Young Alumni Panel on Early Career Success


You have spent the majority of your life as a student and now it’s time to enter into the real world of work.  Not sure what to expect, huh?  How do I effectively navigate the workplace?  How can I add value to the firm? How can I ramp quickly in my new role? 

As the end of the semester nears at colleges and universities across the country, thousands of students are preparing for the transition from school to work, either as summer interns or entering into a full-time position.  Below, a panel of young alumni from Michigan State University’s prestigious School of Human Resources and Labor Relations weight in to provide their insights into early career success.

Cast of Characters:

Josh Droog – Human Resources Generalist with URS in Austin, Texas

Nate Phenicie – Senior Human Resource Manager with Kraft Foods, Chicago, Illinois

Tiffany Gaston – Human Resource Consultant with Marathon Petroleum Company in Findlay, Ohio

Ben Jerome –  Human Resource Analyst with Shell Oil Company in Houston, Texas

Lindsay Laubaugh – Human Resource Generalist with Raytheon in Largo, Florida

Nicole McParlan – Human Resource Analyst with Halliburton in Houston, Texas

Katie Seager – Solution Development Consultant at Microsoft in Redmond, Washington

How do you gain credibility with workers who have been on the frontlines for decades?

Lindsay: Bargaining employees have been at the plant longer than I have been alive.  No one ever said anything (demeaning) but I would get a lot of looks.  To gain credibility, you have to deliver upon what you say within a time frame that you say you are going to do it.  With front line workers, be fair and consistent with everything you are doing.  Standing your ground.  You have to get to the point that you accept some people won’t give you credibility.  That’s fine.  Don’t let it stress you out.

Josh: It takes time to build trust among the clients you may serve. Traditionally, HR (in my org) was handled by an administrative exec or an HR liaison. Now, I serve as a dedicated HR partner.  When that happened, it required a paradigm shift to occur; especially with managers who like to act on things immediately.  There was a lot of push back.  But, once you build credibility with one person it spreads like wild fire.

Nate: Don’t put too much pressure on yourselves.  They (companies) are used to young students and new grads coming in all the time.  Give yourself credit.  You’ve been successful. You’ve gotten here before. As long as you work hard, people will see the trust build up over time. No one expects you to know everything.

Ben: Very little things can be helpful.  For example, when there was an employee issue, I would go out into the field; walk out into the field and meet them in their own space. It creates a natural comfort level (for the employee) when you’re in another’s work zone.  Bring food/cookies.  Talk about their family or how processes used to be run.  Build rapport a bit.  This is an ongoing challenge throughout your career.  There is an automatic sense for HR that “you’ll be in trouble”.  This will be a constant barrier.  Be aware but don’t worry.  Be yourself.

What skill do you wish you had developed better before entering the working world?

Nicole: You will never have enough practice presenting in a group of people.  It is even more nerve racking presenting to senior executives.  You know what you’re supposed to be doing: eye contact, non-verbals, ums and uhs, but sometimes it escapes your memory.  Practice as much as you can.  It’s funny to see senior leaders struggle with that.

Katie: Relaying information to people not in HR when you’re living and breathing HR. It’s your natural language. But you need to learn to speak the language of the people you are working with. Your clients.

Josh: Confidence in being able to back up decisions that you make.  When you get push-back, you need to have the confidence to back up your decisions.

Nate: Building relationships with my class and my peers.  I always had a few friends that were close rather than a lot of fringe friends. I now realize how important it is to build natural common relationships with people that are different than me.  You move into new roles and you know how to relate to someone you’ve never interacted with before. Now’s your chance to figure that out when you do have something in common with each other.  It will help you build credibility and trust with the business.  Build relationships with people that are different than you.  

Ben: Dealing with conflict.  Part of it is generational.  We (generation Y) were raised with praise for everything we did.  Most of your professors think you are great. Very few will come in and give harsh feedback like you’d receive in the workplace.  Take it as a gift.  (In the workplace) You are going to get resistance from all different angles.  Be able to return to that individual and stand by what you believe is right for the organization.  Be receptive to feedback.    

What is your advice for building a network in a new organization/city?

