When Liz, an English biochemistry student turned up for her first day of work at an American medical school, she made a mistake in filling out a form and innocently asked her new boss for a rubber.
“He looked totally shocked but then recovered, and worked it out after a few seconds,” she said, before her own mortifying realisation that the British word for an eraser had a completely different meaning in American English.
Meanwhile Sophie, a consultant, recounted how she ran from her Eurostar to a job interview in London, picking up a banana on the way as she had missed breakfast. She ate half and shoved the remainder in her suitcase.
After the interview, her potential new boss commented on the strong smell of banana.
“I mused in agreement, then noted the horror on his face as he pointed out a trail of slimy banana leading from the lift, down the corridor and into the interview office,” she said.
“It was only as he said goodbye and the lift doors shut that he looked down at my wheelie case, and noted the trapped half banana that had leaked it squishy contents in trails and chunks all over his pristine office.”
Start as you mean to go on
Anecdotes about first days or interviews can be a source of amusement, but the first impression you create in a new working environment generally sets the tone for your future success. It’s important to start off on the right foot, laying the foundations for good long-term working relationships.
Gwendolyn Parkin, a psychotherapist and director at Integral Career, argues that preparation is the first key to a good initiation to a new job.
This involves researching “what the organisation is, what their performance has been like, how they operate, what are some of the key issues at the moment, and how this organisation needs to demonstrate value, how it actually makes money commercially,” she said.
An important part of preparation is to analyse your role, its content and what it could be. Parkin’s career consultancy offers personal and professional analysis that helps to pinpoint skills, how a person’s role fits into the bigger picture of their career, and how to be self-aware about weaknesses.
Observe the people
Before you start your new role, it’s crucial to consider your personal image. “Your appearance must be immaculate in every single way,” said Parkin. She recommends understated dress, opting for neutral colours and as high quality as you can afford.
“When you walk in the door on the first day, your mindset has to be highly aware of what’s going on around you and highly observational,” she continued.
“You’ll notice that some of the best chief execs can come into an organisation and observe for a while. They don’t actually go into being absolutely pro-active,” said Parkin.
“Observe very carefully how the organisation is structured..and one of the most important things to observe are the people. One of my biggest pieces of advice is do not assume anyone is sane.”
Office politics are impossible to avoid, she explained, and careful observation helps to avoid some of the pitfalls.
“The only thing that helps to get to know someone is seeing them in different situations over a long period of time,” said Parkin. “If you want to have impact, do not be too aggressive to begin with. It’s about being keen, but not aggressive and not stepping on people’s toes..Watching before you speak or do is quite important.”
Office romances should be taboo, particularly during your first year, and over-sharing should be avoided by sticking to “neutral personal territory” like hobbies.
“[Over-sharing] shows a lack of maturity. It shows that you don’t have good judgement. If you are going to over-share about yourself, what are you going to do about confidential information in the organisation?” Parkin cautioned.
Eli Bohemond, a graduate and millennial coach with SEVEN Career Coaching, agreed that talking too much about your personal issues could be detrimental to your standing. “Chill out, keep it professional. Don’t go in with the idea that you’re going to be sharing. You’re only talking 20% of the time and that’s to learn more about your role and what you’re going to be doing and about the people you’re with,” he said.
“On your first day it’s all about listening, taking notes, and just giving very high level expectations of what you can do and how you can add value.” If you want to make a good first impression, Bohemond recommends finding out how you can help ease the pressures your manager is facing.
How to support your manager
“Any time I’ve worked with a manager, they really appreciate when I come in and ask what’s on your plate right now that you wished wasn’t, and how can I help you complete these tasks?” he said.
Bohemond also advises, taking fantastic notes so that your boss does not have to repeat themselves too often.
“Make sure you’re capturing everything that your manager is saying and then summarising those points back and sharing them in a quick email, or in minutes or in your share drive,” he said.
“If you can avoid going back to your manager after they’ve already told you what to do, then you’re building a very strong relationship as someone who is confident and capable and trustworthy.”
Being inclusive with your colleagues, understanding their individual talents, and bringing them together over projects is another route towards developing leadership skills, and impressing your boss, he argued.
However, it’s vital to steer clear of complaining. “Don’t come to your manager with problems all the time unless you’ve thought through a solution,” said Bohemond.
“What sounds better – someone who is complaining or someone who brings up a sore point for the company but does so with a solution focussed approach?” he added.
Positive mental attitude
“[Negative energy] impacts the team, the manager, the company at large, and it’s just an energy suck.”
Professional executive coach, Neela Bettridge, advised that nurturing your working relationship with your new boss should be the first priority in a new job.
“You don’t have to become your boss’s best friend but you certainly need to find ways of engaging with them and particularly on the first day, really finding out what’s required of you in your job,” she said.
“One of the most important things, before you even start the job, is to get very clear on what the boss’s conditions for satisfaction are,” Bettridge recommended. “I would also make sure that I engage with my peers in the team so that I understand what the political landscape is, and some of the pressures that the organisation may be facing,” she continued. “I would find out the pressures that my boss is facing and in relation to my role, how I could enable or help them in their role.”
The difference between success and failure
Regular meetings with your manager and reporting back on your work help to establish a good relationship.
“These are the key things that I would suggest for somebody who is starting out – regular meetings with the peers and the boss, clearly understanding what the organisation needs, what the boss needs in order for this to look successful, and get quite granular about that,” she said.
“Understanding the landscape of the organisation, what the system is, who is who, who you need to be careful of, who you need to be engaging with,” Bettridge added. “These are the things that make the difference between success and failure.”
[names have been changed in the first two anecdotes]
Nicola Smith has spent a decade reporting for The Sunday Times on both the European Union and South Asia.