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How To Start Your Career Off Right

Gorick Ng is a career adviser at Harvard Collage and during the last four years, he’s interviewed more than five hundred interns, early career professionals, managers, and executives, across the globe. Now, he’s distilled everything that he’s learned into a step-by-step guide – his book, The Unspoken Rules: Secrets To Starting Your Career Off Right

“We all have what it takes to be a top performer. It begins with mastering the unspoken rules,” explains, Ng. 

Some of the 20 unspoken rules that Ng reveals and explains in his book are: 

  • Know when to reject, embrace, or bend the rules.
  • Think like an owner.
  • Know your context and your audience.
  • Work backward from the end goal. 

Ng’s interviews included asking these questions:

  1. What are the most common mistakes people make at work?
  2. What would you do differently if you could redo the first years of your career?
  3. What separates top performers from mediocre ones?               

During his research, Ng identified the most universal problems early-career professionals face. Fortunately, his book presents solutions to those challenges – especially ones so many of us find ourselves facing during the COVID-19 pandemic work environment. You’ll learn how to: 

  • Build and sustain relationships while working remotely.
  • Establish presence in virtual meetings.
  • Ask for assistance without looking lazy.
  • Impress a boss without in-person interaction.
  • Showcase your competence, compatibility, and commitment at work. 

Ultimately, Ng explains that you will want your managers, coworkers and clients to answer “Yes” to these three questions about you: 

  1. Can you do the job well?
  2. Are you excited to here?
  3. Do you get along with us? 

Gorick Ng

Earlier this year, Ng answered these questions for me: 

What are the career prospects and challenges facing the pandemic generation of graduates? 

Ng: Last year, some of America’s top computer science grads picked Airbnb over Google, only to see their job offers get rescinded due to COVID-19. You can’t be complacent, even when you have a job. You need to keep your eye on what’s happening in your industry and in the broader economy. You need to be able to pivot—and to pivot quickly. 

How can an early career professional or college graduate navigate a tight job market with a leg up on the competition? 

Ng: It’s critical to know how to tell your story—and to position yourself as someone who (1) has done a similar job before, (2) will help the company achieve its goals, and, therefore, (3) are low-risk. Companies aren’t hiring you out of the goodness of their hearts; they are hiring you to help them achieve their goals. The better you can articulate how you can hit the ground running and will be a problem solver, not a problem creator, the better your chances of getting hired. 

What separates outstanding employees from mediocre ones? 

Ng: Outstanding employees take ownership. They think as if they “owned” the entire project and didn’t have anyone to go to for help. They do whatever they can to solve problems on their own before involving others. And, when they do ask for help, they give others something to react to. 

Why is it important to know how to tell your story? 

Ng: The interview question “tell me about yourself” isn’t actually a question about your hobbies. It’s a question about how your prior experiences translate to the position you are applying for. The better you are at telling your story, the more competent, committed, and compatible you will come across. And the clearer you are on what you want from your job, the better your chances of designing a fulfilling experience for yourself. 

What are the most important things to keep in mind in the first day, week, month, and year on the job? 

Ng: Clarify the hidden expectations for your role: what does your manager expect you to be able to do—or to have done—by your first day, week, month, quarter, and year? What metrics will you be evaluated against? What does success look like in your role? What tasks and deliverables are have-to-dos and which are nice-to-dos? Leave nothing ambiguous. 

Why should managers care about the unspoken rules? 

Ng: Want to build a more diverse workforce? You’ll need to fix more than just your hiring process. You’ll need to take a critical look at who gets promoted and why. Chances are, those who get promoted aren’t necessarily the most competent or hardest working; they are the ones who know how to navigate the hidden expectations and cultural norms of your organization. 

What do managers need to know about engaging young employees? 

Ng: Make a job more than just a job. Make it an opportunity to explore, learn, and grow. Let’s be real: both you and your young employees know that their first job likely won’t be their last job. The better you understand what your employees are looking for, the better you will be able to structure an experience that gives your employees what they want and that gives you what you want. 

Make sure you clarify three things: What do I need to do? How do I need to do it? By when do I need to do it? If you don’t clarify the “what,” the “how,” and the “by when,” you will end up doing the wrong work, doing it the wrong way, and/or doing it too late. 

Finally, some of my favorite takeaways from Ng’s book are: 

  • Career success depends on your ability to identify and seize the right opportunities.
  • If no one finds you work, you find the work. 
  • Be deliberate about when and how you communicate so that you maximize the chance that others receive and understand your message. 
  • Remember that feedback is rarely about what’s right and what’s wrong; often, it’s about what aligns with your manager’s worldview. 

Thank you to the book’s publisher for sending me a copy of the book.


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