Katie: Getting to know people is a true challenge.  Talk with your manager about experiences that you want to have and where you want to go next.  It’s okay to develop skills for the next place. Utilize people on your own team.  Join groups within the company.  Extracurriculars.  Build your network.  Network outside of HR.  Getting outside of that is challenging.  Reach outside of the circle.

Nicole: Use LinkedIn.  Use the company directory.  Give a shout out.  There is a sense of belonging from the MSU community. Wear your colors proudly.  It’s a place to start.  There are local SHRM chapters.  If you’re active, you could get involved in the social side.  Join a running club.  Go work out.

Lindsay: I was in Tucson for 8 months.  There’s not a strong alumni base there.  I will be honest.  I did a terrible job at networking.  I hung out with one friend I knew from college when I was out there.  It’s a lot of work (networking).  You have to join the group and then actually go to things.  It takes a lot of effort. If you don’t put it in, you lose the opportunity.

Tiffany: Marathon has a program called Extended Onboarding for anyone within 2 years of their start date.  I go to a lot of those events.  It has allowed me the opportunity to meet people I would have never met. I met a lot of engineers, who I don’t recruit. Often times I go to events by myself.  It forces me to get outside of my comfort zone.  Now I have a lots of friends/colleagues across the company.

Since starting your job, how much have you used Excel, Stata, SPSS or Minitab? Did you feel prepared to use these types of software?

Josh: No. Some companies are strategic vs. metric-driven.  We are leaning towards it and are encouraged to take more training.  It’s more about what we can do strategically vs. metrically speaking.

Nicole: I V-lookup and pivot every day.  This is all in Excel.  I don’t use Minitab or SPSS at all.  There is usually an expert to help guide you.  In my job in compensation, I used Excel all the time.  If you know how to read the data, you can provide insight about things other people can’t.  If you can’t, find someone in HRIS, buy them lunch and find out the ins and outs of what they do. There are a lot of things on YouTube or Google.  Don’t let data stuff scare you.

Ben: Your technical and data skills probably won’t be where they need to be.  Everybody here is resourceful. There is probably someone available (to help you).  Be able to regurgitate what the data is telling you, soak it in and articulate what it means to the organization.  Apply the data in practical terms and avoid HR language.

Do have any recommendations for business-related books, blogs or podcasts?

Josh: Ragan. It’s tips for professional communication. Little things like “5 things you should never use in a professional email”.

Katie: How to Win Friends and Influence PeopleFlawless Consulting. Good to Great Get Abstract.  A lot of companies provide a free subscription. With your account, you have access to over 10,000 books.  The information is condensed into a 5 page PDF.  I found that really helpful when I’m working on a project or to generate creativity.

Nate: Nate: The Servant Leader. Harvard Business Review on Twitter.  You may have two weeks go by where you don’t look at it because you’re swamped.  Start it or put it on your reading list.  Smart Briefs.  Industry news.  When you have time.

Nicole: if you are going into oil and gas.

Lindsay: Once a week Google alerts.  Top level news stories.

Nicole: Review or listen to quarterly meeting calls.

What are one or two things you MUST do in order to excel within the first 90 days of your job?

Josh: Make friends with someone in IT and someone in Payroll. Those relationships need to be the strongest because they will be your pipeline.

Katie: And finance.

Nate: Once you’re there, answer this question for what you think the answer is.  Set up a meeting with your manager.  Pick 2 things beyond the project to really set yourself apart and get their input on it.  The biggest mistake (many young professionals make) is that they don’t lead enough conversations with their manager; they wait for their manager to initiate.

Tiffany: Set up meetings, if even 20-30 minutes, with key people you will have interactions with.  Make sure we are all on the same page with expectations.  You have to make sure everyone is on the same page.  Also, get to know people on your team.  I spend most of my time out of the office.  Get to know the people you are working with.  Get coffee together.  Get caught up on each other’s lives.  Have somewhat of a personal relationship with these people.

Nicole: Set expectations.  Both (you and your manager) agree on what you want delivered.  Where did you exceed and where did you fall short?

Lindsay: Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. You want to seem like you know what’s going on but you have to (ask questions) in your first 90 days.  Know who to ask questions to.  Find a good co-worker so you aren’t always going to your manager with questions.  You can’t be afraid to ask questions.

