Another September, another wave of young graduates filling the offices of many high-powered consultancies and companies across the world.
No doubt you’ll be excited to get in front of the C-Level, explain why the current business model is a heap of crap, and how digital transformation is definitely the way forward.
Before you go and spectacularly commit a career limiting move, here are some tried and tested pieces of actionable advice.
1. Start by filling up the career capital jar
When you join a new company, you’re an unknown quantity. No reasonable senior manager or director will put you directly in front of a senior colleague or client and have you present or give advice in your first few weeks. You need to start adding external confidence in your abilities and good work into the career capital jar.
Everyone starts with zero. Regardless of which university you’ve been to or how incredible you might think you are at analysis or presenting. You will be asked to complete what many people think are mundane tasks, like arranging meetings, taking notes or formatting slides.
Do it all well, on time, and impress. That’s the only way you’ll get better work. People who are unmotivated to do work they consider beneath them will never get to the better stuff.
2. Act like you’re 31, not 21
“Wait a second, how old are you again?”
“And you want me to listen to you…about the job I’ve been doing for 15 years?”
At this point, a few graduates will stammer unintelligibly about their university course, and how a few classes might make them a thought leader in business transformation. Don’t.
Clients will know you don’t have much experience, and they’re paying a huge rate for you to be there. Perceptions matter. So firstly, make sure everyone perceives you as competent. Act with gravitas.
Your answer to the above question might now be that you’re effectively a conduit for the knowledge of the people that work at your firm. You’re on the ground doing the analysis, using frameworks and methodologies that have evolved over many clients and projects. You’re working with hugely experienced consultants and leaders in the field and contributing to the overall success of the project.
You might be 21, but it shouldn’t matter by the time you’re done. Learn to speak the CEO code, apply it to any of your clients and you’ll be light-years ahead of your peers.
3. Vigorously manage expectations and learn how to say no
This is the one that caught me out as a new consultant.
In any single project, there are hundreds of to-do items. Pieces of analysis that need doing. Pitch decks to write and format. Interviews and conference calls to take. How do you keep all these plates spinning and succeed?
Manage the expectations of people around you.
The correct answer to, “Can you get this done by 4 pm?” isn’t always yes, even though you might want to be a hero and try and do it.
Know what’s achievable in your timeframe, learn how to say no, and still get things done.
Approach it in a pragmatic way: “I’ve got X, Y and Z to do for Anne. I’m estimating that it’ll take me 5 hours based on the work I did yesterday. That means I won’t have time to return this to you by 4 pm. If I re-arrange work with the other consultant, it could be possible, but I’ll get back to you in 10 minutes and confirm. Let me know if you want me to re-prioritise any other pieces of work.”
Once you’ve committed to something, make sure you do it. Barring acts of God and loss of limbs, there are no other options. Credibility and trustworthiness are two of the most important attributes of a junior employee.
4. Not knowing is OK and bullshit is bad
It’s OK not to know. Seriously. Your managers and clients won’t immediately class you as an idiot if you get lost in the middle of a complex conversation, or during a piece of analysis. So long as you can learn quickly, there’s no problem.
It’s excruciatingly painful to see someone nod their head without understanding or bullshit when they clearly have no idea of what they’re saying. There’s marginal upside and unlimited downside to this strategy. Clients and colleagues alike will lose respect for you.
Try to be as brutally honest as possible when you don’t know something. You’ll clear up misunderstandings, gain a better understanding of what the client’s problem is, or how to help someone in a shorter time and be happier about it as well.
The next step is to prove that you’ve learned. Take on a more difficult piece of work or teach a colleague if they didn’t understand either.
It goes without saying that you shouldn’t be ignorant of obvious terminology, how your project works, any items which managers have assigned you, and other basic things. There’s a limit to how much people will take. JFGI to learn most things, and ask when you’re completely stuck.
5. Be a prolific reader, but focus on writing as well
Writing is something I wish I’d focused more on in my consulting career.
Being able to write a structured article, blog post or essay about a technical topic is a brilliant skill. Not only does it allow you to get your thoughts across effectively, but it’s also a way to build your brand outside of your company as well.
