How to Manage Your Early Career (In Sum)

Yesterday’s post comprised qualitative feedback from over 100 recent graduate school alumni on how to manage early career success and the transition from school to work. As I reflect upon the mass wealth of wisdom, I have gleaned 10 simple-stated axioms to help you manage your transition.

  • Network (relationships are EVERYTHING)
  • Take control of your brand (self-awareness is key)
  • Be flexible and learn to manage ambiguity
  • Ask good questions/be curious
  • Develop business acumen and an analytical mindset
  • Exude Confidence
  • Step outside of your comfort zone
  • Mentally and physically prepare for your transition
  • Relax



How to Manage Your Early Career

As the late Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch suggested in his Last Lecture: experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want.  In other words, sometimes you need to learn the hard way; to feel the fire yourself to know that the burner is hot.  Still, sometimes it is nice to have a bone thrown your way, especially early in your career. 

We have surveyed alumni from a prestigious Human Resources and Labor Relations master’s degree program and asked them the following question: 

To better prepare for the transition from (school) to work, what advice would you give to current students (i.e., what do you know now that you wish you knew when you were a student)? 

With over 100 responses on record, here are a number of highlights from what our early career professionals had to offer:

Student life is much easier, more social, more flexible, more customized to you, and allows for more diverse work/life balance. The working world typically shifts a majority of the focus to being at the office, working, and thinking about work even on weekends. You’re now on the schedule and at the mercy of the organization (unless you start your own business). Work/life balance changes in proportion, because so much of the week is spent at work. Make friends at work to introduce some socializing into this now main piece of your life. Use the leadership and networking strategies learned (in school) to help get involved in your new job – Employee Groups, Teams, Programs, and Events.

Relationships are huge. When you are in school, work hard to (gain) experience working in teams and developing relationships.

I wish I would’ve had more exposure to the level of ambiguity you would face (in the workplace). I also wish someone could have prepared me for going into the workplace confidently, as I struggled with that the first few years.

My internship was the most useful preparation tool prior to starting work. For students who are willing to relocate for their job, I would highly suggest they find an internship far away from school or their home.

It’s ok to ask questions (they like to know you’re thinking and interested), but take initiative and be proactive. Get to know your team and the business right away. Employers know you don’t know everything coming in as long as you’re willing to learn.

I am currently studying to become PHR certified. I think this would have been a much easier certification to obtain fresh out of school (or while attending grad school) when I was still in the studying mindset.

Learn Microsoft Excel.

Today’s business environment requires a clear understanding of the impact that Human Resources has on the bottom line. Students need to understand the purpose of the function within a company’s business model and how they can use it to generate value or reduce risk. This often requires a strong business and data acumen that I feel most students lack or have never been exposed to. Learn Excel. Learn simple spread sheet modeling.  Learn to be empirical and logical in your approaches – saying you got into HR because you like people is over.

Start learning how to use Microsoft Excel and Microsoft PowerPoint early on. If you can create macros, develop data models, and understand different functions, it will  differentiate you from your peers. You need to think ahead.  Don’t wait until the last minute to have a plan. Always be thinking about the future while concentrating on the present.  Find a mentor, but don’t be discouraged because not everyone is willing to help.

Carefully consider the location in which you are going to work.

I wish I took (a course in) compensation.

Really do a strong self assessment of what you want out of your career, and where you will be in ‘life’ in 3-5 years. Choose a company that matches your values, morals, ethics, and has built in the value that you believe is important to you. Don’t chase the mighty dollar, a swing of 5 or 10K may seem like a lot right out of school, but it’s better to choose the company that is a good fit, the money will come….and money isn’t the only key to satisfaction.

The transition to work is very different for each person. It’s really just part of growing up, so don’t expect it to be the same for you and your peers. Do what is best for you as an individual, and the transition will happen naturally over time.

Meet people. Schedule time with them, get to know them, let them get to know you. It WILL be awkward with some of them, but that is part of the growth.

