Critical Factors for Career Success

One perk of my job is that I am occasionally asked to give a short talk to Undergraduate finance students on what to expect when they enter the work force at a finance or investment company. I developed this short list of recommendations based on my answers to the question, “What do I wish I would have known when I was leaving college and getting my first ‘real’ job?” I have distilled those lessons, I think, into the following principles. What follows are my speaking notes for that speech.


Let’s step back and evaluate the big picture here. How many of you have had a job in an office before?

Why do you want a job? Why does a company want to hire you?

It all boils down to this. You need money, and your employer needs work. By taking a job, you have made a trade.  It’s not a perfect analogy, but think about this trade as you would going to a car dealership and buying a car. There’s a big information asymmetry there, and you’re on the wrong end of it, because you can be assured that the car salesman has done this trade many more times than you have.

You can be assured that your employer has been making these trades for a while and knows what it’s doing. But for many of you, this might be the first trade like this you have made. So this talk is all about how you can maximize the trade of work for money, for yourself.

Insist on Doing What You Love.

For a few reasons.

  1. Life is too short to do anything else. Expect to spend literally 2/3 of all of your waking hours at work, getting ready for it, commuting to and from it, and thinking about it. If all you’re getting is a paycheck, you owe it to yourself to find something that gives you more.
  2. If you’re not doing something you love, you can never have a hope of being the best at it. If there are two employees of identical IQ and experience, the one who enjoys what he is doing will succeed more than the other, because being mentally engaged in the work will come more easily to him.
  3. Now is the time to figure this out! One perk of working in finance is that the compensation system is set up for you to figure this out now, as an entry-level person. Your starting salary should be a mere fraction of what you’ll earn in 5-10 years. If you try a job and it doesn’t feel right, just go find another one! Even taking a 10% pay cut to find something that works better for you is really not that much money compared to figuring this out later and taking a 10% pay cut in 10 years. Better to hop around now, when you’re living in an apartment and your only expenses are rent and beer, than later, when you have a mortgage and kids to think about. Trust me!
  4. A side note about finance jobs. Some jobs in the finance world are analytical, and some are sales. It might not be immediately apparent to you from a job title or description what sort of job it is. I am not recommending one over the other — but you do need to know what you are getting into. The best way to figure this out is to ask the question, “How will I be compensated?” in the latter stages of an interview process. Note that I did not say “How much will I be compensated?” You do not want to ask that question in an interview.

Don’t Annoy Your Coworkers!

  1. This is easily overlooked. If you got hired somewhere, you trust that your wit and charm that got you past the interview stage is going to be an asset to you once you start working. This is not necessarily true!
  2. Most offices have a social order or “culture” that, for better or worse, it’s really in your interest to learn quickly. Observe and take cues from your manager. You might be brilliant, but if you don’t follow the unwritten rules and follow the social order, you won’t succeed.
  3. Make a concerted effort to lay a bit low and feel things out before you tell too many stories about your personal life, etc. First impressions count. You have never been in this situation before so proceed with caution.
  4. Don’t play music without headphones, or light candles at your desk.
  5. If you are annoying your coworkers, don’t expect them to tell you so. Expect them to secretly hate you. And you need them on your side! Increasingly, the corporate world is organizing itself in “team” structures, and people just work better with people they like.
  6. Don’t come in and criticize everything. Odds are, there is a good reason something is done the way it is, and it’s your job to figure that out. Treat your job like reading Shakespeare — you might not understand it, but the safe assumption is that Shakespeare is smarter than you are. Only after you have proven yourself to be thoughtful and reliable should you contemplate suggesting improvement.
  7. This is a big one. Don’t be a transparent brown-noser. Your colleagues will see right through it and resent you for it. The people you are brown-nosing to will also see right through it and won’t respect it.

The Office Holiday Party

The drinks may be free, but nothing is more costly to your career development than getting caught making out with a coworker in the corner, or throwing up on your boss’s wingtips. Pace yourself.

Seek Out Opportunities. They Won’t Just Come to You.

If you hear about a committee that interests you, volunteer for it. If you hear about some interesting project, ask to be included.
But don’t forget the last rule we talked about — don’t be a transparent brown-noser! This is not about getting on a committee for face time with the bosses. Only do this if you have a genuine interest. If you do seek out opportunities, treat them as learning experiences.

But Don’t Be Afraid of Grunt Work.

Congratulations, you just got an entry-level job. And you are the newest member of the entire entry-level team. Which basically makes you the very bottom of the entire firm’s totem pole. Don’t let this concern you; everyone has been there. But you need to understand and appreciate that you have a job to do, and it’s not always going to be fun and intellectually stimulating. Odds are, your company will want you to have avenues for professional growth, but when it comes down to it, they are not paying you to fulfill your dreams. They are paying you to get your work done.
And the better you do at getting your work done, the more avenues for fulfilling your dreams will open up.

Seek Feedback. Early and Often.

Asking your peers and manager for feedback is a very smart thing to do, for two main reasons.

  1. You NEED feedback. You won’t do everything right. And you won’t often get feedback unless you ask for it directly (remember, your coworkers are more likely to secretly hate you than to tell you you’re annoying them).
  2. Asking for feedback sends great signals about you. It shows you are committed to success and humble.

Avoid Poisonous Environments.

I hope this doesn’t happen to you, but you may find yourself in a very poor, what I call “poisonous” office environment. Examples include places where people lie and stab each other in the back. What I want you to know is that not all office environments are like this. If you find yourself in an environment like this, unless you are the rare sort of person who thrives in it, your best option is to leave and find another job. Again, now is the time! Your opportunity cost of looking elsewhere will never again be this low, because you are starting out at the bottom of your own personal professional pay scale.

Get Organized.

  • You are entering a whole new world, and don’t expect the organizational system that served you as a college student to translate to it. Everything about it is different.
  • You need to develop a complete organizational system, but the most critical element of that system will be your method of managing e-mail. E-mail is a business tool, and prompt replies expected. Forgetting to reply to even a single e-mail message could be a major setback for you on the “not annoying your coworkers” front, or worse.
  • I highly recommend Getting Things Done, by David Allen, to get organized. In my opinion, sitting where you do right now, it’s the best investment of $10 you can make. I feel so strongly about this book that I will buy you a copy if can’t afford one.

The Most Important Lesson

There is one sure-fire way to do permanent and irreparable damage to your professional reputation. That is to cook fish in the office microwave. Your instincts may tell you it’s all right, but trust me, it never is. If you forget everything else from today, remember this.

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