Out of School, To the Office: Brutal Truths for Entering the Professional World

Another Class, the Class of 2015, has just graduated. Like the classes before them, the Class of 2015 holds false expectations and does not understand how to succeed in the professional world. My prior internships have taught me that classroom education is not enough to be successful — it is only enough to be entry-level. Here are 10 lessons and brutal truths for the graduating class that have more value than 2 years of business classes:

1. College Courses Didn’t Prepare You for a Career

We (Young Professionals) enter the workplace without understanding how to interact with managers and executives, build reputations, and earn promotions. We also have false expectations about career advancement and money. Here is reality:
  • Promotions are few and far between. You may be the best and the brightest, but it will take years to move up at a corporation. Even after 2-3 years of entry-level work, you may need a CFA, MBA, or a Masters Degree to move up the corporate ladder.
  • Often, you won’t control your early career or pay raises. Got a stellar performance review but only got a small bonus or raise? The only way to move up and earn more in a large company is to take a new position when offered…unless it be offered to somebody else. It’s not personal; it’s just business. People are important to their employers, but the bottom line is more so.
  • By themselves, a good reputation and nice personality won’t help you. People want to know what you have accomplished recently and what that means for your team. This applies for moving up inside the company or jumping to a higher position of another company.  
Young professionals must be STARs: Savvy, Tenacious, Adaptive, and Resourceful. This means recognizing that you don’t know everything, and being able to set goals, utilize the people and mentors around you, and to take calculated risks. Be a lifelong learner who is always willing to learn new things.

2. Check Your Ego and Dump Your Sense of Entitlement

In the professional world, no one cares where you graduated from or what your last job was. No one likes to work with a braggart. You are entry-level just like all the other new hires. Sometimes, no matter how well you perform, raises and promotions don’t come to fruition. Be patient and build experience so you can rack up results and accolades for the next promotion.

3. Learn Fast and Be Flexible

Absorb and retain new information. Carry a notepad where ever you go! Admit what you don’t know, ask questions, and take notes. It shows that you are engaged, insightful, and willing to learn. This is especially important when you experience change. Change happens everyday in the business world. Be flexible and use changes to maneuver your way to the top. Being flexible means adapting to changing circumstances and considering different problem solving approaches to accomplish new goals. Consider your past experiences, but be willing to see and try new possibilities. Adapt quickly to change and learn from each new experience, and be open to changing your career path to obtain success. Remember this: Failures are inevitable. How one reacts to failure is more important than failure itself. Take on challenges, learn from your struggles, and persevere despite setbacks. Lessons can be learned from any experience, positive or negative. Draw a lesson from your experiences, and the experiences of others, to avoid common pitfalls. Take pride in what you have learned and what you have accomplished thus far.

4. Teamwork

Performance is about teamwork. Bosses want their subordinates to make them look good; colleagues want peers that help with shared goals. Focusing on team success, instead of individual success, develops leadership and management skills. STARs put the team first:
  • Recognize the contribution of others. By crediting and praising colleagues, you create a reservoir of support and acknowledgement for your own contributions.
  • Admit mistakes and ask for advice. People who own up to their mistakes learn faster by getting help.

5. Build Self-Awareness

Self-aware individuals understand themselves and their own strengths and characteristic that can be leveraged for success. Be aware of your weaknesses as well and what you need to develop and improve. Ask for feedback from your peers, managers, mentors, and coaches. Listen to their constructive feedback, thank them for their time, and make changes based on their suggestions. This is the best way to build self-awareness and learn from your experiences.

6. Customer Service

Even if you are at a desk, you still have customers. A customer is someone who influences how you achieve results, rates your performance, and pays for your work. Your boss is your customer. Your employer is your customer. You can provide excellent customer service in six steps:
  • Figure out what is important to the customer
  • Set proper expectations
  • Anticipate the customer’s unmentioned needs
  • Follow-through on promises
  • Focus on the customer’s goals and success
  • Monitor the customer’s satisfaction

8. Work Smart and Take Action

Working hard is a must, but working smart is even more important. Working smart means being efficient, utilizing resources thoughtfully, and acting with purpose. You can take breaks and go home at a reasonable hour. Too comfortable with your routine? Find situations that challenge your skills and your ability to handle responsibility. Volunteer for a tough project, or identify a problem and spearhead a change. Do something that tests your limits and prepares your for the next career opportunity.

9. Communicate Effectively

Effective communication is the single most important skill. Colleagues, managers, and executives judge what both what you say and how you say it; if you can’t communicate, the content barely matter. Build your effective communication by listening to others, providing evidence to support your position, and considering the audiences’ viewpoint and goals. Remember to speak clearly and with confidence. In a conversation, it is the speaker’s (you) responsibility to make the listener understand.

10. Network, Network, Network

Your relationships with people will make or break your career. Networking builds these relationships. Networking is not going to “networking fairs” and meeting stranger. Networking is connecting and helping people around you and in your industry (or the industry you want to be in) — colleagues, manages, executives, mentors, friends, and alumni are all part of your network.  When you help them, you open the door for future favors and support. Strive for a personal and professional relationships, make others feel important, and stay in contact with your network even if it is only once a year with a card or email. Remember, do not judge a book by its cover. You never know who will be important and valuable in the future.

Aaron McDaniel, a Fortune Global 100 manager and entrepreneur, is a career coach and consultant for young professionals who want to carve a successful career path. I recommend his book, The Young Professional’s Guide to the Working World, which covers these concepts and more for success in corporate careers. This is a must read for those who want to go into the Accounting, Banking, Finance, and Consulting.