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Leader's Edge Newbie Sensation

Show your freshmen the ropes, and you’ll help them succeed.

By  Julia Kramer

Resources abound to educate emerging managers, coach junior executives and develop a firm’s ascending leadership. Most firms use these resources and invest significant time and energy to ensure that their senior staff is knowledgeable and prepared to take the reins when the time comes.

It’s less common for a firm to invest in its freshmen employees. These employees, often straight from high school or college, sometimes enter our places of business with no real work experience. Many go through a firm’s orientation program, which teaches them about the organization, its products, its competitors and its clients. But often these sessions don’t teach new employees the basic behaviors to ensure success on the job.

Consider adding an “Introduction to Success” course to your on-boarding process and provide entry-level tips and techniques to accelerate the success of your new employees. Help them recognize that their behavior on the job can make or break a career. Tell them, à la Will Rogers, “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.”

The following are some suggested topics, but your curriculum should contain what you feel is most important for a newcomer to know about your firm and its people:

Attitude. Junior might have done well on his SATs, aced his way through college and graduated at the top of his class, but without the right attitude and strong interpersonal skills, he’ll be a stone-cold loser on the job. Most successful employees have a positive demeanor, say “yes” more than “no,” don’t balk or grumble at an unsavory assignment, and learn to work as part of a team. Let your employees know up front that you expect them to accept work willingly, to pitch in as needed and to develop a team mentality.

I’ve seen many a smart cookie’s career crumble because he or she complained, whined or played the martyr. Even more negative is an entry-level employee who feels certain work is beneath him or not acceptable because it’s not listed in the job description. Let new employees know that a helpful attitude is a critical component of success.

Initiative. Many young employees step up to the plate without a moment’s hesitation. Others can be led to water but can’t be forced to drink. Most organizations value an innate eagerness to learn and to make a contribution. For example, Karen had been on the job less than a month when her manager called from the road with an obscure research request. No instructions were given or resources identified, but, when asked if she would do the job, Karen gamely said, “Sure, no problem.”

Left to her own devices, Karen consulted with others in the office, dug into files, searched the Internet and made phone calls. Within a short period of time, she was able to give her manager the requested information. Much praise and accolades ensued, and Karen quickly became the go-to person when a project without precedent needed to be completed.

By stepping up to the plate with a positive attitude, pushing aside fears, networking with colleagues, and being resourceful, Karen was able to make a place for herself in the ranks of successful young employees. Tell your employees a similar story to teach them the importance of a “just do it” attitude.

Observation. New employees may observe others at work but don’t always pick up on what could be valuable career information. For example, many young people wear clothes that are more suitable for campus life. Senior staff understand that it might take a while for new employees to develop a work wardrobe and may not say anything right away. But before long, those Uggs, low-rise corduroys and sundresses look out of place. Help young colleagues dress for success by advising them to learn from their colleagues. Urge them to develop a professional style that melds their personal sense of fashion with that of the organization. Recommend that they look around and synthesize the information gathered as a way of identifying other firm norms, from communication preferences (email vs. face-to-face) to decision-making processes (large group vs. small group/individual).

Risky Business. In addition to teaching the basic “how tos,” teach the basic “please don’ts.” Tell newbies up front if your firm is intolerant of lateness in any form or has a more relaxed approach to schedules, enjoys intracompany emails that contain harmless jokes and inspirational phrases or considers these spam, or prefers boisterous brainstorming or quiet thought. New employees typically figure these things out themselves, but why waste their time and yours? Make sure you also teach them important legal or ethical standards regarding harassment, conflicts of interest, misuse of company property and other rules that govern conduct.

Your freshmen employees are still in student mode—eager to listen and learn. While they are open to new ideas and experiences, introduce them to success. Teach them the right way to proceed. Provide the prerequisites now to ensure that later they’ll be ready and able to become your firm’s upperclassmen.

Kramer is The Council’s senior vice president, Office of the President.

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