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Making it on your first job.

Here's how to make that leap from college to career.

So, you are patting yourself on the back now that you have landed that first great job. And you think that you are well on your way to a high-powered career. Yes, you may have won the battle, but the war has just begun. How well you arm yourself and take charge of your career could mean the difference between a promotion or a layoff.

Last year, such formidable foes as an economic recession and corporate cutbacks made it difficult for workers to keep their jobs, let alone advance in them. By the third quarter of 1991, some 377,979 employees in major corporations had been terminated, says Dan Lacey, editor of the bimonthly newsletter, Workplace Trends. Undoubtedly, there are more people seeking jobs than there are positions available. By October 1991, the national unemployment rate was 6.8%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Moreover, the rate for blacks was 12.7% and increasingly steadily.

In light of these unstable times, it is now more important than ever for you to take an active role in how your career advances. Making it on your first job means making all the right moves. Today you are not only competing with other recent college graduates but with professionals who were downsized as well as those who are already inside of the company.

Those who demonstrate initiative, a positive attitude, strong communication skills and leadership abilities have a greater chance of staying in the ranks of the upwardly mobile. Acquiring a mentor who can help you maneuver through the trenches is another plus. But ultimately it's your responsibility to develop the skills you need to guide your career to the level you desire.

The Corporate Ladder: Rung One

The transition from academia to corporate advancement will initially be difficult. For instance, many graduates find that despite their degrees, they are often offered bottom-of-the-totem-pole positions, with salary to match. Despite this, it is up to you to map out your career path. Set your sights on job development and progression. You ought to have a realistic outline detailing where you want to be in the next six months to a year. In order to thrive during those first few months, ask yourself two questions. One, what do they say they want from me? Two, what do they really want from me? Make sure you understand your boss' expectations.

Even though you may comply with everything in your job description, on a scale from one to 10, your rating is 1 at best, according to Adele Scheele, Ph.D., a management consultant and career strategist in New York City. You have to work on making sure that the people in your company who count recognize your value. Because everything is a matter of dollars and cents, your worth is determined by how you impact the company's bottom line. Are you helping it to make or lose money?

Normally, your first assignment is when you're first evaluated. You are graded constantly on every assignment, and each success is relative to your performance. The first assignment is critical to your career path, because it will show your superiors and co-workers how you solve problems, interact with others and rely on your own ideas. Recent graduates often don't take their first work assignments as seriously as they should. When they are in school, a new semester begins every six months. "So, in the same way, they feel that they can keep starting over in the work force," says Scheele. Another mistake new employees commonly make is that they take their textbook with them on the job. "Unfortunately," Scheele explains, "you cannot use textbook answers for real-life problems."

Being one of the lowest on the totem pole requires some grunt work. Using these tasks wisely, however, can increase your responsibilities. The best way for your talents to be noticed and appreciated is to take the initiative.

"Just because you are bright does not mean you will shoot up the corporate ladder," says Karen Trader, director of Human Resources for Network Solutions Inc., No. 17 on the BLACK ENTERPRISE INDUSTRIAL/SERVICE 100 in Herdon, Va. "No one will help you unless they see you are willing to help yourself. The boss wants to see that you are indeed able to think and act for yourself."

When Charles Jones was about to graduate from college a year ago, he believed the job market was so bleak that he was ready to skip it altogether. But after attending an engineering seminar, he approached the principal speaker, Lewis Smoot, CEO and president of Sherman R. Smoot Corp., a black-owned engineering firm in Washington, D.C. Jones, a 23-year-old Howard University graduate, spent four years studying civil engineering. After a brief interview, he was hired last year and now serves as a project engineer for the company. Jones, whose salary is in the low 30s, is responsible for overseeing the budget and completion of all of the company's construction projects.

Jones says initiative has been a key to his success thus far. This past summer, Jones' crew was behind schedule while working on the construction of Howard University's E. Just Hall. Instead of taking longer to complete the job or hiring a larger temporary staff, Jones shed his suit and went into the field to labor. "I realize I have to give more than is required of me. If I fail, it's not like I'm failing a test. I do whatever I have to do to get the job done right," he says.

The primary relationship between you and conflict should be resolving it. Your problem-solving skills can help to spotlight your analytical talents and your ability to motivate others. Solving conflicts is also a good way to exhibit corporate commitment. Companies admire people who want to contribute.

The Glass Is Always Half Full

To some degree, making it on your first job follows the guidelines of a strong sales pitch. "Whether you are selling yourself or your ideas,

maintaining a positive attitude will enable you to scale the corporate ladder come rain or shine," says Gregory Jones, 24, a sales representative for the copier division of Lanier WorldWide Inc. in Washington, D.C.

