including screenshots in a word document in order to reduce the size.  It makes a huge difference.  If your team uses a document management system like Microsoft SharePoint, upload the documents there and send the links in emails rather than the actual document.
  • Save the trees: If you send a document, you can almost guarantee that it will be printed by the recipients.  Before sending the document, do a quick print preview to verify whether the contents of the document fit within the print margins.  It is very irritating when one column of the spreadsheet has automatically moved over to the next page resulting in extra pages being printed, but it does happen.  So, take that one extra step of due-diligence and be kind to the environment and your co-workers. 
  • Don’t give last-minute surprises: If you are given a task with no deadlines, try to estimate how long it will take you to complete it and let the requestor know.  If there is any chance of you not being able to meet that time frame, inform the requestor as early as possible.  The same theory goes for tasks with specific deadlines as well.  

6.  Have productive meetings: Depending on your role, you might be asked to lead meetings as well.  You will quickly notice in the first few days how formal or informal the meetings in your organization are.  But, whatever the case, here are certain recommendations on how to have a productive meeting. 
  • The meeting invite should briefly describe the purpose of the meeting.  If you want the attendees to review certain material prior to the meeting, let them know and include the material in the invite.  Do your best to get a time-slot where all the attendees are available (be respectful to people’s time zones), but if that is not possible and the meeting can not be postponed, ask the attendees to appoint and send a delegate if they can’t make it personally.  This way, rather than just sending a simple decline, the invitees are more inclined to send some representation from their team.
  • Every meeting should start with an introduction where you should describe the scope and purpose of the meeting and what should be the outcome of the meeting.  An example of introduction is – “The purpose of the meeting is to review the issues faced during the implementation of the recent software release; the list of issues were included in the meeting invite.  In the meeting, we will collectively agree and assign an owner to each of these issues.  The role of the owner would be to investigate the root-cause of these issues and propose recommendations on how these can be avoided in the future.  By the end of the meeting, we should have an owner against each of the issues.  We will not be discussing the root-cause in today’s meeting, they will be discussed in subsequent meetings along with the recommendations by the owners.”
  • If there are attendees joining in via teleconference, perform a quick roll call letting everybody know who is on the call before the meeting begins. 
  • It is always recommended to send minutes after a meeting summarizing the discussions and listing the next steps and follow-up items.  Each item to be followed up should have an owner.  For some short and one-to-one meetings, it might be an overkill to send formal minutes but use your judgment.
  • If you are invited to a meeting, make every effort to be there on time.  Be respectful to other people’s schedule.

7.  Ask questions/challenge the norm: It might be intimidating for some recent graduates to ask questions to their management, as they don’t want to appear difficult.  There is nothing to fear.  If you have a question or if there is something that is not clear, just ask.  If there are acronyms or jargon that you don’t understand, just ask. 

In addition, if your team is used to performing a task a certain way and if it doesn’t seem to you that its the right (or best) way to do it, challenge it.  But, if you are challenging, also be prepared to offer an alternative.  As an example, if there a task that is done manually every month and you feel that the risk of human error is high, make it known and even suggest that the task be controlled via an Excel macro or a simple program.  If you can build it yourself, offer your services.  This will show initiative, motivation, problem-solving techniques, and logical thinking.  Sometimes teams are used to doing something so regularly, they think it is the right way (and the only way) to do it.  However, just because something has been done a certain way for ages, doesn’t make it the right or efficient way to do it.  Good teams and management welcome fresh thinking and ideas which challenge the norm (and you are full of fresh ideas!), but the key here is to not just simply challenge and complain about everything, but to offer solutions as well.

8.  Remember that there is no “i” in team: I tried to ensure that the title of this point does not sound like an age-old cliché, but it is absolutely appropriate.  “Team player” is always listed as a requirement on all job descriptions.  It is often just added in as an after-thought but, in my opinion, it is one of the most important soft skills required in any organization.  Often, you will be asked to collaborate with others on a project or a task.  Your team will be from different cultures and backgrounds; they may have very different personalities and work-styles compared to you.  But, that should not matter or distract anyone from the objective of completing the task and delivering a satisfactory result to the requestor.  Everybody needs to be equally engaged in the task at hand.  There is no room for individual agendas or prima donnas.

