How to Make a Bigger Impact as a New Graduate Hire
Nathan looked like a bright prospect for the organisation, on many accounts. Graduated with honours from Oxbridge. Member of the rowing team and debate union. Various leadership positions. Articulate, cogent and affable in the job interview.
But two years from getting hired, Nathan was struggling to make an impact. Expectations that were once set against his potential had since been adjusted to the bare minimum. And he wasn’t meeting these revised standards either. Soon after, Nathan would hand in his resignation… in hopes of greener pastures.
Not all stories of young and promising graduates have this unhappy ending. But too many do, and at a tremendous cost. For the graduate, their self confidence could be scarred for a long time. For the organisation that made the hire, the loss of time and investment is irreversible. Its competitiveness is also at stake, if a rival firm hires the same person and deploys them more effectively.
But these costs are avoidable or can at least be drastically reduced. While the organisation does play a major role, what can new graduates themselves can do to avoid these costs?
This article shares the lessons I’ve learned on the latter. It draws from over eight years of my experience meeting and mentoring new graduate hires, or otherwise studying their career trajectories. Whether you’re at the start of your career or you want to advise someone who is, I hope you find these perspectives useful.
Avoid becoming the newbie that “just doesn’t get it”
You’ve landed the job. For your next steps, it is tempting to do what you know best, which is probably what you’ve been rewarded for so far. That is — to work hard, show grit, and commit to the grind. In your mind, this is probably what it means to ‘hit the ground running’. The results will then follow… right?
Well, yes and no.
Yes, conscientiousness is necessary to make an impact in any situation. But doing so blindly is counterproductive. It is exhausting for you, because you won’t feel recognised for your efforts. It is also exhausting for your teammates, who end up having to manage your work as well as your emotions.
These things happen not because there is a disdain for disruptors or ‘eager beavers’ among incumbent teams (although this does happen sometimes, I admit). Rather, it is largely because the new hire is pushing full steam ahead without enough appreciation for their new surroundings. Or as some have put it, the new hire “just doesn’t get it”.
For a new hire, “just doesn’t get it” is one of the worst appraisals you can get. It is an indictment of your performance not because of lack of ability, but in spite of it. More dangerously, it becomes self-fulfilling over time.
For a new hire, “just doesn’t get it” is one of the worst appraisals you can get. It is an indictment of your performance not because of lack of ability, but in spite of it. More dangerously, it becomes self-fulfilling over time. The thinking is this: if someone “just doesn’t get it”, they never will.
So, how can you avoid this?
Size up three things about your surroundings
Resist the temptation to fervently pursue action. It’s a paradox — you can only hit the ground running if you take the time to stand still and soak in your surroundings. It’s vital to get a feel of this new arena that you’re in. Develop contextual awareness.
It’s a paradox — you can only hit the ground running if you take the time to stand still and soak in your surroundings.
In particular, you should aim to size up three things — psychology, positioning, and progress pathways. These are elaborated in the rest of this article.
A lot of what you’re about to read will seem pretty obvious. Yet, in my experience, they aren’t widely practiced by new recruits. As a result, they can have great ideas but never really make a difference — or cannot sustain it over time. Conversely, having a better sense of these things enables you to be more targeted and deliberate in your efforts, while increasing your chances of repeatedly making an impact.
One, understand the psychology of your environment
This is always the first thing I emphasise to new graduate hires. In an organisation, you must — by definition — know how to work with and through others. To do this well, you must understand how people behave.
Questions you should be asking:
- What motivates behaviour of individuals, the team you’re in, and the organisation at large?
- What do people care about? What do they pursue? What do they avoid?
- What are the norms of behaviour? What’s the organisational culture? What do people actually do when they think nobody’s watching?
In an organisation, you must — by definition — know how to work with and through others. To do this well, you must understand how people behave.
Things you can do:
- Be a fly on the wall for a wide range of interactions. Get yourself into the room at ‘bigger’ meetings involving key decision-makers, as well as those that involve cover subject matter beyond your day-to-day jobs. Ask to shadow your seniors. To give yourself a better chance, offer to do something useful for the team (like writing minutes). Go beyond the issues discussed; pay equal attention to who says what, how they say it, who agrees (and disagrees) with whom, and body language. Take copious amounts of notes and reflect on what they say about how others behave — the types of ideas that are more readily accepted or feared, who the ‘difficult’ stakeholders are, how people react outside of the meeting, etc.
