Part of Kathy Caprino’s series “Supporting Today’s Workforce”
When I was just beginning my corporate career in publishing many years ago, I assumed I understood a decent amount about how I had to behave and perform in order to be considered a strong employee. But I soon recognized that the nuances – such as how to really get noticed, or how to demonstrate promotability, or how to show eagerness for more responsibility without getting burned out (because I failed to have appropriate boundaries to say “no”) and more — were much more elusive. And there was no one I could ask about these important questions regarding how to start my career off on the best foot so that I could set myself up to thrive.
Turns out, I wasn’t alone. Thousands of folks just entering the job market and workforce for the first time are often shocked at what they don’t know about how to succeed in a big way and thrive, in their first roles. In short, they’re doing a lot of guessing and surmising, and those best guesses often fall flat and lead us to failure.
To gain some new perspective on the unspoken but essential rules to what to do specifically to start our jobs and careers off right, I caught up this week with Gorick Ng, author of the new book The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right, a guide on how to become a top-performing employee, based on 500+ interviews with professionals across geographies, industries, and job types.
Ng is a career adviser at Harvard College and has managed new employees at Boston Consulting Group (BCG), worked in investment banking at Credit Suisse, and is also a researcher with the Managing the Future of Work project at Harvard Business School. He has been featured in The New York Times, The New York Post, Fast Company, CNBC, and more. Ng, a first-generation college student in his family, is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Business School.
In his new book, he empowers recent grads by teaching them how to do what managers expect but never explain and that top performers do subconsciously. These unspoken rules create an unlevel playing field between insiders and outsiders, but Ng bridges the divide by giving all early-career professionals the concrete, tactical advice they need to excel.
Here’s what he shares:
Kathy Caprino: How can an early career professional or college graduate navigate a tight job market with a leg up on the competition?
Gorick Ng: If you’re a student or new grad, start by Googling for “rotational program,” “leadership development program,” “analyst program,” “early career program,” and “apprenticeship.” Try also searching for “campus recruiting” and “university recruiting” on Google and LinkedIn. Companies that have early career programs will be used to seeing resumes from candidates who may lack relevant prior work experience.
The further you get from companies that have dedicated hiring programs for new or recent grads, the more you’ll start competing against a broader and more experienced job applicant pool—and the more strategic you’ll have to be to get in the door. Focus on organizations where you have the best odds of getting an interview. This means identifying organizations that are on a hiring spree and where you know someone (or can get introduced to someone). Google for “fastest growing companies” and “recent startup funding” to identify companies that are growing like crazy—and that are likely hiring like crazy too. Consider also searching for “we’re hiring” on LinkedIn to find people with these two words in their profiles.
Regardless of the opportunity, try to find someone behind the scenes who can forward your resume along. All you’re doing by clicking “submit” is throwing your resume onto a big pile that may never get looked at.
Caprino: Exactly how can those new to the workforce actually find that “someone” behind the scenes to help them as a mentor or sponsor?
Ng: Begin with your first-degree network (the people you already know). Then, try your second-degree network (people you don’t yet know but could get an introduction to; on LinkedIn, these are the people with a “2nd” beside their name). Once you’ve exhausted those options, move on to your third-degree network — people you don’t know and don’t have a connection to so need to cold email.
Start by engaging LinkedIn to search the companies you’re interested in. On the company page, click on “employees” to pull up a list of people who work at the firm. Filter the list by “1st ” (for first-degree contacts) or “2nd ” (for second degree contacts) and click on the profiles of everyone with a “1st ” or “2nd ” beside their name. Once you’ve exhausted your options, clear the filter and look at everyone, with a focus on people high up in the departments you’re interested in (folks with a title that includes “Chief,” “Director,” or “Vice President”). Try also going onto the company’s website and click the “Team” or “Leadership” page.
When you’re reviewing someone’s LinkedIn page or website bio, look for anything in their history that you can relate to. Did you go to the same school? Study the same major? Participate in the same club, sports team, social group, or community service activity? Have the same hometown? Have a similar prior part-time job or internship? Have the same identity (e.g., are they also a woman in STEM, first-generation college student, or LGBTQ+ professional in finance)? The more commonalities, the better.