It’s very difficult to make friends in a new city. Most companies make it seem like work and social life are mutual; that there are a bunch of young people that work for the company and they all go out all of the time. It’s not necessarily true. Also, there’s a lot of prejudice against millennials. Be cautious and always ask for advice before making suggestions. Take the role of the ‘young learner’ and then after a while, you’ll be accepted to make suggestions.

This is very specific to my current role but I was just recently involved in negotiating a collective bargaining agreement. I felt very comfortable with the process based on my coursework. However, implementing the changes in the contract and building the processes/procedures to communicate, train, and support the new contract changes came as a surprise.

Moving far away (geographically) is difficult for someone who is more established. I thought the move would be easier than it was.

Try to apply the “how” you have been taught to get things done and come up with your ideas/solutions; and not so much emphasis on what you might have been taught is “best practice” based on research.

Follow your “gut” instinct. Speak with other “young alumni” at the firms you are interested in working for. Look at what the position responsibilities are and think about how much of an impact you want to have (and will you be able to have that impact- i.e. within the bureaucracy). Are you someone that wants to develop new ideas or just follow procedures that are in place? What kind of difference do you want to make? What growth plan is in place / does the company support HR growth? These are questions that can sometimes be answered in the interview process, but are best answered through individuals who have worked at a given company for some time. Meet with as many alumni as you can and work as many internships / get involved with as many HR projects as you have time for so you can narrow down what your career interests are.

Ask questions. Ask questions. Work hard. Don’t be afraid to speak up. Be willing to take on new challenges. If you’ve never had HR experience: be a sponge.

Get to know and understand the Company’s culture and politics so there are no surprises.

I wish that I had known that my education doesn’t automatically mean people will respect me. I had to work very hard to gain the respect of the people I work with and the best way to do that is to follow through with promises.

Building relationships is an essential part of my success, especially in a large company. I think more emphasis needs to be placed on this and building a Personal Brand. Knowing how you are perceived by others and how to get people to perceive you the way you would like to be perceived is critical. Also, how do you promote your Personal Brand? I  think that we should encourage graduates, after getting their feet wet in HR for a few years, to take a job outside of HR. This will make them much more effective when they eventually come back to HR and it’s something that our leaders look for when they are looking to promote. Essentially, get outside of your comfort zone. Your first 6-12 months in your first job is critical. Develop a plan before you start on how you want to show up to work. First impressions are critical.

Stay in the learning mindset, because you don’t know anything yet. Be prepared to learn and be open to learning; don’t be afraid to ask questions, especially of your client groups. They know you’re new, you have a 6 month window to ask as many “stupid” questions so that you can fully understand their industry and issues – they’ll expect you to know most of that by the end of 6 months – make sure you do!

Learn how to manage relationships with co workers early. You can leverage these not only to use as a resource but for future networking as well.

Don’t accept a job based on comp and benefits, think about what will truly make you happy.

Not all corporate cultures like your educational background. I was told not to talk about mine, which is difficult coming from such a strong academic community. Most of my peers are uneducated.

Network, network, network! I have created my own career path even within the rotational program I’m in due to the networks I’ve connected with.

Prioritization of work is key. It is important to prioritize different work issues as well as your work/life balance.

The transition from student to working professional is really difficult. Sitting at a desk all day, surrounded by people who are not in your age group is a big difference.

It is important to be flexible and open early on in your career. You will (eventually) find out what HR area you like the most but the most important thing to look for is company fit. If you like the company, you will find a role that works for you. Be mobile in the beginning, first 2-3 yrs. Once you have established your place in the company, you can advise others of your personal preferences regarding location, position, etc.

While you have finished your degree, the learning has really just begun! Each organization is very different in terms of HR systems, business practices, industry standards, etc. Ask lots of questions, keep an open mind, and observe as much as possible during the first few weeks/months.

Leadership development is just as important as business and HR knowledge.

When looking for a full time role, culture is the most important criteria.

Recognize and understand the politics in your organization quickly! Learn company and employee history is important Find a mentor/confidante within HR to better transition.