Think about it: your internal CV might be fantastic, but what do people see when they Google your name? If you’re a contributor to the Huffington Post, Inc, Entrepreneur, Forbes, or any authority website in your industry, it’ll provide instant credibility. Starting a blog, posting on Medium and LinkedIn is the start of your journey.
Yes, there’s been a huge rise of content posted on the internet, but the 1% rule still applies. 90% of people are just consumers. If all you’re doing is mindlessly consuming, then there’s little time to have thoughts and ideas of your own.
To be able to write in the first place, you’ll have to read. So do yourself a favour and sign up to Twitter. Follow all the thought leaders in your field and read what they write. And then read the sources they used. And then read the books those sources used.
Contribute to the conversation. Have an opinion. Find your voice. Create.
6. Keep the lingo to ironic Facebook posts
If you’re keen to do some blue sky thinking, utilising disruptive innovation, quick wins and low hanging fruit to drill down the key facts, leveraging your learnings to push the envelope and then at the end, package it up in a brown bag and run it up the flagpole to see who salutes….
….you’ll be laughed out of the room. Clients and colleagues want outcomes, not jargon.
Resist the temptation to jump on this bandwagon and talk to everyone in plain English. Use your skill to take a technical topic and explain it in a metaphor or break it down into actionable chunks.
7. Play it like a card game, and win
It might sound pessimistic, but not everyone at work has your best interests at heart.
There might be a person hell bent on taking credit for your work, someone who uses you as part of a secret agenda or an unscrupulous ladder climber. If it’s not someone you know or have heard of – it could be you.
True colours can manifest themselves in tiny aspects of personality or corporate tit-for-tat. Learn to analyse personality types and motivations quickly and you can smooth over misunderstandings and understand why people act in a certain way.
Having said all this, I’ve never personally experienced this type of behaviour, and I don’t think it’s too common on grad schemes. Gossip and game-playing runs rife at companies without an open and meritocratic culture, though.
8. Become a thought leader internally with an email newsletter
“Thought leadership” sounds great to most new starters. When you’re new to an industry or job, however, it’s pretty tough to be taken seriously when you’re writing about leadership or management.
The antidote is to narrow your focus to microscopic proportions. Is there a tiny unexplored aspect of lean manufacturing which your firm could use? An area of the industry they don’t focus on in your geography? What about the blockchain, the internet of things or any new technologies most executives haven’t grasped yet?
Funnily enough, you can become known as an expert quite easily. Read books and apply ideas in new ways, or read the news regularly, do some basic analysis and have an opinion on the topic.
For example, during an advertising project, I followed all the major advertising publications and collated links to the important news all around the world. At the end of the week I chose the most interesting stories, added a few lines of analysis and synthesised them all into a short email newsletter (which I also posted to my blog) each week called This Week in Advertising.
Keep your emails light, enjoyable and easy to read. Send them out to a few interested people internally and gradually grow your reach. Partners started forwarding mine to their teams in different regions purely because it was an easy way to keep abreast of the news.
Consistency is the key with this one. Do it right and your name will be everywhere, and not because you replied all to a company-wide alert.
9. Make authentic friends everywhere
It might be tempting to climb the greasy pole by making an effort to impress senior colleagues and clients. If this comes at the expense of your interactions towards anyone else, it’s a huge mistake.
The best people to know in business are on the front line.
Executive assistants have the power to get your email read by a partner or a senior client. They can re-arrange a diary to get you the meeting you need. Security guards will know the best time to approach the CEO in the morning.
Give everyone the respect they deserve and listen to them. Take people out to lunch and make time to chat – you’ll be surprised at how far this will take you. At the very least, you’ll have an ear to the ground in any organisation.
Besides, word travels if you’re only respectful to people more senior than yourself. Getting a reputation for this is a guaranteed way to halt your progression.
Finally, enjoy the ride!
Don’t take yourself too seriously. Learn to have fun and build relationships step by step. Your hardest job isn’t completing a project, but managing internal politics, massaging egos, rebuilding bridges and keeping everyone motivated.
If you enjoyed this post, please leave a comment! Hit the share buttons below, above, at the side. Print it out and stick it on the desks of your new graduates. Do you have any other good tips?
I’ll be writing more about career success for young people in the future, follow me on Twitter if you’d like to be informed.
Aman is a former consultant at EY.