First years in career can be critical to your success

Across the country this summer, young adults fresh out of college are starting their careers. Many will find the job isn’t just about the work they will be doing.

Anyone with an office job knows there’s so much you have to deal with — some of which can hinder a career. Make the wrong move or say the wrong thing and you can fall off the corporate ladder you’ve only just begun to climb.

Eighty percent of 2014 college graduates expect their first employers to provide a formal training program, according to a survey by consulting firm Accenture. But 52 percent of students who graduated from college in the previous two years said they didn’t receive any training in their first jobs.

Your first years at work are like boot camp, and to succeed — not just survive — you have to learn the ropes, and learn them quickly, says Robert Dilenschneider, founder of his own public-relations firm in New York and former president and chief executive of public-relations giant Hill and Knowlton.

“Why some young people will succeed and some won’t has very little to do with their family backgrounds, the colleges they attended, their majors, the honors they received there, their IQs, their graduate degrees, their athletic skills, or even their ambition and drive,” says Dilenschneider.

More importantly, it is not just about what you know that gets you ahead, it’s how well you learn and play the career game. You have to be astute about how the work world works, Dilenschneider said.

Having watched people struggle in their careers, I agree with Dilenschneider. So to help young adults become work literate sooner rather than later, I’ve selected for this month’s Color of Money Book Club “The Critical First Years of Your Professional Life” (Citadel Press, Kensington Publishing, $15) by Dilenschneider with Mary Jane Genova.

Think of the book as your paper mentor, Dilenschneider says. And here’s some of what you’ll learn:

How to figure out if your company’s culture is the right fit for you. “Bad fits are career killers,” Dilenschneider writes. In this still-recovering economy, you might have to take the first job that comes along. But it is important to eventually find an organization that is the best fit for you. Or at least figure out what you need to do to fit in where you land.

How to manage your relationship with your boss. There are people who should never be put in charge of anyone. Nonetheless, organizations promote such people to supervise others. You may have a boss who seems determined to make your life miserable no matter how hard you try to please.

However, Dilenschneider believes there aren’t as many bad bosses as people think. “When you think ‘boss,’ think ‘ordinary,’” he says. “You’ll save yourself some disappointment.”

But what if you’ve just started working and you’ve got a maniacal manager? You’ll find tips in the book to help you manage your boss. “You owe it to your career to start thinking about bosses strategically,” Dilenschneider says.

How to survive the office grapevine — otherwise known as gossip, the rumor mill, office politics or networking. It’s there and you need to know when to use it and when to avoid it. “Remember everyone has an agenda,” writes Dilenschneider, who points out the people to avoid or watch carefully. There’s good advice about finding a champion in your organization. There are many days I was grateful for having mentors who fought for me.

How to consciously create your image. “Whether you like it or not, agree with it or not, think it’s unfair or not, people judge you by your image,” Dilenschneider writes.

I was fortunate when I began my career. I had a lot of help. Still, I stumbled and spent time in the ladies’ room crying over things that happened to me. During the first years of my professional life, I could have used a lot of the advice in Dilenschneider’s book.

“If you don’t take full advantage of the opportunity to learn the ropes during those years, you’re going to be in trouble, he writes. “There will be big gaps in your knowledge base, and you won’t have developed sound instincts about what to do when and under what circumstances.”

Michelle Singletary: michelle.singletary@washpost.com.

Washington Post Writers Group

Online chat

Michelle Singletary will host a live online discussion about “The Critical First Years of Your Professional Life” at 9 a.m. Pacific on Aug. 7 at washingtonpost.com/discussions. Author Robert Dilenschneider will join her. If you’re new to the workforce, or even if you’re a seasoned veteran, join the discussion about how to succeed on your job. You can send questions in advance of the online chat to colorofmoney@washpost.com.

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