The tools and education learned (in school) are great but when starting your career, you will need to know tactical processes first. Recruiting (learning your markets), Benefits (understand your companies policies and programs), succession plan tools are key if your first role is a generalist (position).  Move to where your company needs you. Never turn down a temporary assignment. Don’t be afraid to move for learning opportunities!

Listen more, speak less.

Maintain a strong work ethic and the rest will fall in place.

Be very prepared to tell stories through metrics. Advanced Microsoft Excel training is a must and remember to always pay attention to details.

Give yourself the opportunity to get adjusted to the learning curve. You aren’t expected to have all of the answers! Try not to get frustrated with yourself early on. Life moves much faster as a professional, but make sure that your life at work doesn’t consume you, and spill over into your personal life.

(Learn to) navigate politics, the basics of how to lead meetings effectively, how to consult with difficult clients, how to confidently challenge others and influence decisions without formal authority.

If all factors of two different job offers were exactly the same (i.e. same industry, pay, benefits, etc.) with the exception of the company and one has a rotational program and the other does not, choose based on the company that you think will fit you better, not based on the availability of a rotational program. The opportunities to move around large companies and create your own career path are so abundant that I believe rotational programs do not provide a clear advantage. Long story short – don’t rule out companies without rotational programs when interviewing.

Connect with recently-graduated alumni.

What I now feel less-comfortable with is how little weight I gave to work location and work/life balance. I was eager to accept any location with the company I liked and put in the time and effort right off the bat. While the work ethic is good, I didn’t place enough importance on establishing a personal life outside of work, and I’m close to 3 years after graduation and still do not have an established social network.

Your internship is very important; make sure you tap into the great alumni network and faculty resources. Stay in touch with fellow HR members for best practice sharing

Culture is the most important thing to consider (when evaluating companies). Also, formal rotational programs aren’t always the best option.

Be highly involved in social networks, and increase your personnel skills.

Be intentional about your networking- stay in touch with faculty, staff, students, alumni as well as recruiters and people you meet on recruiting trips. Make a point to reach out to your “key contacts” every few months.

Don’t choose a company/job purely based on the compensation.

Be resilient, be adaptable, and don’t be afraid to take risks!

Know yourself well enough to identify what your “tipping points” are in the job decision-making process (e.g. are you highly risk-adverse and will benefit from a very large company with lots of open roles/increased job security, do you thrive in fast-paced work environments, are you resourceful enough to be thrown into ambiguous work environment or do you prefer more structure, etc). Also, be prepared for the transition from college to work world (especially if you’ve been in school straight through your Master’s program). It can seem hopelessly exhausting but you’ll eventually adjust and find your rhythm in balancing work/personal life.

Be okay with moving – take the plunge

By the time you graduate, you feel as though you’ve learned a ton about HR and you’re going to be a really capable HR professional. Once you get to work, be prepared to feel like you don’t know anything and you’re back to square one. You may have a ton of great ideas and a lot of enthusiasm for making things happen, but make sure that you listen and learn and understand the business before jumping in. Additionally, I think the biggest initial hurdle (which I had never even considered) is learning the business lingo (all the acronyms, company-specific terms, etc.) and building a network, which is especially crucial to your success in your first role. Networking is really important.

To relax more. To see people and not their positions.

Focus the majority of your time outside the class room. Focus on events, workshops, site/plants visits, current events, networking, guest speakers, etc. to prepare for the real world. The classes are necessary, but getting out and talking with people current in the industry is very helpful.

The academic schedule is so much more flexible and open than the typical work schedule. Be prepared to have earlier bedtimes.

Take some time between graduating and your first day on the job. Getting started will be a whirlwind for a while so spend time with friends/family and get settled into your new city before taking the new job on.

Negotiation skills/ people managing/ leadership development.

Develop GREAT note taking skills and project management skills. The book smarts aren’t everything!

Realize that there is always more to learn when applying school to a real world work environment, but be confident that you are going in with a solid foundation.

When transitioning into your role it is important to keep your work life balance in check because only you can control that aspect of your life. Do not be afraid to ask questions to understand and share your opinion when it is needed. What you learn in the classroom will be valuable, but this does not mean that there will not be a learning curve when starting your new role.

