The Five Most Important Practices of Early-Career Work
Guest Alumni blogger, Michael Lewis, shares his story about adjusting to his first position after graduating from Lehigh and what he learned about how to be successful as a young professional.
It was a terrifying day, that first day of my first “real job” after graduating from Lehigh University. I graduated following the fall semester, unlike most people. So my first day of work was the cold and overcast day of Wednesday, January 2, 1991. Fresh off all the glitter of the holidays, I bussed into New York City from a temporary home in New Jersey. I had to wake up earlier than I had awoken in months, dating back to my internship the summer before. Lehigh had treated me well, including only a 12-credit load that final semester. But now reality was striking me like a ton of bricks. What in the world was I getting myself into?
That first day was unsettling, but it ended pretty tamely. In fact, I now look back at that first day of work as the equivalent of a “syllabus day” at Lehigh, where not a lot of hard-thinking had to be done the first day of classes each semester. But by early-February – I was in a small, non-Big-Four accounting firm – we were grinding away, working late into each evening and working 4-6 hours on Saturday. Every day between early February and April 15, I pored through shoe boxes of documents, W-2’s, 1099’s and other bank statements. I’d create a client file, post all these loose documents into the file, and prepare a draft tax return by hand. That intensity carried all the way through April 15th, “Tax Day” for most individuals in the US. That night, Monday April 15th, our boss took us out to a celebratory dinner to thank us for our extensive efforts in successfully getting everyone’s returns out on time. I felt appreciated. I felt recognized. I felt like I was part of something bigger than myself. Then, two weeks later, on Monday April 29th, our boss cut everyone’s pay by 15%.
Almost 30 years to the day later, I am sitting here writing to you to tell you that things got a lot better shortly after. The rest of the story above is covered in the opening chapter of a book I wrote and published in 2019, called “The Vulnerable Career Switcher: One Individual’s Journey of Curiosity, Free Will, and Persistence Out of Accounting and Into a Marketing Career.”
As soon as I could, I quit that job and earned a shot at working at Ernst & Young (now EY), one of the premier Big Four firms out there. And this is where I really learned about the five practices of early career-hood. Here they are in alphabetical order (all are important – there’s no “#1”):
The polling company Gallup conducts regular studies on the reasons why employees stay at companies for sustained periods of time, and why others leave quickly. One of the recurring top 10 reasons why people stay is because they have a close, or best, friend at work. Most early-stage professional jobs involve a lot of administrative tasks, paper-pushing, email-responding and report-writing. The pace can range from the mundane to the intense. Having a close friend to vent with during the hard times is social, mental and emotional therapy. Build friendships at work. They don’t have to be your besties, but the friendships I built at EY made me excited to get up each morning, go to work and do the mundane and intense. I’m also happy to report that I not only still cherish those early-career friendships, but I also keep in touch with 4 or 5 of those friends even today.
I’m just going to say it. I knew almost nothing of value when I walked into the office that first day of work following Lehigh graduation. And even when I got handy at a particular task, I still didn’t know how to foster strong and deep client relationships, or what it meant to deliver such a favorable (and legal) outcome to the client such that they wanted to renew their business with us for another year. Just know that when companies are hiring you out of college, they know they are making an investment that won’t pay off right away. That said, help them justify that investment. Ask for help regularly. Ask questions more, and don’t relent on a topic until you truly get it. In my experience, nine out of every ten people you ask for help will be thrilled to instruct, advise and counsel you. Seeking the wisdom of others will help you get up to speed that much more quickly. But you’ll also be signaling that you’re not
a know-it-all. And by the way, even the most senior people in a company don’t know-it-all. There’s too much to know. The CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella, in fact veers away from hiring “know-it-all’s”. He prefers a different personality type, which is our next practice. . .
Hunger for Knowledge
I remember in my final 45-ish days on Lehigh’s campus, I started almost regretting not having taken the time to read more volumes of the countless books in the Linderman and Fairchild-Martindale Libraries. As I was about to start the rest of my life, I started fearing that I missed the opportunity to get all the “answers to life” by forsaking too many resources offered to me at our beloved university. At the same time, I was a wee bit excited at the prospect of not having to learn ever again. I was tired of learning, homework and test-taking all the time. Enough! What I didn’t grasp until I arrived at those early days of work was the humility that I didn’t know how to operate in this real life environment. So while I wouldn’t have to attend classes, I had a lot to learn. The sooner you realize this, and the sooner you embrace it as not only a reality but a point of excitement and possibility, the sooner you’ll start to demonstrate the practice of having a voracious hunger for knowledge. Not only is it critical to continue to develop yourself in your craft and your profession, but also in the industry dynamics at large, and most critically in the people elements: ranging from leadership to internal stakeholders to colleagues to vendors to shareholders to clients/customers. Having this mentality also shows well to your peers and management teams. They’ll feel your energy and want to give you more opportunities to learn. Back to Satya Nadella, he veers toward hiring and promoting people he likes to call, “learn-it-all’s”.
What I mean by this is the importance of seeing and being seen in the early years of your career. Trust me: I am no fan of “face time for the sake of face time”. What an ancient relic: the concept of showing up early and working late a) if you don’t have the volume of actual work required to stretch into that time span and b) just to appear busy and committed. However – and this comes from an NYU Professor I follow, Scott Galloway – in the early years of your career, the best career-growth opportunities will live closer to a company’s headquarters. Many of the resources early-stage employees need are based in headquarters: typically larger groups of similarly aged employees, HR, training, IT and other departments (this last one offering you both lateral job opportunities and/or job rotation experiences). So while face-time shouldn’t matter as much culturally anymore – especially with the changes in work dynamics brought about by the 2020/2021 virus crisis - office presence in or near your company headquarters will pay dividends for you in terms of career opportunity and variety.
This isn’t as much a practice as it is an attitude. Like the face-time reference above, work ethic does not have to mean you’re like Lebron James: first one at practice and the last to leave the arena at night. But it does mean that on those days when a group project is on a deadline, you stay with the group until the project is done, you venture outside of your job description to help with the project if necessary, you help others who are struggling with their responsibilities without prejudice or judgment, and you acknowledge the efforts of others. More longitudinally, you work to become ever-more reliable to your manager, your team and your end-customers. Work ethic does not mean you have to compromise work/life balance all the time, but like with most professionals, work ethic does mean work/life imbalances toward the “work” side some of the time.
About the Guest Blogger
I hope you got something out of this blog post. I am someone who tries to be helping at least 2-4 people at a time with all sorts of career situations, ranging from getting a job during a layoff to resume reviews to connections to earning that first promotion. If I can be of help to you sometime, please feel free to reach out. Go Lehigh!