The class of 2006 is lucky, indeed. The nearly 3 million U.S. college graduates going forth from academia into the workforce this year are finding the most ebullient job market in years. According to a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), employers plan to hire 14 percent more new graduates than they did last year.
Some of these new workers will move into their first jobs with lofty ambitions about reaching the executive suite one day. Others are more interested in paying off student loans. Whatever your goals, one thing is crystal clear. Just as your mother stressed that "first impressions are lasting impressions," in your career you only have one shot to get off on the right track. In the first part of Leadership by Example's Graduation Special, I focus on two guidelines that are essential to getting your career off to a great start (check out part 2 -- "Helping Your Kids' Careers Take Flight").
1. Choose the right first job.
2. Get off to a great start in your early days.
How to Choose the Right First Job
It's all too easy to become confused about what makes the ideal first job after school. Is it the one that pays the most money? The position that will best develop your skills? Or the employment that offers the greatest prestige?
A great first job is a combination of these and other factors. I've spoken with thousands of college and graduate school students and, more importantly, seen career trajectories play out over time. Based on this experience, here are my four recommendations for choosing the right first job.
* Go Blue Chip. Over the course of your career, employers will look at you in a similar way to how consumers consider a brand. What's your personal career brand?
Fact is, you'll be associated more with the company for which you work than the specific job that you hold. Just as your college attaches a label to you for your entire career (for better or worse), so, too, does the first company you work for. Just about any first job with General Electric, Exxon Mobil, Disney, Microsoft, Toyota, Johnson & Johnson, Merrill Lynch, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble, Home Depot, or Apple Computer will add more long-term career value than even the most responsible position with a no-name organization.
Being associated with a blue-chip brand will also enhance your career options down the road. It's always easier to move from a large, well-known, well-respected organization to a smaller or riskier one.
Beyond the brand association, these kinds of companies offer other advantages as well. They have the best training programs, the widest variety of opportunities to test your skills, and the deepest health and medical benefits, just to name a few.
* Follow Your Passions. While this might sound trite, career success is highly correlated with your inherent interest in your work. It's no surprise that people are happier working in an area that they're genuinely interested in vs. an area that they consider drudgery.
Don't assume that you already know all the fields that you could be passionate about. Here's a simple technique to identify new areas of interest. Spend a month or so collecting business magazines. When the stack is a foot or two high, go through them one by one and rip out any article or advertisement that sparks a chord -- don't over-think this. Then, spread them all out on the kitchen table and put them into logical groupings. You'll almost certainly notice some patterns emerge.
* Pick Your Boss Carefully. While the first two points will hopefully direct you towards the field that you're most interested in and into the most blue-chip organization in that sector, the next thing to understand is how important your first boss will be to your success.
He or she will hand you your first responsibilities and hopefully give you performance reviews and constructive feedback so that you develop. More subtly, he or she will set the standard for cultural norms and quality standards that will guide the way that you behave in the organization. Even years later, many successful professionals point to their first boss as an enduring mentor over the course of their careers.
* Focus Not on Compensation. Because of their inherent profitability, some industries, such as pharmaceuticals, accounting, oil, and Wall Street pay very well. Other industries, by reasons of lower margins (such retailing, transportation and distribution) or an imbalance of demand and supply (such as advertising or sports management) or their not-for-profit status (such as teaching) simply don't.
This is not a reason to choose one field over another. There are many people making a lot of money who feel trapped, under-utilized, and, frankly, miserable in their jobs. And there are many others who are genuinely fulfilled, growing their skills, feeling that they're making a contribution, and working in an area of inherent interest.
Think of your first job as setting you on a path. Don't worry too much about compensation in the first few years -- the big payoff will come down the line.
How to Get Off to a Great Start
Last week I spoke with Tom Ryder, chairman and former CEO of The Reader's Digest Association, about what advice he gives to young people as they launch their careers. He shared what he calls "Ryder's Rules for Success." Rule #1: Work harder than anyone. Rule #2: Smile more than anyone. Rule #3: Volunteer for all the jobs that no one else wants to do. Following these rules will certainly get you off on the right foot in your new job and differentiate you from your peers. Let me elaborate:
* Maintain a positive attitude. Attitude is the single most important thing that you carry into the early days of your job. It's also something over which you have nearly complete control. Be the kind of person who creates rather than saps energy from other people. Be upbeat and optimistic. Listen much more than you speak. Ask good questions. Don't be a know-it-all. Be proactive.
* Work Hard. There's no escaping the fact that hard work on a consistent basis is an essential requirement for success. Pete Dawkins, vice chairman of the Citigroup Private Bank, a former Brigadier General, Rhodes Scholar, and Heisman Trophy winner on the 1958 West Point football team, said the most common thread about excellence is that the best performers across all disciplines work harder than anyone else. "You just go down the line, the people who are the very best in the world not only have a passion and a genius for what they do, but they work the hardest."
So as you start your career, get into the office early. Stay late. But don't work hard just to create face-time. Do so to get more high-quality work done. You can still work hard and find time to keep your personal life, family obligations and physical self in shape. Take advantage of the time shifting that's possible in today's work place by responding to the e-mails that you didn't have time to address in the office from home at night.
* Deliver on Your Commitments. Become known as someone who can be counted on to successfully complete whatever task is requested on time and with high quality.
You should expect that your first job will be narrowly defined, so some of your early assignments might seem menial. They aren't. Delivering on your commitments builds trust and confidence. You'll be surprised how quickly larger and more significant assignments flow your way when you develop this reputation.
* Do completed staff work. Completed staff work is a concept that I learned as an associate at McKinsey & Company. This means going beyond the rote to understand why something is asked for and how it'll be used when it's completed.
If a client-service executive asks you for an analysis of a target account, for example, completed staff work will be a finished product that can be proudly passed along to your boss's boss or to the client itself. Set this as the standard for all of your work.
* Focus on the success of others. Develop this habit from day one of your career. It's a guaranteed success strategy that if you make others around you successful, then you'll be successful as a natural consequence (see "Leadership: Nice Guys Finish First").
Why? That's because the most talented people will want to work with you. You become in-demand for the most important projects by the most senior people, and you build a network of supporters across the organization who are pulling for your success.
But how, you may ask, can I help others be successful if I'm brand new in the job myself? Look for ways to be helpful. Be proactive. Be willing to take on extra or unpopular work. Keep focused on the goals of your boss, your team, and your company ahead of your own goals.
For more on these topics and strategies, read the single best book out there about getting off to the right start in your career -- "From Day One: CEO Advice to Launch an Extraordinary Career," by William J. White. Bill is an award-winning professor at Northwestern University and, before that, spent eight years as chairman and CEO of Bell & Howell.
In the second part of this Leadership by Example Graduation Special, I offer practical advice to the parents of the class of 2006 on how they can help their children's careers take flight.