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May 1, 2001 Print this article Send to a friend
| FEATURES | Reported by David Blend, Anne Dunham, Jacob Kalish, Maria Spinella, and Dirk Standen |
Start Your New Job Right: Stepping Up
Managing directors, vice presidents, and associates share the 37 tricks, tips, and strategies that will help you start your new job right.

• It may sound harsh, it may sound Machiavellian, but the astute new associate never befriends the first people to seek him out. “There’s a high probability they’re desperately in need of instant allies,” says Jim Poffley, a Wharton MBA who’s now director of corporate relations at Penn State’s Smeal College of Business Administration. Until you figure out who’s in and who’s out, be cordial and professional, but not chummy. If you find yourself the lunch pal of a guy who bad-mouths the managing directors, you become guilty by association.

• When your new colleagues ask about your background, mention past work experience first, then business school. By spinning your MBA as something that augmented an already strong business background—rather than trumpeting your degree as your biggest selling point—you’ll let them know that you value time in the trenches as much as hours in the classroom.

• If one of your colleagues is doing a kick-ass job, tell the boss.

• The tasks may be routine and mind numbing, but delegating work in the first three months—before you know the skill sets of the people working with and for you—is risky, says one senior executive in the communications industry. Ultimately, it’s your responsibility to get things done. And blaming a co-worker for a screwup compounds the problem.


• From a Wall Street associate: “I once gave a brief presentation for the team I worked on. The vice chairman happened to walk in and later complimented me on my delivery. After that I began stopping by his office now and then with a good question. He and I struck up a great relationship and he became my mentor. Now that I’m looking for a new position in the company, he’s placing calls for me.” The point: When the big guys toss even the tiniest crumb of attention your way, pounce on it like a starving dog.


• “Never pop into the boss’s office at the end of the day with your coat on and briefcase in hand and ask if there’s anything else you can do that night,” says Kevin Berg, vice president in equity research at First Albany Corporation. “For the most part, you shouldn’t leave the office before your boss.” And certainly not with a transparently disingenuous offer of assistance.

• Don’t thrust yourself in front of managers every time they hit the midnight coffeepot. It smacks of insecurity and sends the message that you think you should be judged on your hours rather than on work alone. Your superiors will be watching, so there’s no need to point out that you are, in fact, in the office.

• That trick of leaving a message on a supervisor’s voice mail and casually mentioning that it’s 3 a.m.? Oldest one in the book.

• So don’t use it more than twice.

• At night, it’s okay to leave before a colleague. But as you stroll out the door, never cheerily say, “Don’t work too hard,” or you’ll be branded as ... the kind of jackass who says things like that.

• Managers notice when a new hire is putting in a lot of time, but they also notice if he’s pale, flabby, and hasn’t seen a movie since Bruce Willis had hair. “Some new employees get what I call office-itis,” says Simon Canning, a managing director at UBS Warburg in New York. “You will be expected to put in an enormous amount of time, but you must find ways to relax, whether it’s going to the gym for a couple of hours or taking vacation.”

• What, exactly, does taking a vacation or working out tell your boss? That you have good time-management skills, understand how to prioritize, and know how to take care of yourself.

• That said, better not to utter the phrase vacation day for six months. Minimum.

• Oh, and, better not to utter the phrase comp time for, well, ever.


• You don’t need to gather every single scrap of information to make a decision. Collect as many of the facts as you can and form an opinion. “I’ve seen overcautious new hires fall into the trap of waiting too long to take action,” says Jeannine Haas, director of premium services in charge card marketing at American Express. “You’re not in a perfect world where you can always get all the information.” Employ the 80-20 rule and move on.

• “When I first joined the company, I was hired into a stretch assignment,” says Keisha McKenzie, an associate at JPMorgan Fleming Asset Management in New York. “I was so concerned about looking self-sufficient that I didn’t ask for enough clarification. I ended up giving my manager only half of what he wanted.” To avoid this, ask for a sample project from the past, one the boss loved.

• Most managers would rather you ask 20 questions when you first get the assignment than have holes to fill when you turn it in. Says J. Daniel Plants, a vice president of mergers and acquisitions at JPMorgan: “We don’t want lone rangers who think they need to figure everything out on their own. In our business, that’s a cultural defect. Answers lie within people, not books.”