Katie: Find the right person to ask the right questions. Your managers are really busy. You want to be able to work through the problems and come up with creative solutions. Sometimes you do have questions. Establish a mentor.  Usually someone on your team; a peer mentor.  If you aren’t formally assigned, ask for one. Maybe you really click with someone.  Leverage them. It can really be a beneficial relationship.  They are going to learn things from you, too.

Ben: It’s probably a learning opportunity for your manager as well.  Be proactive with your manager.  Don’t sit back and wait to find out what they need you to do.

Nicole: Ask your manager what their preferred communication style is.  My boss right now, we can text each other because we have that sort of relationship.  Don’t be too formal, just say “I have a few things I’d like to address.”  Be conscious of their time.  Make sure when you are meeting with your manager that it is concise and worth their time.

Tiffany: Time of day that they like to talk is also important.

When people ask “what is HR,” how do you answer?

Tiffany: I get asked “are you good HR or bad HR.”  I spend most of my time calling people and giving them jobs.

Ben: ARM: Attract, retain and motivate employees.

Nate: I think everybody is going to answer it differently.  If I know the person, I say “ask the people I support and they’ll tell you.”  I think of myself as a customer service organization.  Whatever my manager needs, that’s what I work on.

Josh: Important to recognize that HR is in the process of a paradigm shift.  It’s no longer personnel; that transactional relationship.  Most people in the business world don’t know that.  Nine times out of ten,  someone will have a horror story about HR.  It’s important to show them what we are.  (If you do that) you don’t need to justify yourself to anyone.  Attitudes are changing and soon they will be the standard.

How do you transition from the student mindset to that of a full-time employee?

Katie: Nothing too profound will change on its own between your internship and your first full-time position.  I thought I had to have all the answers.  Now I realize that I don’t have all the answers and that’s okay.  Take risks, ask questions, be creative.

Tiffany: I was an overachiever as a student.  You cannot be an overachiever in the workplace.  I would attempt to stay later to get work done.  The work will be there tomorrow. Understand that no one expects you to have everything done in a day.  The small things: don’t stress out about them. The perception of time as a student and a professional are different.  Maintain a healthy mental state and get your work done.

Nate: Self awareness and emotional intelligence.  Be aware of yourself and the image you project.  Be aware of how you’re projecting yourself.  Know how you come off.  Know how other people might perceive you or how you sound.  It’s very important.  Know the culture you are going into.  Be reserved as you figure things out. Your generation doesn’t necessarily have the best reputation in the workforce.  You don’t want to fall into the stereotypes that come with that.

Josh: Find the transition for what you want with your work/life balance.  It’s important for you to set up expectations but also flexibility in those expectations.  It’s a whole new ball game.  Lead with expectations for yourself.  It will help you achieve success in both professional and personal life.

Nicole: Don’t be the person who watches the clock at 5:00.  Your boss and co-workers notice if you are putting in the extra time.  That may factor in to the decision to hire/don’t hire (after your internship).

How do you develop business acumen?

Lindsay: I think business acumen is not an MSU-HR exclusive (limitation) but an HR across-the-board issue.  It’s becoming a big focus area.  You get a lot more credibility if you understand what your client group is talking about.  It helps build credibility with your client group.

Nicole: I suggest taking the finance course. The business strategy course.  Or both.  Know your business.

Nate: Ask for a project that can address your business acumen or discuss with your manager how your contributions lend to the bottom line.

Katie: Think very broadly when attempting to build a skill.  Not only can you learn through a course but you can learn from other people.  Think about how you can utilize those resources in other people.

Ben: You will learn by doing.  Don’t put a ton of pressure on yourself early to recite the financial statements of your business.  By understanding the client work in your area, that’s where you gain credibility early on in your career. Use examples in your dialogue that acknowledges what the work does.  It will raise eyebrows because historically, HR has not understood the business.

The Early Career (aka Young Alumni) Panel is part of a three part panel series through Michigan State University’s prestigious School of Human Resources and Labor Relations.  Stay tuned for more early career discussions from past interns as well as corporate leaders.  Make sure to subscribe for the latest updates and follow me on Twitter



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