Fast Track: Question, listen, think, learn

The early days and weeks of a first job require a whole new set of skills, not least among them tact.
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The Independent Culture
How do you make the best first impression on both your boss and future colleagues from day one of your new job? Punctuality and presentation are certainly good areas to start, given that they're the most recurrent gripes highlighted by employers of graduates. But beyond that, say human resources experts, it's a challenge that requires more attention than ever before.

According to surveys, one of the most difficult - yet essential - tasks for today's recruits is ensuring that you don't appear over-confident or over-bearing. Positions of responsibility held at university - such as heading the sports or social club, for example - do not qualify you to skip the bottom rungs of the learning ladder that all must scale in the first few weeks of a new job.

"It's a difficult one because employers emphasise that you must be able to prove you have the skills they want through the outside interests you have had," says Scott Knox, head of graduate services at the recruitment consultancy Major Player. He claims it's a particular problem among those graduating from the older, more established universities. "It may be why Oxford University has dropped down the league in terms of the appeal of some of its graduates to employers."

The message is, then, to be ready and able to roll your sleeves up from day one. But don't go overboard either, adds Knox, who believes there is nothing worse than the "goody two shoes" recruit. "It's a fine line to tread," he admits, suggesting that the best tactic is to take it one step at a time while you listen and learn.

Dean Taylor, 21, graduated this summer and began work at the London sales promotion agency BDP as a client services executive six weeks ago. He draws attention to another problem for the new recruit - being thrown in at the deep end. "I have been expected to get on with, and take responsibility for, my decisions from the moment I joined," he explains, pointing out just how alarming that can be after "being wrapped in cotton wool at university". Nevertheless, it suggests that an employer has faith in his new appointee; it makes the job more interesting and challenging from the start; and it is undoubtedly the quickest way to learn.

Dean also points to the less recognised but equally common problem of jargon. With no marketing experience, he struggled to understand his new colleagues. "I'd never considered the difference between above-, below- and through-the-line advertising and was confronted with mysterious terms such as `RTD' (which stands for `ready to drink')," he says. "You have to ask as many questions as you can and - just as important - listen to the answers."

It's also vital to ask for regular feedback, says Hannah Senior, 22, who joined Tesco in September 1998. Unlike Dean, her first months in full- time employment have been highly structured as she was taken on as part of Tesco's fast-track graduate trainee scheme.

"What can be difficult is not knowing if you're doing OK. You don't want to be seen to need constant praise, but you do need to know you're doing well and where you could be better," she says. "If there isn't already a structure to do so, press for a regular debriefing."

Another challenge is understanding the best way of interacting with a far broader cross-section of people than you are likely to have encountered at university. "For the first ten months, I worked in-store as a manager in three different departments," Hannah says. This means she has had to work with a broad cross-section of Tesco staff at all levels - from cashiers and shelf stackers to company executives.

"From the outset I was treated as a manager and was involved in discussions about in-store decisions," she explains, which automatically set her apart from many of her shop-floor colleagues. "But if you're prepared to ask questions and show you are genuinely interested and, as important, willing to get your hands dirty, people don't mind whatever your background."

Diplomacy is a key quality that graduates need, Hannah believes. "You can't assume you know anything. But you must be prepared to challenge if you see a problem arising." Don't be scared to have an opinion, but if you are going to be critical make sure you have good reason and counter any negative with a positive, she advises.

Office politics can prove tricky for those uninitiated in the fine arts of company factions and advancement by networking. Yet Knox likens negotiating the politics of an office set-up in your first few weeks at work to the first few weeks of student life. "In both cases, the best strategy to adopt is `wait and see' - observe who's in with whom before attempting to `get in' with a particular group," he advises.

Jane Clarke, author of the book Office Politics, adds, "It takes time to understand the different types of people you will end up working with. Listen and learn about the way they work and so what they expect of you." If someone is meticulous and rigorous in their approach, they are likely to expect the same of you. If they work more quickly and are more goal- oriented, expect to have less time to prepare your work.

An obvious way of getting in with new colleagues is by socialising with them after hours. While this is a good way of breaking the ice, caution is advisable, Knox says. "Some people come in and immediately try to be the life and soul - telling jokes, joining any invitation to socialising down the pub. It can work but you must make a considered judgement about the appropriateness of any social behaviour to the corporate environment you are going into," he warns.

Above all, success in your first few weeks in a new job will come down to common sense - observing the way things are done in your new environment, showing willing, being friendly and honest about what you do and do not know. "You're bound to make mistakes and, when you do, say so quickly - it can only save embarrassment further down the line," advises Dean. And if you put your foot in it, apologise. "You can get a long way simply be being friendly - it makes people more likely to want to help you and makes everything more enjoyable."

From Student

to Employee

Be confident, enthusiastic and friendly... but don't over-do it - no one likes a know-all

Don't be afraid to ask questions - remember, everyone has to start somewhere

Treat your boss as a figure of authority, but don't go overboard - it's obvious when you're sucking up to someone

Don't be afraid to discuss your skills and career development - understand what is expected of you and agree a set of objectives

It's OK to have an opinion but, if criticising a colleague, be considered and cautious about being negative

Be punctual - an 8.30am meeting means be there 10 minutes before, not five minutes after