• The boss hands you the month’s financials on Friday afternoon and requests a report on her desk first thing Monday morning. You cancel your weekend plans, slave away for the next two days, and leave the report on her desk Sunday night. Tuesday afternoon, the report’s still where you left it. What to do? Nothing. Don’t ask if she’s read the report. Don’t ask if she has any questions. You did your job. You’re a good soldier. That’s what people will remember.


• When traveling with a manager, the wise associate will pack his pocket full of singles. He will be paying the cabdriver, tipping the bellhop, and picking up Cokes from the soda machine. Let the boss take care of any check presented in the presence of clients.

• From Franklin D. Mayers, vice president, MBA recruiting, at JP Morgan Private Banking: “If you have a trip coming up with a manager, take his assistant out for a drink. Stop by their office, and be straightforward. ‘I’m traveling with Mr. Hammerschmidt next week, and I want to ask you about protocol.’ The relaxed setting will allow you to learn how the manager acts, what he likes to drink, and what to expect during a typical day on the road.”


• Know what you don’t know. “When smart young people start a job, they want to impress you. So they talk a lot,” says Scott Koppelman, a senior financial adviser at First Union Securities Financial Network in New York. “But actually, that’s perceived as a negative. I’m looking for someone who’s aggressive but who knows when to listen.” Rule of thumb: Listen four times more than you talk.

• Treat your boss as if he were a client.

• E-mail is not a crutch, a wall to hide behind, or any other metaphor for that matter. It should never be a substitute for dealing with a problem in person, says Cella Irvine, a Harvard MBA and former senior manager at an Internet company. By addressing the first rift that comes along face-to-face rather than from your PDA, you’ll immediately establish yourself as someone who doesn’t shy away from situations and has good interpersonal skills. Bothered by an assistant’s sloppiness? An associate’s wisecrack? Tell them politely and forthrightly. Using your mouth. Otherwise, you’ll be pegged as an e-mail coward.

• Don’t talk business in the bathroom. It puts people in the awkward spot of having to agree with you because they don’t want to prolong the conversation. Managers tend to resent being put in an awkward spot. They’re funny like that.

• When your boss calls you at home on a Saturday, speak as if you were sitting at your desk. Do not mention that you’re taking something out of the oven or that the delivery guy is at the door.

• From a third-year associate at a bulge-bracket investment bank: “My firm has an open-door policy, which is great. But always pause for a moment before asking a senior person a question to make sure it’s not something a peer could answer. A new hire who was junior to me once went straight to the director with a question I could have answered easily. He made us both look stupid.”

• You’re working with your boss on a project, and he’s plumb wrong about something. “You have to tell him when no one else is around,” says Jana Carlson, a professional recruiter at the Blackstone Group in New York. “ ‘I think this number might be off. Do you want me to double-check it?’ Pose it as a question, not as ‘You’re wrong.’ Of course, you’d better be very sure he’s wrong.”


• The best way to find out what the company wants out of you is to look at who they’re hiring. Are they strategists? Finance gurus? Image polishers? Says James Rice, a former senior VP at a Fort Wayne, Indiana, wire-and-cable manufacturing company: “When there’s an opening in management, who they hire sends a strong message about the direction the company’s going.” It also tells you what kind of perspective the company embraces.

• To get a sense of what the brass values, look up their names at www.publicdisclosure.org. This site provides the names and cities—and, often, the employers—of people who have contributed to political campaigns or political action committees going back to 1980. Political leanings can be a bellwether of someone’s ideals, hot-button issues, and, quite possibly, management style.

• It may take a bit of schmoozing, but it’s worth asking your new boss what his favorite books are. Read them. It’s a form of due diligence on the character, philosophy, and weltanschauung of a person with whom you’ll soon be spending most of your waking life.


• When you’re talking to a client, use first-person plural. You are the company, and the company is you. Says Kevin McGowan, a principal at A.T. Kearney in Chicago: “Sometimes I hear new people say, ‘Oh, I did this, or I did that.’ We take them aside pretty quickly when they do that and remind them, ‘Listen, it’s more of a we than an I.’ The moment a client hires you, it becomes we. Always.”

• After a meeting at the client’s office, don’t debrief until you leave the building. Even if there’s no one else in the elevator.

• And that includes hand signals.

This article originally appeared in the May 2001 issue of MBA Jungle.
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