The real world is far from the models and concepts that we learn (in school). It is about flexibility and willingness to learn afresh!

Try to find a part time HR job while in school to get more experience if you have none.

Don’t get discouraged if the job isn’t everything you thought it would be. Jobs are never as glamorous as they are portrayed. You have to put in the time and a lot of hard work to prove yourself and get the respect of your peers and leaders.

We all learn through our trials and tribulations.  Regardless of efforts to prevent these flops and failings, they are, alas, inevitable..and important.  Reframe the way you look at these events as key learning opportunities.  Remember, you are not the first person to make a mistake. Hopefully you find value in this vetted, sage advice and will return to this list time and time again as you move forward in your career. 

 Good luck!


Have more to share?  Leave a comment to supplement this list. 

The Power of Vulnerability

Brene Brown studies human connection — our ability to empathize, belong, love. In a poignant, funny talk at TEDxHouston, she shares a deep insight from her research, one that sent her on a personal quest to know herself as well as to understand humanity.

Whether you are entering into a new job, a new role, or simply find yourself struggling to settle into your own skin in your present situation, this TED Talk can help you better lean into your vulnerability to emerge stronger.


Accelerate Your Learning

Accelerate Your LearningYou have just entered into a new role and feel a need to add value NOW.  Before you put the cart ahead of the horse, stop doing and start listening.  This step will ensure that you move forward with an the information you need to make appropriate contributions. Figure out what you need to know about your new organization and then learn it as rapidly as you can.

Plan to learn.  This means figuring out in advance what the important questions are so that you can best answer them.

Identify your personal “learning disabilities”, i.e., the potentially crippling internal blocks to your own learning and development.  Be in touch with your strengths and weaknesses.  Be self aware.

Displaying a genuine ability to listen often translates into increased credibility and influence.

Learn to identify actionable insights: knowledge that enables you to make better decisions earlier.

Make a learning agenda to identify what you want to learn and a learning plan to establish how you intend to learn it.

-Paraphrased from The First 90 Days but Michael Watkins

Get Ramped! On Top of the World in 6 Weeks.

ImageInterview with Callie (age 25) after only 6 weeks in her first full time HR position after graduate school…

What have you identified as the most valuable resources to help you succeed in your new position?

My team members and colleagues throughout (omitted company name) HR and the company as a whole are invaluable to my learning about the extent of my own function and the overall business within which I operate. If there’s someone I don’t know yet, I send an email to introduce myself or schedule a call or lunch date. People serve as critical resources, whether they’re executives or interns, HR or other. Cross-functionality is key at (company) and highly valuable for professional growth. I’ve been here only six weeks and I’ve already interacted directly with our Chief HR executive, several SVPs, Sr. HRBPs for every region, and probably 80 percent of the entire global HR population that serves (company). When random questions come to me, this network I’ve built allows me to find solutions quickly.

What were the biggest obstacles as you aimed to transition into your new role?

I had several weeks of feeling like I wasn’t contributing. For a driven individual, it can be hard to feel aimless or unproductive, but I’ve learned that it’s just part of the transition. Managers know this, so guilt and frustration are unnecessary. Instead, I maximized my learning and experience by introducing myself to a variety of people in the organization, asking to sit in on meetings that would expose me to various projects, processes, and operations, and getting involved in the company’s social networks and employee groups. By the fourth week, and every subsequent day I know so much more than I knew in the beginning, which has given me a greater sense of worth and confidence. Take-home point: Don’t leave your development up to others. Find ways to self-improve every chance you get.

What has the transition from student to professional been like?

The schedule is the most uncomfortable adjustment; the salary is the least uncomfortable adjustment. In school, classes are sporadic and mixed with other events and part-time work. Each day may have a different schedule from the previous. In professional life, your life begins to revolve around the hours you’re working, which are longer and more static. Bedtimes get earlier and weekends become more precious.

What has been your biggest learning?