9.  Manage your time:  If somebody claims that they have mastered the art of time management, they are lying.  No matter how good your time management skills are, there will always be occasions where you are running around like a headless chicken trying to meet a deadline.  With experience you definitely get better at it, and constant improvement is what we should aim for.  I am definitely not an expert in time management but have improved over time.  The way I manage my time and tasks is - I give each of my deliverables a priority, based on importance.  Sometimes the management will set the priority.  I proceed with the tasks in the order of descending priority and also order of deadlines approaching first.  Sounds simple and logical, right?  But, imagine the following scenario:

There are three outstanding deliverables where I need to contribute (deliverable A, B, and C).  Their respective deadline and priority is listed in the table below.  The different tasks to be performed for each of the deliverable are also listed along with the owner and estimated effort.

Assuming that today is Monday, which tasks and deliverables should I work on for the rest of the week?

If I go with the theory of doing the tasks with the highest priority and closest deadline first, my focus would be:

Monday – Task A1
Tuesday – Task A2
Wednesday – Task A3.  This way I have successfully completed deliverable A on Wednesday (one day ahead of schedule).
Thursday – Task B1.  Now, I have also finished my tasks for deliverable B and now can relax till next week when I have to work on deliverable C.  Well done to me!

But, there is a little problem with this approach.  I only finished task B1 on Thursday.  Since this task was a dependency for Luke to start task B2, he couldn’t start B2 until Friday.  B2 took him all day on Friday to complete, as it was a 1-day effort.  Deliverable B has now missed the deadline, as task B3 is not complete. 

Even though I finished all my tasks, the way I handled the order of my work was not the best for the team as it impacted the delivery of B.  That is not the behavior of a team player (refer to point 8).

Let’s see how I could have managed my tasks and time better.

Monday – Task A1 (since some work was already done on this task, I feel its better to complete this task before starting a new one.)
Tuesday – Task B1
Wednesday – Sumeet works on A2.  Luke works on B2.
Thursday – Sumeet works on A3.  Luke works on B3.

This way, both the deadlines of deliverable A and B are successfully met and I can relax till next week when I have to work on deliverable C.  Similarly, Luke can also relax till next week when he has to work on his new deliverables.

To summarize, my system of time management is - I proceed with the tasks in the order of descending priority, unless I am the bottleneck for another deliverable.  In that case, I would analyze if I can remove the bottleneck without impacting my original delivery.  If there is no (or very minor) impact, I will stop work on original deliverable, perform the task where others are dependant on me, and then resume back on the original deliverable.  If there is impact and there are conflicting priorities, I would escalate to management or stakeholders and collaboratively decide the appropriate actions with them.

10.  Find a mentor:  I was lucky enough to have good and helpful mentors early on in my career and it does make a difference.  Soon after you join a team, you will start noticing and admiring the work ethics and styles of certain individuals.  If you do find somebody who seems like an appropriate role-model, make them your mentor.  The mentor does not have to be somebody in a management position, it could be a peer.  Arrange a few lunches with them and try to learn about their experiences and their goals.  They might be able to point you to how you can get closer to your goals as well.  They might also be able to help you understand the information mentioned in point 3, i.e. how does your team fit in the overall organization.  Learn from their experience; you never know what you might end up learning.  One of my mentors told me that it always amazes her that many people (even in management positions) use words like “anyways” and “my bad”.  According to her, their credibility takes a hit when they speak like that in important meetings.  Since then, I ensure that I say “anyway” and “sorry” rather than “anyways” and “my bad”.  To summarize, try to get a mentor as there is no limit to how much you can learn from others.    

The transition from college life to working life can be challenging and some adjustments need to be made.  But, keep in mind, that your education and previous experiences have given you most of the tools required to succeed in life.  As far as the remaining tools are concerned, you will continue to learn and discover them throughout your life.

Hope you found this article useful.  Good luck to you all.

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