Jeanne Sahadi Commentary:
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The get-started guide to making it
If you want to get ahead in the first years of your career, it pays to know when to suck it up, when to step it up and when to move on.
By Jeanne Sahadi, senior writer

NEW YORK ( -- During a recent lunch with my cousins and their friends, a very savvy, articulate teenager named Sterling asked the adults at the table why on earth he is forced to diagram sentences in school.

After all, he said, when is he ever going to use that when he grows up?

We fumbled for answers and offered several, all pretty lame judging from Sterling's expression. So in a last-ditch effort, I said, "Because when you get into the work world, you're going to be asked to do a lot of things that seem pointless. But if you want to succeed, you should have the discipline to do them well."

Not an answer educators would applaud, I'm sure, but it was pragmatic, and Sterling seemed like a pragmatic guy.

Plus, it had the added advantage of being true. So true, in fact, that I think it's worth including in any guide to making it in the first years of a career.

Of course, there's a lot more to getting ahead than sucking it up when you're new to a job.

I asked five managers I've known over the years and my favorite workplace expert what behaviors and attitudes in their eyes mark a new recruit as promising and promotion-worthy.

Here are some highlights:

Ask for help, then take charge

Ask questions when you need information to complete an assignment.

"It's much preferred that employees admit not knowing something and show initiative in learning it rather than costing time and money by struggling with it on their own," said one manager.

But asking repeatedly gets annoying. Most of the managers said they valued someone who can take orders and execute them well without having to be told repeatedly what to do.

What is welcome, however, is the employee who is proactive about figuring out what needs to be done and then doing it. One of the biggest mistakes new recruits can make, said another manager, is to assume that when they have nothing to do that there is nothing to do.

Know the boss

Whether you love or hate your managers matters less than whether you know what they value and what you can do to make them successful.

"You need to take initiative to find out what's important to your boss and organization," said career coach and workplace psychologist Dory Hollander. Your value as an employee is measured by your "showing results valued by your organization."

Few bosses are consistent about giving helpful feedback. And often they won't express their displeasure with your performance until it's too late. So, said Hollander, it's okay to say to your boss early on, "it would really help me if you could tell me when you're happy or unhappy with my work."

Cultivate good relationships

Good performance is just one part of your success at work. How you get along with managers, colleagues and subordinates is another.

"Perception of performance is often colored by the quality of your relationships," Hollander said. Her advice: "Act like you're running for office. You'll need a vote from everyone."

(But please ... don't act too much like you're running for office. There's nothing worse than glad-handing politicians with visions of poll numbers dancing in their heads.)

Humor is a big plus, said one manager, but only if you have a good sense of when to use it and when not to.

Showing respect helps, too. "A boss who acts friendly and casual does not mean to imply that 'anything goes' and that you don't need to treat him or her with the proper respect," said another manager.

And, he said, don't skip the deodorant. "Be well groomed, even if casual," he advised, recalling how he would avoid hiring one freelancer because of how he smelled.

Don't watch the clock

"This is not the time to work 9 to 5. Try 8 to 6. There's plenty of time to slack off later in life and the boss will take note," said one manager.

Others concurred: "If you have to stay a little late to meet a deadline or pull some hours on a weekend without being asked, it shows your commitment. It shouldn't be routine without compensation, but here or there it can get noticed."

But know when to go

While willingness to do grunt work is expected, particularly willingness to do it well - after a year or two, if you're no longer developing a variety of basic skills, consider making a move to a new position, either within the company or at another employer.

The same applies if you're up for a promotion, but it is just "more of the same repackaged at a higher level," Hollander said.

At this stage even a lateral move that pays the same or less than your current job may be the right move if it means more potential for growth.

"When the learning stops, the liking stops," Hollander said. "If you're ambitious you need to learn as much as possible. You're still being hard-wired."


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Jeanne Sahadi writes about personal finance for For comments on this column or suggestions for future ones, please e-mail her at Top of page

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