You cannot be productive on your job if you are not positive. "Life is 90% attitude and 10% what happens to you," says a 1991 Baruch College, City University of New York graduate. "It's all in your attitude, how you present yourself and what you have to offer."

"A company may be able to teach you what you need to know to succeed, but it cannot teach attitude," says Stephen Merman, president of the American Society for Training and Development. "When choosing between a purely competent person without interest, and a less competent person with zeal, I always chose zeal over ability," he says.

Jones, who earns in the mid-30s, says that he not only is positive, but he shows initiative and pays attention to details. Jones handles more than 300 phone calls a week, yet he often makes the sale by going out into the field. "If brochures are not getting the account, I have to think of something else. Most of the time I just carry the copiers up flights of stairs and show them to a potential client," he adds. He believes that someone who pays his or her dues may not advance the fastest, but that person will at least advance consistently.

Say It Right The First Time

Just as it is important to be able to think on your feet, you ought to be able to articulate your ideas. Management consultant Adele Scheele says that mastering the art of communication (written and oral) is paramount. The characteristics of an effective communicator are confidence, clarity, conciseness and directness. Moreover, you must learn to be respectful of your audience's level of understanding, ideas, motives and time.

Communicating in the workplace usually takes on two forms. One, the expression of your ideas about a project, problem or situation, orally or in writing; and two, interaction with your peers and supervisors. It is important that you remain well-informed, so you can talk about the goings-on within your department, and that you share in the interests of your colleagues.

If you ask Michael Benefield what is one of his greatest attributes, he will tell you it's his silver tongue. A 1990 graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a degree in political science, Benefield says that his communication skills helped him land a higher position than the one he had originally applied for, manager of local government relations. Benefield now works as the manager of state government relations for Delaware's New Castle Chamber of Commerce.

For the past eight months, Benefield has served as a liaison between state and local government earning just under $25,000. At the age of 24, he is the youngest, as well as the only black lobbyist in the Delaware statehouse. "There is a strong presence of the old boy network," says Benefield.

However, "while I am not a seasoned veteran, I am confident about myself and my capabilities," he says. "And I know how to project this quality, which helps to instill their confidence in me."

Benefield adds that he knows the ins and outs of the entire agency, in addition to the projects he is involved in. "As long as I parlay my knowledge into informative answers and make judgments to help promote the organization," he says, "I ultimately promote myself."

Management consultants warn that being knowledgeable does not mean being arrogant. Never talk down to your co-workers or spew out big words to impress senior management. Whether you are meeting with the entire department or brainstorming with your boss, time and energy are limited. So, use them wisely.

Another significant form of communications in the work environment is socializing. "Schmoozing is not an asset--it is a requirement," says Scheele. Mingling with colleagues and management can open many doors. Your conversations may range from sports and politics to departmental issues and company objectives. The idea is to be able to relate on many different levels.

The Leader Of The Pack

Boot camp is now over, for you have learned the basic survival skills. You know how to initiate ideas, and actions and you can communicate what you need and want to accomplish. The next order of business in managing your career is to develop leadership abilities. To be a leader you have to identify, define, design and implement strategies.

The hard part may be accomplishing these tasks without arousing hostility. Just remember that you are part of a service team. You want to display your leadership qualities without forging ahead of your boss or blatantly calling attention to the inadequacies of your co-workers. The goal is to spotlight yourself, not to sabotage others.

In fact, part of assuming the role of leader is also being able to "compensate where others are lacking," says Cheryl Harris, a purchasing specialist for American Express subsidiary IDS Financial Services Inc., in Minneapolis. Fresh out of college, Harris' first job offer was actually a temporary position as a budget analyst for IDS. However, when the Florida A&M University graduate arrived at the company, she was told that the project was almost completed, and the company did not need her. Instead of packing her bags and heading back, Harris met with her prospective employer and made some recommendations as to where her services could be utilized. "It was obvious I had potential," she says.

Harris spent the next year as an assistant buyer. She currently procures capital equipment and supplies for the entire Minneapolis-St. Paul offices with an annual salary of $35,000 and the 184 national branches, equaling a total budget of $3.25 million. Harris says that for the past two years, she has been advancing mainly because of her strong leadership abilities, including identifying priorities, building relationships and implementing ideas. "Nine out of 10 times I am the only black person in a meeting or on a committee. So, I have to be focused," she says. "I also want to create a positive impression to make way for the people coming behind me."

Effective leadership comes from being well-informed, says Cynthia Smith, a 23-year-old Employment Coordinator for the Texas City Refinery Corp. "Read everything you can about the company. This enables you to contribute amply and intelligently. Make sure you have all of the information before offering even minor input."

