Diving In MBA Style: The First Week on the Job

Posted by David Blend, Michelle Boyde, Anne Dunham, Jacob Kalish, Maria Spinella, and Dirk Standen on June 19, 2011
Diving In MBA Style: The First Week on the Job

When you walk into your first job as an MBA, whether it's as a seasonal associate or a full-time employee, all eyes will be on you. Here, corner-office types reveal a portfolio of secrets for brandishing the confidence, wisdom, and polish of someone who has worked at the company for three years-even when you've only been there three weeks. Secret number one: The thing nobody tells you about the honeymoon period is that there is no honeymoon period.

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 a Wharton MBA who became a director of corporate relations at Penn State. 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 badmouths the managing directors, you become guilty by association.

2. By the same token, while you're scouting the lay of the land, make connections. "Go wide, not deep," says Connie Thanasoulis, cofounder of the career coaching firm SixFigureStart. "You should be getting to know as many people as possible, not looking for your best buddy. Get to know everybody; piss off nobody."

3. Stay on the safe side with your new colleagues. "Don't discuss religion, sexual orientation, or other private topics," says recruiting consultant Lisa Orrell, author of Millennials Incorporated.

4. When your new colleagues ask about your background, mention past work experience first, business school second. 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 you value time in the trenches as much as being a wonk in the classroom.

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

6. The tasks might be routine and mindnumbing, 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 screw-up compounds the problem.

1. "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 a vice president at a leading investment bank. "For the most part, you shouldn't leave the office before your boss." And certainly not with a transparently disingenuous offer of assistance.

2. 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 you are, in fact, in the office.

3. 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.

5. 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 Michael Keaton was Batman. Some new employees get what is referred to as an office tan. Of course, you'll be expected to put in an enormous amount of time, but you must find ways to downshift to lower gear, whether that means going to the gym for a couple of hours or taking vacation.

7. What, exactly, does heading to the gym or taking a vacation tell your boss? That you're a slacker? Nope-it shows you have good time-management skills, understand how to establish priorities, and know how to take care of yourself.

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

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

1. 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, an executive 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.

2. When one associate first joined JPMorgan/Fleming Asset Management in New York, she was hired into a stretch assignment. She was so concerned about looking self-sufficient that she didn't ask for enough clarification and ended up giving her manager only half of what she wanted. To avoid this, ask for a sample project from the past, one the boss loved. "Ask what their expectations are," says Lisa Orrell. "Have an open discussion and be assertive."

3. Most managers would prefer you ask 20 questions when you first get the assignment than have holes to fill when you turn it in. Says a vice president of mergers and acquisitions at JPMorgan Chase: "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.

1. 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.

2. A vice president at JPMorgan Private Banking suggests that 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.


1. Know what you don't know. "When smart young people start a job, they want to impress you. So they talk a lot," says 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.

2. Treat your boss as if she were a client.

3. Email 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 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 email coward.

4. 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.

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

6. From a third-year associate at an 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."

7. You're working with your boss on a project, and he's plumb wrong about something. "You certainly don't mention anything in front of a third party," says Connie Thanasoulis. "Unless it's a matter of life and death, you let it go. When you're alone with the boss, you say 'I'm confused: Were we going to do A or B?' " The one thing to avoid is an explicit correction. "If you know they're still out-and-out wrong," says Thanasoulis, "ask 'Do you mind if I follow up on that?' Some of these people have really big egos."

1. When you're talking to a client, use first-person plural. You are the company, and the company is you. "Sometimes I hear new people say, 'Oh, I did this, or I did that,'" says Kevin McGowan, a director at Huron Consulting Group. "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."

2. 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.

MBA Jungle, Winter 2008-2009

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