First Job Out of School: How to Get Ahead

Mar 14, 2005

With my work as a board member for the College of Business at Southern Illinois University, and the teaching I’m doing at the University of Arkansas this semester, I have found myself giving a lot of advice to young people. Most of the students I come in contact with are just about ready to graduate. They are looking forward to their first “real” job and many of them want to know what they need to do to get ahead. The advice I find myself giving is applicable to anyone who is starting out in the A/E or environmental business. So here is some of what I’ve found myself saying: Look good. People will judge you by how you look— and fast. I’m not going to tell everyone how to dress, but I will say this: Buy good stuff, be conservative, and make sure you’ve got decent shoes on. Don’t look like you’re going to a nightclub, heading off for a day at the beach, or getting ready to clean out the garage. Have a firm handshake. If you have a limp handshake, others will think there’s something wrong with you. I have been in many conversations with firm principals who have openly scorned employees with a weak handshake. I have also heard them compliment the employee (particularly female employees) who had a strong grip. Have good manners. You aren’t going to be well thought-of by the firm’s principals and managers if you eat like a pig, don’t know how to hold a fork, or can’t introduce yourself properly. Like it or not, manners count in today’s (as well as yesterday’s) business world. Use the language properly. If you say “all’s” and “ain’t” and “had went,” the principals of your firm will be scared to death to let you come in contact with a client. Be smart and learn about the world. Sure— a lot of people like to talk about sports, investments, and pop culture. But you need to know about politics and the world situation. You need to understand the global economy. You need to learn everything you can about the business of the AEC industry, as well as that of your clients. Put in as many hours as you can. Every time I write this, I get some angry letter writer who will tell me that, these days, people don’t want to work 50 or 70 hours a week. The more people who feel that way, the better those who ARE willing to work extra hours will look to their higher-ups. Make relationships with your boss and your boss’s boss. It always killed me when I would ask a new employee out to lunch and they would say, “I have to go the mall to buy a birthday present for my Grandma whose birthday is coming in a couple weeks.” That’s not very smart. You need relationships with those above you if you want to get considered for opportunities that might come up. Never turn down a request from the boss. Whether it’s extra hours, a trip to a client’s office halfway across the country, or job assignments that are outside of your “job description,” as long as it’s legal and not unethical, say “yes.” If you don’t, you’ll look bad. The more you do, the more you look like a team player. Don’t be a whiner and don’t ask for a raise. No employer likes employees who constantly complain about one thing or another, or who always ask for more money. Enough said! Stand up for your rights if you are being abused. When I was a whole lot younger and in a new job, I once had the manager I had just been assigned to ask me when I was going to “clean off his desk.” I said, “never,” and went right down to the president of the firm (the guy who hired me) and told him about it. He was outraged and reassigned me immediately to another manager for my training. Speak up if you need to, but be ready for whatever happens next. So there you have it. This is what I’ve been telling my students. Maybe some of the younger/newer folks in your firm could get something out of it, too.. Originally published 3/14/2005

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Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.