Smith, a business administration major who graduated from the University of Alabama last year, is responsible for hiring employees for the entire company. "When you decide to lead and not just follow, you have a lot more proving to do." Explains Smith: "I often go in early and stay late. And when the work is not finished I go in on weekends too. To be a leader, I have to show that I am an ideal employee first."

It is also important that you realize "you are part of a network," says Tracy Jackson, an associate brand manager for Chicago-based Kraft General Foods. The 1990 University of Michigan Graduate oversees the product and campaign schedules for the advertising and production departments. Jackson says she believes you have to learn how to be a team player first before you can become a leader.

Looking The Part

Do not be shortsighted and think that your results alone will speak for you. Getting ahead does not center solely on performance. "Nontangibles are critical, especially for black employees who often have to combat stereotypes of incompetence in the workplace," says Sheryl Colyer, regional human resources manager for PepsiCo-KFC in Philadelphia.

Like it or not, your ability to fit in and to be accepted as a professional is determined, in part by your personality and appearance. Joylette Hairston wore dreadlocks while attending Pennsylvania State University, where she majored in liberal arts and minored in speech communications. Upon graduation in 1990, she decided to pursue a career in finance. She took a crash business course working for free in her uncle's brokerage firm. Within a month she started applying for financial training positions. A few weeks and several contacts later, she became an operations management trainee for Bear Stearns in New York City, with an annual salary of $25,000.

"Experience is invaluable, but appearance sells the ticket," says Hairston, 25. Sacrificing style for status, she gave up her dreads and redefined her look to fit a more corporate role. "I did not consider it selling out," she concedes, "but more as an investment." Because black women have to fight racist and sexual stereotypes along with a depressed job market, we can't afford to have any strikes against us."

Having the proper look is requisite in a corporate environment, says Charles Grevious, vice president of The Johnson Group, a New York City-based executive search firm. You don't want to hinder your career advancement unnecessarily by going against the grain.

Each business has its own subculture. It is mandatory that you realize, respect and adhere to whatever is deemed the professional or proper image in your place of business. Echoing that sentiment is Colyer who believes "blacks especially have to manage perceptions. We have to control how others see us. They want to know that they can dress you up and take you out." At the same time, Grevious suggests that you can be a chameleon within a corporate culture. "Make sure you are true to yourself. You can compromise your clothing, but you should not compromise yourself."

As a new employee you are constantly making first impressions; all of your actions are relative to overall performance. An often overlooked but important career issue is the concept of time.

"You are never on time. You are either early or late," says Juan Menefee, president and CEO of Juan Menefee & Associates, an executive search consulting firm in Oak Park, Ill. "Opt to be early," he concludes.

Acquiring Value-Added Services

Companies are in the business of making profits, not promotions. So, you need to see to it that you are a commodity in your employer's eyes. When devising a career advancement strategy, keep in mind volunteer projects, networking and strong mentor relationships. By taking on such special projects you display professional commitment.

These projects are usually the ones that one one else wants to do because they are boring or time-consuming. Well, with a little extra effort such tasks could trailblaze into an opportunity for you to shine. And they often provide the opportunity to broadcast unique skills, talents and accomplishments, making you more visible to senior management and other influential executives.

Networking inside and outside of the company (i.e., professional organizations) also is important in moving up. Develop and maintain good relationships with others in your profession and with those who are a vital part of your industry.

Seeking out a corporate guru also can help to boost your career. Knowing when to ask for a raise or how to approach the boss are the types of problems entry-level employees can field to a mentor. When it comes time for a promotion, undeniably, many positions are filled outside of the boardroom. "A mentor can open up opportunities you would not otherwise have access to," says Perry Borman, a recruiting manager for Amoco Corp., in Chicago. You want to latch onto someone who can help lift you as he or she climbs the ladder.

Don't Overlook The Obvious

Even donned with the best advice and guidance, inevitably you will make mistakes. Everyone does. The key is to avoid repeating them, says Borman. "If you get it right the first time, great. When you fail, learn from the experience. But be sure you learn the lesson, because there are no makeups," he adds.

Learning how to accept criticism is equally important. Don't take it personally. Just take into account the merits and demerits of your work when you start your next project. "Dump the ego and listen attentively," says Scheele. Any display of a temper tantrum, anger or complaints are unacceptable and intolerable.

Instead, focus your energy on going above and beyond your assignments--doing more than your share--and letting others realize your worth. You must show them what you can and do contribute to the company. No matter what level you start at in a company, your career must pick up speed if you want to get anywhere. Being armed with a degree may guarantee you an entry, but it does not automatically enable you to excel.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Reynolds, Rhonda
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Feb 1, 1992
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