5 things I wish I knew in my first job!

Updated: Jun 29


Moving into the world of work is exciting, terrifying, awkward, fun, the start of earning independence and the beginning of realising how little you know! Well that was my experience!

I got my first real job just after I completed my Master's Degree. I sent my CV out to about 50 companies and went for a few interviews. I received two job offers - the one I took was from a mining consultancy that paid my flight costs from Cape Town to Joburg for the interview. I remember starting that job thinking "I have a Masters and they flew me up for an interview - clearly I know my stuff!".

Ok thank you, you can stop laughing now!!

I look back now and laugh (and cringe) because the reality I had academic qualifications but I no experience and no concept about how the world of work really worked.

In chatting with some friends, and based on my reflections, here are 5 things I wish I had known when I made my first career transition: the shift from graduate to first time employee in the world of work.

1. Take initiative for your own learning

This is your career and no one else's. Other people will come and go and will influence your career positively, negatively (if you let them) and everything in between. Some will be great teachers, some will be awful. Some will want to contribute to your development. Some will have too much of their own suff going on to care.

That's all ok if you take the initiative for your own learning.

Hopefully the company that you work for will give you the exposure and training you need to perform well in that organisation. But you need to have a clear sense (or even some sense) of what you need to learn so that you can grow in your career - and then act on that. Some of your learning may be by observing, some will be by trying and failing, some will be reading articles and books, some will be mentorship and some will be formal coursework. And some will be by asking questions.

And as I said to a coaching client last week - if you don't know what questions to ask, then maybe your first question to your manager / mentor /colleague / professor should be "I don't know what I don't know, so can you help me to understand where I need to know more?".

"I wish I knew there would be some things that I would need to learn on my own. I say this because I feel there were times I wasted time waiting for instructions or guidance, sometimes from people who also did not have the answers. In some cases, those in position of seniority do not always know and unfortunately they won't acknowledge it. It's not something to disrespect them for, just something to be aware of". Cipo

This comment really resonated with me from my experience of having been a boss. There were many times when I knew what I wanted someone to do, but for the life of me could not explain it in a way that was clear to the other person. Most of us work in multi-disciplinary environments where perhaps the boss is not an expert in your specific line of work and so may not know more than you do in that particular instance. And then there are people who are just not good at training others - not because they are malicious but because it's just not their natural skill. Even the boss is on a learning curve - it’s so important for all of us to know this.

2. Get to know your company

From what the company does to how the internal politics works, who is who in the proverbial zoo and what the formal channels of communication are as well as the informal channels, you need to know what your company is all about. Get to know what happens inside and outside of your department and aim to develop a sense of the bigger picture and where you fit within it.

When you understand where you fit in relation to everyone else, you are able to make a more meaningful impact. It takes time to develop this understanding especially in a large organisation - but it's worth looking, listening and developing your understanding right from day 1.

"Read the company’s annual report... yes its boring but just do it! Spend your first week working out who is who in the zoo... these days even senior managers sit in open plan. Also get to know what other departments do. All good grounding for when the real work starts!" Heidi.

3. Start developing your personal brand from day 1

What do you want to be known for in your professional life? Start thinking about that from day 1 and make your decisions according to how you want people to experience you. This doesn't mean don't have fun. It does mean be aware of your impact and play a long game. Take positive actions early in your career that will have a long term positive impact. People have a habit of remembering how you make them feel.

"Personal branding is not just for companies. Figure out what you want to be known for and be intentional about building your brand. This is the biggest one for me. It does not help being an expert if no one knows you're the expert". Eva
"Put down your phone in meetings. You’re new and there to learn. If the boss sits on her phone all the time just ignore it and be present!" Teresa
"Always get to work before your boss, leave after... or is that too old school?" Heidi

READ MORE: 3 lessons on brand versus reputation

3. Ask lots and lots of questions

Your first few months, maybe even your first year in the job is all about learning. Probably my biggest lesson was that there are no stupid questions (just stupid people who don't ask questions) - so ask ask ask! Never assume you know everything and definitely do not assume that a degree makes you more competent than someone who does not have a degree but does have a lot of work experience.

"Ask questions. Lots of them! Teresa
"Follow up important conversations with written emails that state your understanding of the conversation, especially if there were commitments to do things in the conversation. If the other person thinks something else was said, it can be sorted out in email and it is in writing". Susan

4. Get to know your colleagues and how they like to communicate

If you can learn the art of managing upwards from day 1, you will do well in your career. What do I mean by that? Well your manager will probably have lot of people that he or she is responsible for and most days may be juggling many balls. The easier you can make your manager's life, the more likely that manager is going to value you and give you time and energy. One way of making someone's life easier, is understanding how they like to communicate.

If your manager receives millions of e-mails but doesn't have time to read them, go to him in person and book a few minutes to talk face to face about what you need. If your manager has 30 people queuing at her door waiting for a turn please don't join the queue - drop her an email and ask to book time in her diary and then go to the meeting prepared. If your manager speaks in short sentences and just wants the facts - make sure you get the facts and them communicate these in short sentences.

And above all, while you are new, take the time to go to build relationships. Do this by going to speak to people in person.

"Don’t hide behind emails and electronic communications - many of the people you will be working with / for hate emails and won’t reply unless they know the person sending the mail. Make the effort to introduce yourself to people and go and speak to them in person about what they do. Telephone calls are better than emails but face to face always wins". Teresa

ALSO READ: Is your communication style affecting your career?


5. Fail forward

I have met a lot of people that are afraid to try because they might fail. I have learned in my life that if you approach failure as an opportunity to learn, then you are still moving forward - in other words failing forward.

I wish I had known that my boss WANTED to know when I had screwed up and that bad news should travel faster than good news. My boss wanted me to figure out solutions for myself but would have been much happier if I had gone to her early with problems and suggested solutions, rather holding back until I had screwed up monumentally! (That story is in my blog "It's ok to fail. You may even learn something in the process".)




I love conversations and would love to engage with you on your career and how you are managing yourself and your career like a business.

I believe "managing your career like a business" means having insight on where you want to go in your career, the agility and resilience to change track when necessary, competence to navigate transition points, and self-awareness to manage yourself.

I help you do that through one-on-one coaching, CV and LinkedIn profile writing, topic-specific workshops and a suite of blogs and other materials available on my website. Want more information? Drop me a message and I will get back to you asap.

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