Business Schools

Dip, Before Diving, into That New Job

It's the first day on the new job -- not such an unusual occasion in itself. But for some MBA grads, the challenge to blend into a new corporate culture after a two-year hiatus can be challenging. You'll often enter your new company at a higher level than you've worked before and sometimes in an entirely new job field. The change might even seem daunting.

After leaving the workforce two years ago, you and other would-be managers were supposed to be schooled on the fine art of exuding leadership and more tangibly, turning profits at a company. Yet, if you're like many MBAs who've stood on the same ledge, ready to jump off into the swirling sea that's your new job, you'll soon realize that many business graduate programs didn't do much in the way of offering students guidance on moving back into the workforce.

ULTIMATE ADVICE. In large companies where new MBAs are hired en masse into a specialized training program, much of the first weeks or months are already planned out. "They just move with the herd," says Maury Hanigan, CEO of New York-based Hanigan Consulting Group, which helps companies with recruiting strategies. Hanigan's all-important advice for a class of MBAs: "You just have to not screw up."

That's easy enough if you're moving lockstep with a group -- much like you might have in the early days of B-school. But in many companies, where MBA hires number anywhere from a lone development manager to flock of analysts, the need to adapt fast is critical. "Once they get on board, they are in a whole new world," says Hanigan. But how isn't always clear.

So how do you maneuver those all-important first few days back on the job? The key, say Hanigan and others, is to show how you'll contribute in subtle ways and avoid being a know-it-all. Here's a quick and dirty guide to making the best impressions in the office:

Find an Alumni Insider. Search for a fellow graduate of your alma mater a few years ahead in the company, one year to three years out would be best. He or she has gone through the same adjustment recently and can help you get the lay of the land. Career-service directors at your B-school, or even a quick glance at the alumni directory, can help point you to the inside link -- that is, if you haven't already met recent recruits at networking or recruiting events.

Someone in a top executive position might be helpful as you settle in and after you've proven yourself a bit, but a younger "veteran" of the new company can give you the real scoop on how to culturally adapt, and their information will be more current and useful in your first few weeks.

Listen and Analyze. Face it, performance expectations will be set high for you, which means there's a "challenge to contribute at a high level," says Hanigan. That's perfectly reasonable, if you think about it. When a company forks over a six-figure salary to a new MBA hire, there's an implied expectation. In exchange for those big bucks, you'll perform better than anyone else around, even if you have less industry experience than some of your new colleagues. Fair? Probably not. But it's a situation you might very well find yourself in.

Trying to swoop in and be a corporate savior isn't going to win you many points with the higher-ups you'll be working with. The trick is to balance the high expectations with the normal learning curve of a new job. Hanigan suggests you hold back from making a "big splash, too soon" and instead, listen and absorb your surroundings.

Last year, BusinessWeek conducted a survey of MBA alumni from the Class of 1992 from most of the Top 30 schools. Dozens of the respondents advised that new grads not rush in with a basketful of textbook ideas and knowledge but instead take advantage of those first weeks, when you get a little bit of a pass for learning, and soak in the new companies ways of doing business.

Often new hires aren't familiar with the technologies and terms specific to the new company. By listening and asking the right questions (voracious reading at night wouldn't hurt either), you'll not only assimilate faster but your more experienced peers and fellow new hires will be quicker to accept you into the fold.

Don't Be Arrogant. Thanks to the recent recession, this isn't as big a problem as it was in the heyday of the dot-com boom. Often, fresh troops from corporate war room training -- a.k.a. B-school -- presume they're brought in to change a company and be the only source for growth. Resist the urge. Remember, you need to be accepted by a company. Unless you're being hired to be CEO, you're just one of many, so don't presume otherwise. A little humility will also help co-workers warm up to your new face.

Study Interoffice Relationships. Now inside the office, you want to win friends and influence some people, but first see who is influencing others, says Samer Hamadeh, co-founder and CEO of Vault, an online career-information site. Hamadeh suggests searching out players in a company, ones that "add points" and not just "talk." His recommendation is the carbon-copy effect. "Who do people consider experienced in the organization? Who are they copying in their e-mail?" Those are the ones to make friends with, he says. Also, choose one as a mentor, and don't be afraid to go to someone above your boss or outside your cubicle cluster.

Accept Lunch. You've worked long hours before school and during the academic year. So now when you reenlist in Corporate America, keep wearing the same hard-work mantle, but don't refuse new social interaction during the honeymoon stage. Showing your casual side could be beneficial. "If someone extends an offer to go eat -- go eat," says Hanigan. Taking time to get a bite will help you adapt to a different workplace, see the culture, and make some new contacts. Heck, B-school taught you to search out low-cost providers. A free lunch with possible upside counts, right?

Apply Your Worth. Even though your first weeks on the job might tax your cerebral powers, realize your employer wants to see results. Graduates are expected to be "hyperproductive," says Hamadeh. Recent students should investigate their company and understand its business. It may help to know Praxair from Pixar and Dow Jones from Dow Chemical. Once you reach that spacious cubicle --or lovely office -- don't forget to use those newly amassed financial and quantitative skills. With the extra footing in the numbers, your knowhow could help bolster you above the fray.

Adjusting to B-school might have been difficult, but knowing what to do when your "feet are to the fire from day one," says Hamadeh, will be the real final exam for newly minted MBA grads. Just make sure not to pull your cover too soon, because for some things, Hanigan says, "you don't want your name in front of the boss." Unless, of course, it's for finding a revolutionary way of cutting costs or boosting profits. By Jordan Burke

Burke is an intern at BusinessWeek in New York

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