Be eager to learn, express interest in new projects, but NEVER spread yourself too thin. Managers are much happier if you can complete quality deliverables effectively. I’ve been praised for honestly saying that I don’t think I can take something else on at the moment, or that I’ll need an extension on certain new tasks because of all the other things on my plate.

If you could give one piece of advice to students as the near they start of their new positions what would it be?

Take notes, ask questions, and listen; be humbled by your inexperience but energized by an excitement to learn, improve, and excel. Learn from your managers but also find informal mentors who will promote your development and who inspire you to further your own professional and personal growth. Take advantage of any opportunities to meet with leaders and executives. Take advantage of networking opportunities. Take advantage of any offers to give feedback or ask questions, especially when the opportunities are given by someone high in the organization. Be bold, open to new experiences, and collaborative.

For my own personal sanity, I immediately located and joined the employee activities committee in our office in Santa Clara so that I could meet new people and work on more fun event planning. I also have become involved in our company social network, and have developed some ideas for groups to bring employees together around various causes and mutual interests. Finally, I joined and have begun helping develop the recently created Women’s Leadership Forum. These activities take maybe two hours a week.

Have you consulted a mentor (or mentors) during your first 90 days?

YES! This is highly important to me. It’s been my first HR job and first time working in a fast-paced tech business. Without people to cheerlead for my development and help me find projects, I would have not adjusted so well to the transition. I report to one manager, who is at the senior director level. This is great because despite his packed schedule, he fits in one-on-one time with me, as well as allows me to sit in on his meetings and contribute to his projects. In just six weeks, I’ve played with the big boys for most of my projects. The downside is that he’s on the east coast while I’m in California. As such, I’ve reached out to several people on site and gotten involved in a number of projects with them to advance my learning and contribution as quickly as possible.

Corporate Leaders on Internship Success

On Monday, we heard from recent alumni on their experiences as they transitioned from school to work.  Below, corporate leaders provide insights from the employer perspective on how best to tackle your summer internship and land the job.


Photo: Dave Lilac, Human Resources Director at General Mills

Cast of Characters

Dave Lilak 

Human Resources Director at General Mills, Inc 

Leah Stark 

Senior Director of Human Resources at Whirlpool 

Kevin Burke 

Vice-President of Human Resources for Hemlock Semiconductor at Dow Corning 

Megan Sinow 

Human Resources Manager at Whirlpool 

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?

Onboarding Basics: 

Dave: You need to onboard quickly and effectively but you have a short time to do so. How do you achieve your top three goals and articulate it at the end of the summer?  You need to address many of the principles of onboarding before you even get to your internship.  What do you know about the company? You should be doing work NOW.  Know the company’s history. What is it all about, what does it exist to do, and what are the strategies to make that happen?  What is the structure you are walking into?  Business acumen is one of the biggest things you will need to ramp effectively.  What is the corporate culture?  How do things get done?  What is the framework?

Leah:  Especially going into your full time assignment, do as much research as you can. Really understand the culture and asses yourself to ensure it is a good cultural match.  You can figure the rest out but it needs to be a good fit.  Reach out to other graduates from your program.  Make the assessment of cultural fit a leading factor in your decision (to accept a job offer).

Megan: You are going from a student lifestyle of classes and staying up late to working. It is difficult to be out late and make a successful transition to the professional work environment. Spend some time to mentally/physically prepare yourself to walk into work ready on day one.

Kevin: I was born for second shift! (When I first transitioned from school to work) my clock was set differently. Get yourself mentally and physically prepared for the transition. It does matter.  You want to be able to show initiative, interest and passion in what you are doing.  One thing you do have control over is presenteeism. Am I engaged?  You want to show up fully present, engaged and interested in what’s going on.  There are things you all can do to prepare for the internship. Take advantage of public information available today, before you start.  Read an annual report. That’s the kind of thing you need to do.  Start to anticipate questions as you look at trends you find in the public information.  Press releases. Media. Really absorb all that you can for perspective on the company. Develop your ability to ask good questions. Start to be able to connect the dots. Internalize the information.  Ask more and better quality questions.

