By Allison McWilliams (’95), Ph.D., Assistant VP, Mentoring and Alumni Personal & Career Development, Wake Forest University

For anyone getting started at a new job, whether you are twenty years into your career, or fresh out of college, those first few weeks and months are a critical time of learning. This is when you see things with the freshest eyes, not yet jaded by thoughts of “that’s not how we’ve done it before” or past experiences with co-workers. You get to meet new people, learn new norms of behavior, possibly think about new challenges, if the industry or role is completely different from what you’ve done before. All of this can be incredibly exciting and energizing. You also will likely be granted a bit of a “honeymoon” period, in which people don’t expect you to know everything and to do everything full throttle. Rarely does an organization expect someone brand new to come in and change the world in their first week. There’s something to be said for being the “new person.”

And at the same time, the experience of getting started in a new job can be exceptionally unsettling, for many of the same reasons listed above. You don’t know how things are usually done. You don’t the organizational rules or have prior experiences with your co-workers to know what to expect. You may feel overwhelmed by all the new people, not to mention figuring out how to be successful in your new role. And while others may be giving you a bit of grace, they will be paying attention to how you show up and engage. You may be in the deepest expression of impostor syndrome, questioning your ability to make an impact there. That’s a lot for anyone, but especially for a new graduate with little prior work experience.

So, what can and should you be doing as you get started at work? One of the most important tasks for you to do right now is to figure out what the expectations are. Hopefully, there will be a structured and organized onboarding process, complete with clearly articulated rules and norms of behavior, facilitated introductions and connections to people throughout the organization, instructions on how to show up and do work to meet your manager’s expectations, and even formal processes of mentoring and coaching provided to support your transition into and your ongoing growth and development within the organization. Hopefully, you will be surrounded by people who truly want to help you succeed.

Unfortunately, not every organization is great at onboarding and supporting that new employee transition process. It’s ultimately your responsibility to figure out work. In fact, one of the keys to being a rock-star young professional is to recognize that it’s on you to take ownership of your career and your growth, to seek out opportunities, to learn what you need to know to be successful, and to build the relationships that are going to help you get there. In other words, don’t just wait for someone to hand these things to you, and then wonder why they don’t.

And, remember, you will be in this position again. Many times, in fact. At some point you will leave this organization for another, or you will take on a new role with a new team, or even just take on new responsibilities where you are. You will be the new person, once again. So, take note of what’s working for you, now, and what’s not, and the things you are learning, so the next time you are the new person it won’t feel so new.

As you get started, here are a few key strategies you can use to take advantage of these first days and weeks:

  • Get clear on the rules and norms for behavior. Ask questions of your manager and colleagues, and then pay attention to what people actually do. If you are told that everyone works from 8-5, but start noticing that when you arrive at 8 am, everyone is already at their desks and working, then you better start showing up earlier. Generally, norms of behavior show up in actual practice more so than in stated expectations.
  •  Set some goals. Think about what you want to learn in your first month, in your first three months, and your first six months. Then, take these goals to your manager for some additional feedback. This demonstrates that you are taking ownership for your growth and will help to clarify expectations for your work.
  • Seek out conversations. Set up short coffee conversations with people to get to know them, their role and responsibilities, the projects they are working on, and to seek out advice. Not only will this start to develop great relationships which will pay off down the road, it can also lead to opportunities for you.
  • Ask for regular meetings with your manager. Hopefully, your manager will set up regular check-in meetings with you to discuss your work and your progress. But if they don’t, it doesn’t mean you can’t ask for it. Come to these meetings with an agenda to make the most of their time. Ask pointed questions about your goals, your work assignments, and what you need to know and do to be successful there. Over time, you should need these sorts of feedback conversations less frequently as you become comfortable in your role and the organization.

Remember: the first days and weeks in any new position are a learning opportunity like no other. Every day that you show up to work, every interaction that you have, communicates to others who you are, just as they are doing so, to you. Pay attention and be intentional. It all matters.

For more information on getting started at work, check out Year One, our resource for new professionals and their managers.