Tuesday, July 6, 2010

You've Landed Your First Job. Now What?

by Pat Rosenzweig, Career Coach

You’re curious and analytical. You know how to ask questions and how to synthesize information. Of course. You’re a UChicago student or alum. For some, however, these very characteristics that are the foundation of a success at the UChicago are left on campus when they join the working world outside.

These examples are about recent grads, but they apply equally to undergrad internships.

A UChicago rhetoric major’s first job was for a small marketing and public relations firm. He wrote clearly and compellingly, and he was gracious with the firm’s clients and the rest of the staff. A significant part of his job was to interview clients and explore what about them was innovative and worthy of publicity. At the beginning of his tenure, the Account Executive would accompany him to the interviews to make sure that all avenues of inquiry were pursued. She also needed to see how well the interview was reflected in his written story. She was working to develop trust in his listening, inquiry and “translation” abilities, so that ultimately he could handle interviews alone.

One of the clients they met with was a not-for-profit housing finance agency that had just launched a new program piggy-backing on existing Federal and a city finance programs. Small, not-for-profit housing developers were the target audience for any article that came from the press release he would write. When the Account Executive reviewed his draft, she found that there was nothing in it about the programs’ requirements. “Why?” she asked. “We spent a lot of time on that.”

“It wasn’t important,” he responded.

“Why not?”

“It’s boring,” he said.

Was it that he couldn’t admit that he didn’t understand it, or that what was important interrupted his fluid prose? In either case, if he was going to build trust with his superior, he should have asked for an explanation, clarification, and pursued why it was significant. Where did his questioning ability go?

An investment banking firm had a lot of new hires from various schools on a rotational program. Most of them came from top tier colleges. But because the bank actively looked for “diamonds in the rough” from smaller colleges, there was one student who came from a very small liberal arts college in Michigan.

One of the young associates’ first assignments was to sit with a trader for a morning and document a trade. They had to write a small paper detailing the trade, explaining it technically and recording their observations. When the papers were submitted, the new grads from the prestigious schools had done a beautiful job of writing about all the steps from the trader’s first thoughts to the actual pulling of the trigger and closing of the deal. They had all clearly explained the mechanics of the trade and the technical details. However, one paper stood out.

The graduate from the small school in Michigan had not only documented the trade reasonably well, but also followed the trail. Obviously, a trade doesn’t just end with the trader; it goes to the operations area (back office) where the grunt work is done. Details and instructions are checked, contracts and confirmations sent, and the movement of monies carefully observed so that there won’t be an account in the red, or one with too much surplus.

This “diamond in the rough” received the highest grade because of her ability to look beyond what she had observed with her eyes and ears that day. Remember, any activity occurs within a context. Those who care to look for that, and who understand the whole process, will outperform those who are more academically gifted but lack a complete understanding of their role. Where did the curiosity of the students with 3.9 GPAs go?

A recent College grad was paired with two senior members of an organization and tasked with putting together a new employee training manual.
The two senior staff members were seasoned HR professionals, but wanted the input of the new hire to give the manual a fresh perspective. When they got together to work on the training manual, the recent grad suggested revamping the new hire on-boarding process entirely. He had some great suggestions for using new technology to improve the training process, but the seasoned staff only wanted to make small changes to the procedures and update the employee manual, largely because they knew they were working within a limited budget and a tight timeline. Unfortunately, when the recent grad was told that his ideas could not be implemented, he felt slighted by the more experienced staff and argued that he was not being taken seriously. The more experienced staff members—who admittedly were not familiar with the technology solutions that the recent grad had proposed—felt that he was being stubborn and was turning a blind eye to the very real budget concerns their organization was facing. What could have gone differently? The recent grad could have asked more questions about project limitations—but instead of learning more about his colleagues’ concerns, he simply assumed that his idea was the most logical solution, and did not take into account other behind-the-scenes considerations. He could have used his ability to synthesize information to reach a compromise or staged implementation. What happened to his abilities to ask questions to understand the context and the operational challenges?

In all of these examples, the recent grads failed to consider the context of their assignment. In some ways, they didn’t respect the more senior members of their team. Rather than revealing their own ignorance, they avoided, challenged or limited their opportunity to build a relationship with their boss.

A marketing coordinator for a large architecture firm worked with the VP of Marketing at his firm to review a cover letter he had written to a prospective client. The VP and he spent about an hour reviewing the one-page letter, mainly discussing the differences between a letter of transmittal and a cover letter. Because he took the time to really understand what his boss wanted, the recent grad became the best cover letter writer in the group. Years later he told the VP for Marketing that he never, ever wanted to be criticized for his writing again, so when the opportunity to improve came along, “I really listened.”

Want to know more about how to approach your first job? Take a look at “So you’ve landed your first job. Now what?” in the Summer Undergraduate Newsletter. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to contact a CAPS counselor!