The idea is to find people who can see you as a younger version of themselves. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes: Are you more likely to respond to someone who sends you a message that could have been copied and pasted to anyone, or someone who starts their outreach with, “Like you, I was also a part of __________, also did __________, and also want to __________”? The more of a connection people feel, the more likely they’ll respond to you.
While this approach is useful if you know which companies you are interested in, you can still look for potential mentors who are likely to see you as a younger version of themselves even if you haven’t narrowed down a list of firms.
Also make a list of all the clubs, sports teams, community service activities, and social groups you were a part of in all your years of school. Dig up spreadsheets of club members from prior years, browse the alumni directory (if one exists), and look for team rosters on your school’s athletics website. Or, simply Google for the organization and browse the website. This can be especially helpful if you were a part of any organizations that have chapters elsewhere. If you can’t find what you’re looking for with the current website, try using Wayback Machine (https://archive.org/web/) to pull up prior versions of webpages.
Once you have a list of people you’d like to contact, cold email them, share your commonalities, why you’re reaching out, and your availability for a call. If you aren’t sure of the company’s email format, Google for the company domain (“@companyname.com”) and see if you can spot any patterns in the emails that pop up.
Caprino: What do you believe are the unspoken rules of starting a career off right?
Ng: You need more than hard work. You need to demonstrate the right dose of competence, commitment, and compatibility—what I call the Three C’s.
The instant someone reads about you in a cover letter, meets you in an interview, or encounters you at work is the instant they start asking themselves three questions:
1) Can you do the job well? (“Are you competent?”)
2) Are you excited to be here? (“Are you committed?”)
3) Do you get along with us? (“Are you compatible?”)
Your challenge as a job seeker or new hire is to convince those around you to answer “yes!” to all three questions, all the time. This is all easier said than done, though—which is why I deconstruct these three C’s down to 20 unspoken rules in my book, along with examples of what they look like and sound like in everyday work settings.
Here are three examples of strategies that are relevant no matter what job you’re in:
Triple check your spelling, calculations, and formatting in everything you share—and make sure you’ve done everything that was asked of you (or be ready to explain why not, and ideally well ahead of the deadline). It’s easy for someone to question your competence if your calculations don’t line up, if there are multiple fonts and inconsistent spacing in your work, or if you only did a fraction of what was asked.
If someone emails you, respond as quickly as you can. If someone asks for something, embrace the task with enthusiasm. It’s easy to question your commitment if it takes you hours to respond to an email when everyone else takes minutes or if you look disinterested.
When delegated an assignment, offer a time to check in to make sure you’re on track. While you’re at it, ask if anyone is already in charge of whatever you’re about to do. And if they are, ask if you should check in with them before you start your work. (It’s easy to see you as incompatible if you disappear, only to do what others didn’t expect or find threatening.)
There are exceptions, of course—especially as you get more settled into your role. You may have too much to juggle and end up needing to lower your threshold for what’s “good enough.” You may need to block off time to do uninterrupted work. You may even need to tactfully maneuver your way out of assignments. But, when it comes to establishing a good first impression, it helps to be as detail-oriented, prompt, and predictable as you can be before bending the rules—or even rejecting the rules.
Caprino: How can one build trust and unlock opportunity when they are new on the job?
Ng: Show you want to learn: Bring a notebook, take notes as others are speaking, and ask follow-up questions to signal your interest. When working remotely, I’ll even make a point to smile, nod, and subtly flash my pen and notebook on camera to make sure others are aware that I’m taking the conversation seriously—and not distracted on my phone.
Then, as you get settled, show you want to help: Pay attention to what’s stressing your manager out. Then, go to them with a proposal. When in doubt, try the phrase, “Would it be helpful if I did _______?” Then, do that task fully, accurately, and promptly.
All the while, get to know your coworkers as people. Ask them about their work, their days, their weekends—anything to break the ice. Point out any commonalities you may have with them.
In the language of the three C’s, you want to show commitment, by being proactive, competence, by doing what you say you will do, and compatibility, by turning strangers into acquaintances into allies.
