Brand New Associates, Read This!

ttttrrrrrrMy college roommate and Venture Capital Badass Mark Suster maintains a well-respected VC blog, Both Sides of The Table. He recently quoted some advice his wife, Tania (brilliant, beautiful, Wharton MBA, ex-consultant, serious media chops), gave to a friend who was starting his first real job. I have no idea what kind of job. As I read it, however, I couldn’t help thinking it was the kind of sound advice we all wish we’d received (and, more importantly, followed) when we were brand new lawyers. I can’t resist sharing it. With kind thanks to Tania and Mark, here’s what she said:

Secrets of the real world – stuff I learned the hard way

General Advice

  1. Don’t expect constructive feedback without asking directly for it. Most businesses have formal programs in place to give you feedback. Most bosses are too busy to put in the real effort to help you. Many just ask you to fill out the forms for them. It becomes more administrative than constructive. If you ask for feedback in a pleasant, non-defensive way you will likely get it.
  2. You won’t really have a mentor unless lightning strikes. But if you seek one out, most talented employees would gladly become your informal mentor. This can be your most valuable career management tool so use it. It can be a great way to build advocates that will move mountains for you in the future.
  3. People won’t communicate expectations clearly (you must ask, clarify, ask again). Knowing the expectations of your senior employees (and peers) is invaluable to your success and asking people’s expectations is the clearest way to get them to think about it in the first place. The easiest way to beat expectations is for you and your boss to agree them two-ways and check on progress periodically.
  4. Constructive criticism stings, but we all need it. So seek it out, push for real feedback and be open to hearing it whether you agree or not. If you’re defensive you’ll never get real criticism. It’s much easier for your boss to avoid the confrontation or putting the time into thinking through what you could do better.
  5. Don’t overly rely on HR. Make your boss and her boss your primary allies. Your career is best navigated though line managers. HR should be able to manage the sensitive information you give them separate from your line managers but in my experience they do not so be careful. They are not your free psychoanalysts.
  6. Show up early. You may be a morning person – you may not. But nothing gets noticed more than which employees constantly turn up late. Even if bosses say they don’t care – they do. Nothing tarnishes your reputation more quick than being THAT person. The one always slipping in late.
  7. Be humble. Nobody cares where you went to school or how great of a student you were. Get over yourself. Don’t be arrogant. Don’t try to act like a managing partner from day 1. It’s OK to be junior. Nobody expects you to be managing the whole division. In fact, they’ll resent you if you try to act like you are.
Working with Your Boss
Sit down with your boss asap and tell her you want to do an amazing job. Ask her:
  • What could I do to exceed your expectations? What have past employees done that made your life much easier? What tips would you pass along from the most successful employees who have had this job?
  • What is the worst thing I could do in this job that you want me to avoid?
  • Whom should I emulate? Who is great in this role that I should learn from?
  • How can I best help you?
What to do in Your First Weeks
  • Interview your peers, people in your role/team: set up a meeting and ask them same questions as above, plus:
  • How can I best work with my boss, what does she love/hate?
  • What mistakes did you make that I can avoid?
What is Your Job, Really?
  • Your job is to make your boss’s job easier – to help your boss succeed.  Always have that in mind even if it’s not in your immediate job description
  • NEVER bring your boss a problem without bringing him a few potential solutions. Be associated with problem solving, not problems, it creates a positive halo around you
  • Say “yes” to work even when don’t want to. Everybody loves employees who take on projects with enthusiasm. The world is filled with people who sigh when assigned work.
  • BUT if you do become overwhelmed with work it’s ok to say “I need your help prioritizing my tasks because I have too much on my plate.”  Make it a positive thing. The worst thing is to take on too much work and under-deliver.
Other Notes
  • Schedule in your calendar and in your bosses calendar a few check in meetings and ask for feedback and make it a formal conversation. Prepare them in advance by providing a list of the things you’re working on developing and tell them you’d love feedback on how to improve at those things.  You might want to preface with ”I want to learn how I’m doing so I can improve, please give me constructive criticism!” Mostly you don’t want them to feel like these meetings are obligations, reasons for hours of preparations or ways for you to be defensive about your job.
  • So take the feedback on and don’t get defensive. The more you get positive measurement on your work the more likely your boss will be aware of it at the annual review time. Make sure to thank you for his time (he is likely busier than you are, after all!)
  • After you feel stable in your role and with your relationship with your boss – make sure to get to know your boss’s boss. Don’t let your boss love you but his boss not know who you are! This WILL come in handy in your career but you have to manage this cautiously.
There. Invaluable advice. Read it. Memorize it. Duct tape it to the sun visor in your car.

About Alex Craigie

I am an AV-Preeminent rated trial lawyer. My practice focuses on helping companies throughout Southern California resolve employment and business disputes. The words in this blog are mine alone, and do not reflect the views of the Dykema law firm or its clients. Also, these words are not intended to constitute legal advice, and reading or commenting on this blog does not create attorney-client relationship. Reach me at acraigie@dykema.com. View all posts by Alex Craigie

4 responses to “Brand New Associates, Read This!

  • keithrl

    Actively seeking constructive criticism cannot be emphasized enough. Too often new associates want feedback, but in the form of praise only. Having someone you trust and respect point out your failings is far more valuable in the long run, even if it stings one pride for a bit.

  • Max Kennerly

    I mostly agree, but I think “NEVER bring your boss a problem without bringing him a few potential solutions” can lead people astray.

    If a serious, urgent problem has just become apparent, take it the boss immediately. Many good employees have destroyed themselves by sitting on a problem, letting it fester and snowball, and then being trapped with no way to reveal, explain, or solve the problem. Don’t sit on something so long thinking about it that the failure to disclose it becomes a problem itself.

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