Leah: Be prepared. (Your summer internship is) an interview. It’s a 12 week interview on both sides. Don’t think you can kick back and relax. It’s an interview the entire time with everyone you interact with.  You are always on, even after hours.

Dave: Part of onboarding happens before you arrive.  When you get there, you need to learn your job. Is there a project? Do you have a realistic job preview?  You’ve got to find out what is the project. What are you supposed to be delivering and what does this mean to the business?  That’s the what. What is the how? What does it look like? Nothing gets done alone. What people and what equipment do I need to get the job done?  You’ve really got to get up to speed on these items really quickly.

Leah:  Make sure you have clearly established expectations of what the outcomes are before you deliver. Ask for input. Develop shared expectations and then deliver above them.  Take nothing for granted, whether it’s an assumption or a bad supervisor.  Establish clear expectations on the front end.

Megan: Do a check in point with yourself on a weekly basis to see whether you are trending towards your objectives. Make sure you’re trending towards the path you want to be on. Make sure you know what success looks like.

Kevin: Plan with the end in mind. Work with your supervisor and other resources to build a robust project plan. You want to build a plan that allows u to exceed, not only meet, expectations. Really put in the discipline up front. It doesn’t have to be as crazy as on The Apprentice, but it’s not that far off.  Put together those plans because then when you are doing weekly check-ins with your manager, you can determine where you are and where you are supposed to be. Part of this is having the resilience to overcome some of the things you need to do.

Dave: Don’t make your project plan “in the 10th week I’m gonna nail it!”  That’s when you find out that someone is on vacation and it doesn’t work out. Despite your positive intent, you haven’t brought your manager along.  Practicing weekly discipline against your project includes checking in with your manager.

Leah: Be proactive and direct. Also, understand your manager’s time as well.  Don’t spend hours with them. Focus on the important things. Expect that there are going to be surprises. You might find out your role shifts at the last minute.  Demonstrate flexibility. Ask the right questions and demonstrate the right learning agility. 

Dave: Relationship building. How do I work this thing? In order to get any job done, you need to know who you need to work with. Who is my network to get the job done? A subject matter expert (SME), an aligned client, or someone outside the firm?  How do I work this network? How do you work the relationship with your manager? Now you have fairly tangible and timely feedback.  You are going to work for someone who is busy.  You need to learn to ask direct questions and make good use of time with your manager. How do I feed you? Email, IMs, face to face? Do I set up a meeting with data? Let’s talk about this.  Many companies give a buddy to provide answers on how “this place works” without bothering your boss, who grades you at the end.

Leah: The buddy is helpful. If you are not assigned, find one.  You need an informal person to ask questions to.  Still, assume anyone you interact with can have influence on hire or don’t hire decisions.  A lot of what you are assessed on is “how you do it”.

Megan: Network at all levels of the organization. Even though the only people in my report out are directors and above, sometime the most important people are the oldest people in the organization. I was so lost my first week.  One of my first people was the administrative assistant.

Kevin: Never underestimate the value of the administrative assistant. Treat everybody in the company as a resource and as somebody that you could really connect with. You get different perspectives this way. When everyone looks with a different point of view, it helps you to navigate the matrix.

Dave: Where you sit depends on where you stand. Triangulate with different people/perspectives.

Leah: Come in with questions and listening vs. opinions and statements.  It is always important to demonstrate listening and respect.

Kevin: I think for a lot of folks, early in career, you should have unique points of view on things but you also need to be able to ask good questions. Frankly, that’s at any level in your career.  Often, asking good questions is better than having great answers.

Leah: Be smart about asking questions you can’t find answers to out on your own already. As an escalation, then ask the questions.  Don’t ask all the questions to the same people.

Megan: You are going to hear so many acronyms.  Write them down.  Ask your buddy.  Ask an admin.  You don’t want to realize you don’t know what something stands for four weeks into the internship.

Leah: Build relationships early on. Build with other interns. This is a safe haven. You have a shared experience and an opportunity to learn from each other.  Plus, fun in the summer. Take full advantage of that.