- Read up about human psychology. You don’t need to be an expert on the human brain, but some awareness on the basics of individual and group behaviours will go a long way. Understanding the science helps you embrace some important realities that apply anywhere you work (like how we are primarily emotional and social creatures, rather than logical ones). There’s plenty of great resources on this. I personally like Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast And Slow (for a more holistic understanding of the science) and Farnam Street (for more bite-sized content).
Two, use your unique position to help others
Find the right balance by being conscious about whether you’re doing it strategically (‘unique position’) and whether what you do brings value to the team (‘help others’). Invest more of your time in things that fit these criteria.
Questions you should be asking:
- What sets you apart from your team members? What’s your niche?
- What matters to the team? How can you improve the likelihood of success, or reduce that of failure? How can you make their job easier?
Things you can do:
- List out your unique advantages, including those that come with being new. Many new hires think that they have no ‘unique position’. This is wrong. Some examples — no ‘baggage’ in the organisation, probably more time than anyone else, stronger access to networks of younger talent, etc. You may also have distinct qualities that your team members don’t. List all of these down. Once you have them in front of you, you’ll be surprised to find how many ‘strengths’ you actually have. Ideas on how to put them to use will also come more easily.
People aren’t on the same page? Capture and share the key discussion points. Bosses have no time to read important publications? Summarise the insights. Too much friction in putting together inputs? Automate the manual processes, or develop a template. You can fill the gap.
- Fix glaring problems that no one has time to attend to. Problems of this sort — big or small — are always lying around. These are usually a cumulative result of bad habits or legacy practices that have outlived their usefulness. But because everyone is up to their necks with immediate-term work, no one does anything about it. People aren’t on the same page? Capture and share the key discussion points. Bosses have no time to read important publications? Summarise the insights. Too much friction in putting together inputs? Automate the manual processes, or develop a template. You can fill the gap. These are just some examples. I guarantee you that there are ample opportunities in your environment.
Three, map out the pathways of progress in concrete terms
Most new hires do think about this, but tend to stop at setting broad goals — like getting promoted by when. But it is more effective if you also visualise your potential journey in the organisation as a whole, as well as the specific steps along the way.
Think of it as a map to help you tangibly identify where you are, where you could go and what’s in between.
I would caution against looking at these pathways as goals in and of themselves, as it can become an unhealthy obsession. Instead, think of it as a map to help you tangibly identify where you are, where you could go and what’s in between. Use this map to help you play the long game.
Questions you should be asking:
- What are you evaluated on, and how does this correspond to your pay and prospects? Are there aspects that are unwritten, and if so, what are they?
- What are the roles that would benefit from the skills and relationships that you are building in your current role?
- In absence of intervention, what is the most probable path that a person takes in this organisation?
Things you can do:
- Know the rules of the game, and why they are designed that way. Understand the gist of your organisation’s performance evaluation framework. These rules are not likely to change anytime soon; the sooner you understand them, the better (and less frustrated you will be). Find out if exceptions have been made in the past, and the circumstances for those decisions.
- Clarify expectations for your work. Ask questions about how to interpret the performance evaluation framework for your day-to-day deliverables. What does it mean to meet or surpass expectations? It’s your boss’s job to communicate these clearly and concretely. If they can’t provide it (this does happen), ask around — including among your peers.
- Identify benchmarks that fit you. Identify individuals with a similar profile as you (strengths, weaknesses, etc.) who have been successful in the organisation. Then, find out about their journey — projects they worked on, bosses and peers they worked with, their career milestones, etc. Collect a few of these ‘journeys’. They can be a rough blueprint when you’re still new and figuring things out. It will also give you confidence that people like you can succeed in this organisation.
- Get a ‘patron’ if you can. A patron is somebody who helps you accelerate your progress in the organisation. In theory, your immediate boss should be your patron. In reality, they don’t always fit the bill. A good patron knows the ins and outs of the organisation, warts and all. This puts them in a good position to act and also to give you practical advice. They also have ‘political capital’ — that is, credibility and goodwill that they can use to take a risk on you (which is what they would be doing, if they lobby on your behalf for opportunities).
Does this sound consistent with your experience? What else do you think should new graduate hires pay attention to? I would love to hear your thoughts.