The new rules for succeeding at your first job

Remember to treat everyone, especially your manager, like a client.

Story highlights

  • Always take notes and star anything that needs to be done by you
  • When presenting a problem, offer an apology and explain how you will fix it and avoid it in the future
  • Don't wear giant headphones or tiny tank tops
1. Take notes. Never stop taking notes. Never say, "I don't have a pen or a notebook." Never ever say, "I remember more when I concentrate on listening instead of note-taking."
2. While you're taking notes, star anything that needs to be done by you. Your boss isn't going to wave a flag or jump around every time she assigns you something new. It's up to you to add it to your list and find a way to get it done.
3. See the future. Become the one with the crystal ball. Because work is not just about the task at hand. It's about what happens next. For instance, if your boss asks you to finish printing an annual report for the L.A. office, you need to realize it has to be overnighted. Which means the next step is getting it to the mail room before it closes at 6 p.m. Meaning, you now have a deadline.
4. Treat everyone, especially your manager, like a client. Anyone who works in marketing will know what this means. (For anyone entering another field, the next three steps offer a cheat sheet.)
5. Do only one client's work at a time. Don't offer the same ideas to everyone, hoping someone will bite. If two higher-ups like your idea, you've just put two colleagues at odds.
6. Think about presentation. Everything from meeting minutes to a calendar can be formatted beautifully. Alphabetizing lists, numbering pages -- never a bad idea.
7. All interactions are auditions to be hired for more work, so show your colleagues how much you want their business by doing what they asked you to do, when they asked for it.
8. Office life in the 21st century is life in a cubicle. Think about the volume of your voice, the ringtone choice on your cell phone, the aroma of your food, and the amount of stuff that's spilling out of your work area.
9. Double-check yourself. Did you spell that client's name right? Have you done everything on your to-do list? Does your boss have everything he needs for the meeting tomorrow? (Power cords -- always remember the power cords.)
10. Present problems the right way. Stuff happens. Bosses know this. Here's what they want when you've screwed up: First, an apology. (Note: "Yeah, sorry" is not an apology.) Second, a recap of the problem. (This shows that you know what happened and how serious it is.) Third, a summary of the steps you've taken to fix it. (You may not have succeeded, but you should have tried.) Fourth, an explanation of what you'll do differently in the future to avoid this happening again.
11. Use the systems that make everyone's life easier -- not just yours. You don't like Google Documents because you have to check one more email? That is unfortunate. That is not an excuse to make 20 other people start emailing documents.
12. No. Giant. Headphones. (Unless your space is really noisy.)
13. No. Tiny. Tank tops. (, actually, never.)
14. Remember your boss's plate. This is the number one rule of your first job: A task will stay on your boss's mind if she has to ask you whether it's done, double-check or nag you. You don't want to bury your boss in details, but the minute you know you aren't going to finish something on time, tell her. As you complete a project, tell her. You may think, "I do most of my stuff right, why doesn't she trust me?" Here's why: If she doesn't know which few things you're going to botch, all your tasks are still on her plate.
If you follow all these rules in your first job, you'll be surprised at how quickly you can move up to your second job.