Dave: (Other interns are) a safe group. One (past intern) spent all his time alone working on his project, ignoring social events. And questions are good. Channel them. Be smart about who you are asking what. If you’re asking no questions, that’s a problem. I you’re asking nothing but questions, that’s a problem.

On Feedback

Dave: So what you’ve heard us say is: align early with your manager. What’s the right style? How should I give and receive feedback? Formal vs. informal?  Get frequency down.  Daily or weekly? Where? Over lunch or in an office?  Seek it regularly. It should be a recurring dialogue. You may have veered way off course. Create an environment that’s safe for your manager to give feedback. Don’t be defensive. Accept feedback. It’s a gift. Be gracious. Ask for feedback and say thank you. It shows interest. If you are not getting feedback, there are other peers and sources of information other than your manager.

Leah:  Use informal feedback as well. Don’t always structure and formalize. Check how much you’re asking about yourself.  Ask about the work that you’re doing.  Don’t make it all about you.

Kevin: We evaluate people based on “how do we respond to those types of things”. It’s easy to get caught up in feedback. People react emotionally about it.  It’s not the end of the world. Be able to take feedback, really understand it, and demonstrate the maturity to ask for feedback and do something with it.  We’ve all seen some folks early in career where how they process feedback is a make or break deal.

Dave: If you are perceived as not meeting mark, then you aren’t meeting it. Perception is a reality at that point in time.  There is intent and there is impact. Feedback gets you there.

Leah: Get feedback through asking good questions.


Dave: Understand the goals of the organization.  Develop business acumen.  How does the business make money? How is it doing? Where am I and how do we contribute to profitability?  It’s an imperfect world. Understand that. Do you have a grip on financials?  Do you understand business fundamentals? What do you do that makes a difference?

Leah: Earn 10X what you are getting paid.  When you’re in a meeting, earn your seat. If you don’t, then you shouldn’t be there.  Make sure you’re earning your place. Understand the internal business along with the competitive dynamics of the industry.

Megan: There are so many articles about HR as a changing paradigm.  True business partners. We need to earn that. It’s not given to you. You must have business acumen to be able to contribute with business leaders.

Kevin: Not every leader will see HR as important until you prove your importance.  That’s a resistance factor that you need to push through.  As soon as you do that, you can get past half the snide comments. Show that you’re there as a part of the business first, and with HR expertise second.

Leah: Would they take you in a non-HR role?

Dave: Business mindset.  We’re looking for professionals; someone that can grow in the organization. That has self awareness. People that do solicit feedback. Have you learned from that? Will you be smarter next time? You have to understand sensitive situations that occur early on.

Leah: How do you deal with adversity? You’re likely to come across some type of conflict. How will you deal?  What’s your reaction? Demonstrate  professional maturity and always rise above (conflict, values/integrity pressures, gossip, etc.). Don’t drink too much. Whether it’s a work function or sanctioned event outside of work. Sometimes, great talent misses out on opportunities because of unsuccessful professional navigation.

Kevin: Right. Even if there aren’t a lot of people there, there are enough people there.

Leah: You may have a bad supervisor. Learn the hard way. Suck it up. It’s 12 weeks. Put a smile on and make the most because you can’t change it.

Kevin: Learn from seeing those things (a bad supervisor) than seeing the right way. How would you be a good manager? What are the takeaways? How do you coach other people to be good managers?  It’s not fun, but you can learn more in these situations.

Dave: Navigating the organization: ask the why. We like curious people.  There are org charts and then there are informal leaders. A rotten boss but a key stakeholder. Do you have a desire to understand beyond HR?  Do you have curiosity about where you fit into the business?  Where your position fits in?  Where the department fits in?

Megan: Understand different roles within the organization.

Leah:  Understanding the why is understanding the legacy of the company.

Dave: If you can do this, you can influence pretty well. Do you understand the other person’s point of view?  They might be coming at it a different way because they have 30 years experience. Maybe they are in finance. Have them play it back to you. Understand their self-interest. Never underestimate the other guy’s self-interest. You will work with a lot of different audiences.  Take advantage of it.  Are you flexible enough to understand the other person’s point of view?  Can you build rapport with these people?  It’s good to have a different point of view. Express candor. But, do it respectfully.

