Advice for newbies starting their careers in large companies

  1. Know the end-goal now. Not just the next year goal or the five year goal. Have an idea of the actual final job you want in a perfect world. Now, I know this is difficult. You're young, and it seems like a vista of possibility awaits. Wrong. There is a vista, but you can only have one slice of it, so decide the slice right this second and start planning how to take complete ownership of it.

  2. You got your degree. Now get over it. That was the ticket to start playing. Now you have to get on with the real game. And by the way: nothing you have been taught will likely be any use whatsoever once you get into a big company.

  3. Your aren't special. No matter what your grades were or how intelligent you are. Special is a function of what people think of you, especially your manager. To be special, you have to be above average at something the company needs. Doesn't matter what, but something.

  4. Your career will now be a race to get as specialised as possible in order to prove you are good enough to be management. Then you will spend the rest of your career becoming generalised enough to run big teams of specialists. The first part is a race to be better than everyone else. The second part is a race to make sure you know more people than everyone else.

  5. Oh, you don't want to be management? I'm sorry to hear that. Your career options have a finite upper ceiling through which there is no possibility of breaking. Don't believe management when they tell you otherwise.

  6. You might have to go into a CV battle for your first job – that's where your CV is compared to everyone else's CV before you get an interview. That should be the last time you ever allow that to happen. Its too random, because there is always someone with a better CV than you. Your subsequent jobs should be obtained through your personal network. These are all about you and nothing about CVs.

  7. Getting specialised as quickly as possible means you can hang your hat on something in the workplace. Beware of graduate programmes that seek to make you a generalist "and give you broad experience". Broad experience is what's needed when you're a senior manager. Broad experience in new starters is only good for ensuring you are not employable outside your graduate programme. No one likes a person with 2 years experience who can't do anything very well, even if they can do lots of things poorly.

  8. Your personal network will be the greatest asset in your career. No matter how good you are as a specialist, you will only be mediocre in a large organisation without one. Start building it right this second. Don't lose track of anyone you meet. Make sure to keep relationships alive, and make sure you have relationships both inside and outside the organisation.

  9. Get a mentor. Make sure they are at least one level more senior than your boss. A mentor will open doors for you and you'll need the help. On the other hand, your boss will be highly motivated to make sure doors are kept shut in order to spare him or herself the bother of training another newbie. Anyway, having a senior mentor is just as much about marketing yourself at a high level than getting decent advice. In fact, even if the advice is terrible, having someone senior on your side is great for your network.

  10. Start doing the night work. The night work is the set of social, learning, and networking things you have to do after the day job is finished in order ensure you know more people than everyone else. You need to spend three nights a week doing it. Trust me, if you aren't someone else is.

  11. Each new job requires active planning to get. Never allow random processes – like a CV battle – to control whether you get it or not. Jobs are awarded as a result of who you know, and that's true even when there is a formal recruitment procedure. Believe me when I tell you, that a manager who wants to hire someone will find a way to do so no matter what the rules say. Since you know the last job you want, you can plan each career move along the journey, and you can start adding the next hiring manager into your network right now. The day to start planning for the next job is the day after you win the job you're in now.

  12. You're worried about the performance management system and need to get top marks? All very admirable if what you want is to achieve is a bonus (which will not be significant when you start anyway) or a payrise (which will equally not be that significant). The actual requirement here is that you get an above-average performance rating so you don't get fired and can be seen to be solid. The other requirement is that you do the work to know the right people that will get you the next job. Killing yourself for the top mark will mean you won't have time to do anything else.

  13. The other-other requirement is that you make your manager look good. This is not sucking up. It is making him or her look good. Find every chance to do it, and if you do, they will love you and help you. Do anything else, and they'll get rid of you. Simple really.

  14. Get international experience. It makes you special. It is also fun.

  15. Do not under any circumstances allow your career path to be limited to a single company. It makes you average. And it closes down options, especially after ten or more years.

  16. Don't believe me? Look at the senior management team in your organisation. How many of them have worked their way up from graduate programmes? There may be some, but I bet most of the new senior hires will be coming in from outside.

  17. Break a little rule every so often. But first get a bit of wisdom about what rules you can actually break and get away with it. And when you do, make sure the outcome reflects well on your manager.

  18. Get the skills you need to manage people as early as possible. You really want those skills developed in the first few years, because the longer you wait, the more valuable your reports will be to the company. You will absolutely screw up your first people management job in some way. New managers always do, largely because the people-interplay is so complicated, and your people will probably know more than you and will likely resent you. If you lose any of them, it is better that happen before they are so valuable to the organisation that it gets noticed at a high level.

  19. Having read all this, make a decision now about whether you want to commit yourself to several decades doing all of the above. There are alternatives to big companies, and it's not too late for you to go and try a small one out before you make your decision.

  20. Evaluate every day and see if what you are doing is still fun and interesting. Do not continue with what you're doing if you can't see a pathway in the short term to fun and interesting. I have seen so many unhappy people in workplaces who don't take positive action to change their circumstances. They are unpleasant people to be around, and I think it is probably habit forming.

3 Responses to“Advice for newbies starting their careers in large companies”

  1. July 15, 2009 at 10:11 am #

    James, i think the timing of your post is great. Especially, since people have started to re look at their career path and a real self appraisal of what they are doing. i am sure this would be useful not only to the new bees.

  2. July 15, 2009 at 2:45 pm #

    I think if anything the above has confirmed my suspicion that I don’t want to work in a big company ever again. You’ve essentially summed up the rat race in 20 points. Tough, competitive, and when “winning” is defined as getting to the top, essentially a zero sum game (there is only one boss, ultimately).
    I would agree that you need a mentor (or advocate, perhaps) above you, and loyalty is also crucially important. Unless you are of a superstar like quality, you tend to become invisible to those above you, otherwise. This belies the supposedly meritocratic nature of the corporate ziggurat – that guy at the top had a lot of friends and allies above him and around him before he got there.

  3. July 16, 2009 at 12:04 pm #

    James, I may sound very back-to-basics, but I’ll give only 2 points:
    1) Have fun and don’t be afraid of being different
    2) Even if you have James’ 18 first points right, expect luck to play a major role in your career, so relax and refer to James’ point 20 or the above point 1

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