The transition from undergraduate life to the working world is famously a challenging one. Managers often look on quizzically as their newest hires work themselves to exhaustion but struggle with the basics of creating high-quality deliverables and building effective workplace relationships.
Although managers may be quick to assume these challenges stem from recent grads’ lack of experience in the functional responsibilities their new roles demand, adjustment hurdles are just as often about context as content. New graduates joining the working world are often faced with an environment that prizes very different behaviors than the ones that were rewarded throughout their education. Managers can help new hires shift from the paradigm of academic life to working life by focusing on four major transitions:
- From “heroics” to efficiency: Ambitious recent grads are often surprised to find that working harder and later doesn’t result in gaining senior colleagues’ respect, trust, and admiration. New hires fresh out of college often associate all-nighters with above-and-beyond heroism, as well as enhanced late-night creativity. While many recent grads’ first jobs do necessitate long, even punishing hours, executives are rarely interested in admiring how hard their young colleagues are working. Managers can help by being explicit that they are not looking for demonstrations of heroism or flights of creativity, but instead early signs of efficiency and value: How does the junior staff member use colleagues and mentors to help them prioritize? How quickly and consistently does he or she produce high-quality work product? Young staff will perform better when they are given clarity on the workplace behaviors managers are really looking for – and where these may differ from the ones that were met with admiration in the past.
- From shielding work to welcoming feedback: In an undergraduate academic context, students are often assessed based on one or several major deliverables – say, a research paper or semester-end exam. The process the student uses to produce these deliverables is often invisible to their grader, who is primarily concerned with the end product. In some undergrad contexts, even the most highest-achieving students may never have met the professor who ultimately determines their grade. Coming from this mindset, recent grads will often shield their work-in-process from review until they feel it is “perfect” or “finished”, when in fact early and frequent check-ins would have helped ensure the deliverable aligns with their manager’s needs and expectations. Managers can help offset this tendency by establishing frequent, short, and low-stakes check-ins on the new hire’s progress.
- From personal to team performance: In an academic context, individual success is embodied in the year-end report card. The GPA sums up a student’s academic track record, and may result in winning awards, fellowships, or other recognitions. While individual accomplishment is similarly tracked and measured in the working world, the drivers of success are far more complicated. Rather than achieving through personal performance alone, junior staff members are ultimately “graded” on how they work with others to facilitate shared organizational goals. Caught in the “personal report card” mentality, recent grads often spend their first weeks and months on the job seeking individual validation, searching for any assurance that they’re at the “top of the class.” Managers can help eliminate this distracting anxiety by being explicit that recent grads will be evaluated on how well they help the team achieve its goals.
- From classroom to a multi-layered hierarchy: In college, students encounter a relatively simple hierarchy consisting of classmates, teaching assistants, and professors. By contrast, the workplace introduces a wide range of colleagues with different levels of tenure and responsibility, each of whom the recent grad must interact with differently to be successful. Some recent grads may react to the workplace environment by treating every colleague as a “professor” (overly formal), while others will behave as if they were surrounded by classmates (overly informal). Neither approach is appropriate, since establishing differentiated relationships with a wide range of colleagues is crucial both for overall career advancement and for the shepherding of individual deliverables. No matter how ingenious an analysis or presentation may be, it will be instantly discredited if the right stakeholders haven’t been engaged for feedback at points in the process appropriate to their respective roles. Managers can help new hires understand this shift by providing an illustration of a highly effective work product and the “perfect process” that was used to create it – one in which all crucial stakeholders are engaged and relevant resources consulted.
Great colleges prepare graduates with the basic traits needed to avoid each of these pitfalls: articulation, logic, humility, resilience, confidence. But too often, these same colleges and the organizations that hire their graduates fail to properly orient new hires to the giant chasm that divides students’ academic experience from working life. The result is lost time, lost sleep, plenty of frustration – and, in the worst case scenario, new hires failing at jobs in which they had every reason to succeed. Managers have the opportunity to pick up where colleges leave off – guiding new hires away from comfortable mindsets and towards the patterns of thought that will make them successful.