When I was just beginning my corporate career in publishing many years ago, I assumed I understood a decent amount about how to behave and perform to be considered a strong employee. But I soon recognized that the nuances—such as how to really get noticed, or how to demonstrate promotability, or how to show eagerness for more responsibility without getting burned out—were much more elusive. And there was no one I felt comfortable to ask these important questions about how to start off on the best foot so I could set myself up to thrive.
Turns out, I wasn’t alone. Thousands of folks just entering the job market and workforce for the first time are often shocked at what they don’t know about how to succeed in a big way, in their first roles. In short, they’re doing a lot of surmising, and those best guesses often fall flat and lead us to failure.
To gain some new perspective on the unspoken but essential rules to what to do to start our jobs and careers off right, I caught up this week with Gorick Ng, author of the new book The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right, a guide on how to become a top-performing employee, based on 500+ interviews with professionals across geographies, industries, and job types.
Ng is a career adviser at Harvard College and has managed new employees at Boston Consulting Group (BCG), worked in investment banking at Credit Suisse, and is also a researcher with the Managing the Future of Work project at Harvard Business School. He has been featured in The New York Times, The New York Post, Fast Company, CNBC, and more. Ng, a first-generation college student in his family, is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Business School.
In his new book, he empowers recent grads by teaching them how to do what managers expect but never explain and that top performers do subconsciously. These unspoken rules create an unlevel playing field between insiders and outsiders, but Ng bridges the divide by giving all early-career professionals the concrete, tactical advice they need to excel.
Here’s what he shares:
Kathy Caprino: How can an early career professional or college graduate navigate a tight job market with a leg up on the competition?
Gorick Ng: If you’re a student or new grad, start by Googling for “rotational program,” “leadership development program,” “analyst program,” “early career program,” and “apprenticeship.” Try also searching for “campus recruiting” and “university recruiting” on Google and LinkedIn. Companies that have early career programs will be used to seeing resumes from candidates who may lack relevant prior work experience.
The further you get from companies that have dedicated hiring programs for new or recent grads, the more you’ll start competing against a broader and more experienced job applicant pool—and the more strategic you’ll have to be to get in the door. Focus on organizations where you have the best odds of getting an interview. This means identifying organizations that are on a hiring spree and where you know someone (or can get introduced to someone). Google for “fastest growing companies” and “recent startup funding” to identify companies that are growing like crazy—and that are likely hiring like crazy too. Consider also searching for “we’re hiring” on LinkedIn to find people with these two words in their profiles.
Regardless of the opportunity, try to find someone behind the scenes who can forward your resume along. All you’re doing by clicking “submit” is throwing your resume onto a big pile that may never get looked at.
Caprino: Exactly how can those new to the workforce actually find that “someone” behind the scenes to help them as a mentor or sponsor?
Ng: Begin with your first-degree network (the people you already know). Then, try your second-degree network (people you don’t yet know but could get an introduction to; on LinkedIn, these are the people with a “2nd” beside their name). Once you’ve exhausted those options, move on to your third-degree network—people you don’t know and don’t have a connection to so need to cold email.
Start by engaging LinkedIn to search the companies you’re interested in. On the company page, click on “employees” to pull up a list of people who work at the firm. Filter the list by “1st” (for first-degree contacts) or “2nd” (for second degree contacts) and click on the profiles of everyone with a “1st” or “2nd” beside their name. Once you’ve exhausted your options, clear the filter and look at everyone, with a focus on people high up in the departments you’re interested in (folks with a title that includes “Chief,” “Director,” or “Vice President”). Try also going onto the company’s website and click the “Team” or “Leadership” page.
When you’re reviewing someone’s LinkedIn page or website bio, look for anything in their history that you can relate to. Did you go to the same school? Study the same major? Participate in the same club, sports team, social group, or community service activity? Have the same hometown? Have a similar prior part-time job or internship? Have the same identity (e.g., are they also a woman in STEM, first-generation college student, or LGBTQ+ professional in finance)? The more commonalities, the better.
The idea is to find people who can see you as a younger version of themselves. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes: Are you more likely to respond to someone who sends you a message that could have been copied and pasted to anyone, or someone who starts their outreach with, “Like you, I was also a part of ____, also did ____, and also want to ____.” The more of a connection people feel, the more likely they’ll respond to you.
While this approach is useful if you know which companies you are interested in, you can still look for potential mentors who are likely to see you as a younger version of themselves even if you haven’t narrowed down a list of firms.
Also make a list of all the clubs, sports teams, community service activities, and social groups you were a part of in all your years of school. Dig up spreadsheets of club members from prior years, browse the alumni directory (if one exists), and look for team rosters on your school’s athletics website. Or, simply Google for the organization and browse the website. This can be especially helpful if you were a part of any organizations that have chapters elsewhere. If you can’t find what you’re looking for with the current website, try using Wayback Machine to pull up prior versions of webpages.
Once you have a list of people you’d like to contact, cold email them, share your commonalities, why you’re reaching out, and your availability for a call. If you aren’t sure of the company’s email format, Google for the company domain ("@companyname.com") and see if you can spot any patterns in the emails that pop up.
Caprino: What have you found are the most important things to keep in mind in the first day, week, month, and year on the job?
Ng: Make sure you meet with your manager as early on as possible to clarify the hidden expectations for your role. At this meeting, ask these five questions if you aren’t given the answer upfront:
Then, at your regular check-in—which is ideally happening every week or at most every two weeks—ask your manager, “Is there anything I should start doing? Stop doing? Keep doing?” And if you’re aiming towards a certain goal, such as converting a temporary role into a permanent one or an internship into a full-time job, ask, “Am I on track?”
Succeeding in a new role is all about meeting and exceeding expectations, something you can’t do unless you know what the expectations are in the first place.
Caprino: What do recent grads need to understand about exactly what managers expect in performance but never explain, and what top performers do subconsciously?
Ng: Leave nothing ambiguous. If you’re assigned a project and aren’t sure about what you need to do, how you need to do it, or by when you need to do it, clarify upfront. Then, repeat back what you think you heard to ensure that what your manager said matches what you thought they said.
Pay attention to the most respected people at or near your level and who have a similar identity to you. Pay attention to how they interact with managers, how they conduct themselves, and how they approach their work. Then, mirror the elements that are authentic to you.
Caprino: Finally, on the other side of the coin, what do managers need to understand about engaging young employees?
Ng: Help your young employees chart a course for growing in the organization, taking on more important responsibilities, and making an impact. A manager I interviewed once told me, “If I can’t even trust you to print double-sided, how can I trust you to handle clients? If you keep missing small deadlines, it’s not a short fall to miss a bigger deadline. I need to test-drive you first.”
It felt like common sense—until I realized that no one had ever given me that advice before. I wasn’t alone, either—few young employees get these unspoken rules spelled out so clearly, leading many to misunderstand expectations and lose motivation.
And for those who are confident enough to ask for more, they were often labeled as entitled because they asked for more without first doing their basic tasks well. How do we fix this problem? First, define what it looks like to do a good job. Then, help your young employees meet and exceed that standard. And, when they do, reward them.
Helping young employees understand when and how they can take on more important responsibilities offers another benefit: It levels the playing field for women, people of color, and employees from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who may lack the awareness, confidence, or professional sponsors to navigate to higher-profile projects themselves.
It’s win-win-win: it’s good for employee motivation and retention, good for manager sanity, and good for the diversity and inclusiveness of your organization.