Caprino: What have you found are the most important things to keep in mind in the first day, week, month, and year on the job?
Ng: Make sure you meet with your manager as early on as possible to clarify the hidden expectations for your role. At this meeting, ask these five questions if you aren’t given the answer upfront:
1. Which tasks and deliverables are top priorities in my role?
2. What should I be able to do by the end of the first three months? Six months?
3. Is there anyone else you’d suggest I introduce myself to?
4. What should day-to-day and week-to-week collaboration look like between us?
5. Would it be helpful to pencil in a regular check-in?
Then, at your regular check-in — which is ideally happening every week or at most every two weeks — ask your manager, “Is there anything I should start doing? Stop doing? Keep doing?” And if you’re aiming towards a certain goal, such as converting a temporary role into a permanent one or an internship into a full-time job, ask, “Am I on track?”
Succeeding in a new role is all about meeting and exceeding expectations, something you can’t do unless you know what the expectations are in the first place.
Caprino: In your book, you talk about promotable tasks. What do you see are the differences between promotable and non-promotable tasks, and how can we best focus on promotable initiatives?
Ng: Promotable tasks are those that help you get ahead because the higher-ups care about them, whether it’s building new features in a product or making the company money. Non-promotable tasks, also known as “office housework,” are things like taking notes for other people and organizing events.
These kinds of tasks might contribute to the greater good, but they don’t necessarily help your career unless they’re a part of your job. Eagerly embracing non-promotable tasks can help convince others that you aren’t entitled, but, long-term, it’s important to not let non-promotable tasks crowd out the promotable tasks.
Figure out what tasks and deliverables are have-to-dos in your job and which ones are nice-to-dos—and make sure you are caught up with your have-to-dos before signing up for any nice-to-dos.
This is a good example of bending the rules: non-glamorous tasks may be mini-tests for the unproven (which is why it’s important to embrace them with enthusiasm when you’re new), but can also become long-term shackles if not managed strategically. And for the managers reading, know that non-promotable tasks tend to find their way to women and employees of color, so make sure you share the load by establishing a rotation wherever possible.
Caprino: What do recent grads need to understand about exactly what managers expect in performance but never explain, and what top performers do subconsciously?
Ng: Leave nothing ambiguous. If you’re assigned a project and aren’t sure about what you need to do, how you need to do it, or by when you need to do it, clarify upfront. Then, repeat back what you think you heard to ensure that what your manager said matches what you thought they said.
Pay attention to the most respected people at or near your level and who have a similar identity to you. Pay attention to how they interact with managers, how they conduct themselves, and how they approach their work. Then, mirror the elements that are authentic to you.
Caprino: Finally, on the other side of the coin, what do managers need to understand about engaging young employees?
Ng: Help your young employees chart a course for growing in the organization, taking on more important responsibilities, and making an impact. A manager I interviewed once told me, “If I can’t even trust you to print double-sided, how can I trust you to handle clients? If you keep missing small deadlines, it’s not a short fall to miss a bigger deadline. I need to test-drive you first.”
It felt like common sense—until I realized that no one had ever given me that advice before. I wasn’t alone, either—few young employees get these unspoken rules spelled out so clearly, leading many to misunderstand expectations and lose motivation.
And for those who are confident enough to ask for more, they were often labeled as entitled because they asked for more without first doing their basic tasks well. How do we fix this problem? First, define what it looks like to do a good job. Then, help your young employees meet and exceed that standard. And, when they do, reward them.
Helping young employees understand when and how they can take on more important responsibilities offers another benefit: It levels the playing field for women, people of color, and employees from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who may lack the awareness, confidence, or professional sponsors to navigate to higher-profile projects themselves.
It’s win-win-win: it’s good for employee motivation and retention, good for manager sanity, and good for the diversity and inclusiveness of your organization.
For more information, visit The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right.
Kathy Caprino is a career and leadership coach, speaker, educator, and author of The Most Powerful You: 7 Bravery-Boosting Paths to Career Bliss. She helps professionals build their best careers through her Career Leadership Breakthrough programs, Finding Brave podcast, and her Coaching team.