Every year, thousands of people start at new jobs. Senior leaders and managers transition from one firm to another. MBAs and JDs graduate and jumpstart their careers at businesses and law firms. And students head out to start new summer internships looking to secure offers for the next year. And all of them are thinking the exact same thing. How can I succeed in my new position? Even in a typical year, that question is difficult, because starting all over again is tough. But today, in an era where the markets are still uncertain and firms are still recovering from the economic blow of 2008, that difficulty is magnified. And as the sole summer associate at my law firm this year, I had to ponder that exact same question when I started three weeks ago.
Three weeks ago I had my first day at my law firm Vedder Price. As I mentioned in my previous post about my first day, I couldn’t help but keep thinking how exciting it was to finally get started. But at the same time, I also thought a lot about how to succeed there over the summer, especially in today’s current economic context. Because long gone are the day of the typical summer associate experience at law firms. Happy hours three days a week. Lavish lunches. Expensive dinners and boat cruises. And most importantly large classes, most of which who got offers in the end. Instead, most firms today have slashed their classes by more than half, and some firms have cut them entirely. And without all the firm programming, many people struggle to get integrated at the firm.
Fortunately in my case, I’ve quickly gotten pretty integrated into the firm. I have already been put on a number of projects and so far seem to be making a successful transition. Because things have started out well so far and because I’m still in the early stages of my summer associate position, I thought I’d share a few thoughts about how to hit the ground running. And in my view, these ideas not only apply at a law firm but also at any company you might be working at.
1. Start early. Succeeding in any job is not only about performing well during your tenure there, but it’s also about laying the groundwork beforehand so you can hit the ground running. That means sending the right message during your interviews, exposing yourself to the organization early, and reaching out to people as soon as it makes sense. On one hand you definitely don’t want to cross the line of being overeager, but on the other hand there’s definitely an advantage to be connected and to have people know about you – about what you’re interested in and about how you work – sooner than later. In my case, I reached out to a number of people before I ever stepped foot in the office, and I’m already working with a number of them in my first two weeks, including the firm Chairman. But even in the cases where I’m not working with the people I met, I’m better-positioned now not only to work with them later in the summer but more importantly to build relationships with them over time.
2. Get early wins. Another important part of a new job is getting a few early “wins” and figuring out how to build momentum in your role. To put the idea in context, consider the presidential race when Barack was campaigning. His momentum ultimately helped him reach more people in future places. Similarly, think back to when he was newly elected to the role. The same hold true when you begin a new job because expectations are high and perception can be very important. And by the end of the first six months of a new job, or the first couple of weeks of a summer job, it’s good to start meeting a lot of people, to get involved in interesting projects (critical projects that have real impact if you’re at the senior level) and communicate those success to stakeholders at the firm.
3. Get to know the right people. It goes without saying that meeting the right people can be an important factor in shaping our career (or summer stay) at a firm. But by “right” I don’t necessarily mean the “top” people. Instead, I mean the people who are key stakeholders that you need to know. Those people who want to support you. Those who want to get you involved. And those who have the ability and network to actually get you involved. As a new person at any level, it’s important to facilitate early introductions so that you can begin building relationships right away. And I emphasize the word “relationships” not just knowing people. One thing that business leader Jon Rice likes to say is that”It is not who you know, but instead it is who knows you well and thinks highly enough that they will go to bat for you.”
4. Do good work. It goes without saying, but in spite of all of these tactics above, in the end you still do have to do good work. You have to put in the time, show critical thinking and analytical skills, be both a leader and a team player, and in the end deliver tangible results. This is true for all new employees, but it’s especially true of senior leaders and perhaps more important at services firms, where budget constraints and finding new clients are critical. And this is especially important in the beginning because the work that you do will be what people remember, and it will make an impression. And although proving to be someone who does good work won’t stick forever, the impression that you do bad work can.
5. Make an impression. And if you do all the things above you will be able to make a good impression and manage your perception at the firm. The is critical, when it comes down to decision time for summers, where some of the people may not have worked with you directly but will have an impression of you, not to mention an idea of what other people’s impressions are. Similarly for full-timers, the impression you make is important because it will not only be the one that sticks with you early but it will also guide the impression that stays with you over the years.
Sounds like an impossible set of tasks? Well, that’s because sometimes it can be. After all, when’s the last time you brokered a relationship with the Chairman of your firm in the first week? And when’s the last time you had people really wanting you to succeed as the new guy at the firm, in a depressed economy. Instead, it’s more often the case that people analyze and test new employees to see what they’re made of, especially now, when job security is not a guarantee and where many people may actually fear for their spots at the firm.
But on the other hand, if you do make to sure to have some early success – build momentum, find mentors and other stakeholders that want to see you succeed, and work together with the people who would otherwise be fearful, then it won’t be a sink or swim approach. Instead you’ll not only have the help of many of your co-workers, but also the real support of people who want to work with you and see you succeed. And over time they will become invested and will make sure that you do well and make a good impression. Any if you can broker that set of events, then the sky is the limit. “Summers” will get their offers, and new hires will have the potential to have big impact over time.
And in the end, the things you do in the first few weeks could make all the difference.
Best of luck to all of those at new companies.