QI lined up a great job as a corporate
trainee towards the end of my last year at Uni. Since then, I've
had a blast travelling and making the most of this last long
holiday. But D Day is approaching: my first day on the job! I'm
unsure about how to act, what to wear, everything. I don't really
know anyone who works for a corporate like this who can help me
out. Do you have advice for surviving the first month without
continually stuffing up?
AActually, you're off to a great start
- you know enough to know what you don't know, and you're trying to
fix it. I had far less self awareness in my first job and therefore
spent a lot of time with my left foot firmly jammed in my
Key points for the First Month
Dress With Caution
This is important but tricky! Appropriate corporate wear varies
wildly. What's accepted in an ad agency might be career suicide at
a merchant bank. Think back: were you interviewed by any women? If
so what were they wearing? A good guide may be thinking back to
what the women you saw presenting in the various employment
presentations at university were wearing.
My advice would be to go conservative for the first week. If you
must buy something, go for basic items like a dark skirt, a dark
pair of trousers and a couple of basic tailored shirts. I'd delay
spending a lot of money on buying a suit until you get a better
sense of what the womenswear norms are. Particularly, keep your
eyes peeled for what more senior women are wearing, and be ready to
do some swift shopping.
Oh - and you might want to ask on Thursday what dress code is on
Friday. That way you won't look The Square in your suit when/if
everyone else turns up in smart casual. But still play it safe with
a conservative choice the first week!
After three years at Cambridge it was second nature to me to
argue against orthodoxy and to debate for the sake of debating.
There was time for it at University, and my supervisors expected
it. So what did I do in my first job when a manager asked me what
I'd recommend? I'd argue the case one way, the other way, backwards
and forwards. The notion that he wanted to reach the best answer as
efficiently as possible never entered my head. Eventually, my boss,
fed up with the grumbles his new direct report was causing,
introduced me to the idea of conciseness and the judicious use of
Don't Rush to Offer Advice
It can really put people off if you start a new job and in the
first month start telling them how things could be done better. You
might think that you're demonstrating passion and commitment to
your co-workers, but it can be seen as an attack on how they've
managed thing so far. By all means give your thoughts if you're
asked - but, as per above, I suggest you make your answer short and
So wait a while. Earn some 'credit' points. And eventually, make
one or two small suggestions.
Take the Pulse
This next bit is obvious, but just in case the excitement of the
new job overcomes your innate common sense...keep your eyes open
for signs of "how we do things round here." What's the norm for
items displayed on desks and pinboards? What time do most people of
your level and above come in and leave? What kind of language do
they use - do you hear lots of jargon, much swearing, any jokes?
Watch, listen, respond. Week One is a time to learn about your new
environment, not kick against its boundaries.
It's OK to ask questions, in fact, it will make you look alert
and interested. However, DO remember to listen to the answer! Even
more in the early days, try to listen twice as much as you speak.
Also, you should always be prepared to provide an answer to your
own questions in case your boss/colleague's response is, 'well,
what do you think?' You'll do well to try to figure out what your
boss and colleagues are trying to achieve at work, and how you can
Allies on All Fronts
Of course, you'll be polite to everyone. But remember to be
especially polite and friendly to the receptionists, assistants and
secretaries. One horror day in the future, you'll forget your
passport, leave your computer in a taxi and need a report
couriering out by 5pm. These support staff, not the managers and
bosses, are the ones who'll save your bacon and if they like you
they'll try twice as hard.
You might have had one or two weeks' initial training with other
new hires. Often the focus of those events is on content and
specific skills rather than culture. That leaves you still needing
some more direct guidance at the coalface.
One of the most valuable early information sources on the job
will be your office mate or your buddy, if your company has someone
a little more experienced lined up to chat to you as you start work
proper. I was Galia's first office mate. I can still remember her
fixing me with a gimlet stare and saying, "So! Tell me what I need
to know to avoid doing the wrong thing round here." (She was
switched on to the possibility of corporate icebergs even
It goes without saying that smart newbies remember to say thank
you for the advice they're given.
Beyond the First Month
A few other thoughts to send you on your way:
Not every task or project will seem like
Listen to your more experienced colleagues. If they say your
current assignment is a drag, then relax. However, if the next two
or three go on feeling the same way, you might have made a career
or company mistake.
Not every co-worker will be your new best
If you like and respect half your colleagues you'll be doing
Keep checking up on what is expected of you
What do you need to do to reach your goals? Your boss should
have discussed these with you. Ask your boss if you can have brief
but regular catch up sessions and use these to update your boss on
your work, and to check that your work matches his or her
expectations. No-one likes surprises, remember.
Listen more, talk less
After the promptings of business school or Uni to speak up, you
may think you have to be heard on every topic at every meeting. The
more effective newcomers listen and wait to be sure that what they
are adding to the airwaves is really a new perspective. It helps to
stick to facts rather than interpretations or feelings.
Good luck with your first job! Maybe other women who have
survived this exciting but scary phase will chip in more advice to
help you. This is one that most of us have been through and all
have survived. You will, too.
© Professionelle Ltd 2007