Leah: There are critical elements to being a senior leader.  One is 360 degree influence.  This is important no matter what job you’re in.  The ability to influence without formal authority is critical to success no matter what company you’re working in.

Kevin: Informal vs. formal. You help give people their best ideas. If you hear someone else say something you helped them formulate, that will be one of the best compliments you’ll ever get.  It takes a lot of listening skills to get there.  Build rapport.  Understand them.

Translating Expertise into Results – End of Summer Presentation

Kevin: There’s activity and then there are results.

Leah: Have objectives set at the beginning of the summer.  People don’t care too much about activities.  They want to see results.  Are you delivering differentiated outcomes.  Companies are looking for innovative fresh thought with candor and great ideas.

Dave: You (interns) are coming from good schools. You are keeping busy. But ultimately, did you get results? What were the two or three most important things that you accomplished this summer?  I’ve seen interns who are wicked smart, who have nailed their projects, and who have managed to tick off every admin, and every recruiter along the way. That’s why we harp on competencies: how you get things done.  Can you articulate the goals, the role, and the results?  People love to know how you think.  They love fresh ideas.  How did I approach this thing? What obstacles did I overcome?  What was your result? What’s the leave behind?  “I don’t know” is just unacceptable.  What were your lessons learned? What should we learn from you?  In the end, you’ve got 15 minutes to boil down “what did I do for my summer internship?”

Leah: Ensure effective delivery.  How effective are your communication skills and your ability to connect with people in the room (the audience)? Time yourself.  Make sure you work on the polish and the professional presence.

Kevin: Think through the questions you might be asked. Practice with a couple other people. Be prepared to be rattled. Anticipate the questions that are going to throw you off.  Have the maturity to not make something up.  It’s okay.  You want to be able to respond.

Megan: Don’t let other interns get you nervous about your presentation. Mentally and physically prepare for these presentations so you are in the best state to give them to the best of your ability.

Leah: Be yourself. It’s the only way if you’re going to know if it’s the right cultural fit for you.  It comes down to fit at the very end.  Although you are on stage, make sure you are yourself.

Kevin: Knowing yourself. You’ll learn more about your own style and preferences.

Dave: 12 weeks. Onboard quickly. Be effective. Understand competencies and how you are supposed to achieve. What are your desired results?  Can you summarize them?


Student: I have been in school all my life where I’ve been given assignments and due dates. The expectations have been clearly defined for me and I’ve delivered upon those expectations. How am I going to get out of this drone mentality to manage ambiguity in the workplace?

Kevin: Use your network.  Family, friends. Rely on people on a deeper personal level for how you make the transition from school to work.  There are ways people behave around the office that are different than what you’re used to.  You’ll pick up a lot through observation.

Dave: Find people that know you that are invested in you and use them for a sanity check.  How would you handle something like this? Build on your (personal) board of directors.

Student: How do I navigate an organization in transition?

Dave: We look for people who know how to manage adversity. Go back to fundamentals. Look at culture, legacy and drivers for change. What are the sensitivities I should be aware of? Don’t ignore the elephant in the room. Ask questions.

Leah: Don’t be afraid of it.  Those are some of the best learning and development opportunities you could ever be given. Take advantage of all the learning.  Just make sure your sensitivity radar is on the whole time.

Student: I’m young.  In my experiences, I have had unlimited time to build relationships. How do you speed that relationship up?

Leah: Understand their self-interest.  Make sure you demonstrate the right balance of humility and confidence.  Don’t flaunt or advertise age differences. Listen & learn well, demonstrate respect, and consider things through others’ eyes. I’ve seen people go into these roles and it’s amazing
the credibility and followership they can establish in a short amount of time.

Megan: Don’t put yourself in that box.  “Hi, I’m the intern.” If you do a good job, people won’t even know you’re an intern.

This discussion took place Michigan State University’s prestigious School of Human Resources and Labor Relations on Thursday, March 28th and is part of an ongoing series to get you ramped quickly within the first 90 days.  

-The SHR

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