Career Advice

10 things every millennial should know about how to get ahead

10 things every millennial should know about how to get ahead

News_hand_extended hand_handshake
Make eye contact and execute a proper handshake.

During the depths of the 2008 recession, the biggest career advice question I received from friends and colleagues was, "How do I help my college graduate son or daughter get a job?"  Things have improved since then and now I've got advice for the graduate who lands that first job.

It may be my age, but I hear stories of some in the early stages of their careers who make basic mistakes that cause me to shake my head. Early mistakes can have a long-term impact on future career opportunities and decisions. 

Parents, pass this on to your college graduate; and college graduates, listen up: Although you are wired differently and want different things than your parents wanted at your age, until you can run your own company, here is some advice that will hold you in good stead for your first gig. 

1. Learn a proper handshake. Seems simple enough but I am continually amazed how many young people do not know how to make eye contact and execute a proper handshake. And yes, there are those who insist on shaking my fingers — which reminds me of someone my grandfather’s age or someone who doesn’t know that women executives can be treated the same as men and can easily withstand a full handshake. 

2. Stand up when someone (man or woman) enters the room. This is my pet peeve and sadly, this faux pas is not limited to recent college graduates. If you are calling on someone, or are interviewing, or otherwise are meeting in a conference room, stand up to shake the person’s hand when he or she enters. Last week, one of our firm’s vendors came to visit and was waiting in our conference room when my colleague and I entered. He did not stand up and instead tried to shake hands by reaching across the table. I kept backing up with my hand outstretched. He was either going to fall from his chair or was going to stand up to greet me. 

3. Respond to email promptly. One of the complaints I hear most often from fellow executives is that those new to the working world do not promptly respond to email. We all know that email can be a huge time vacuum but make a point of responding to your email the first thing when you arrive in the morning or better yet, get email set up on your cellphone and be available 24/7 to your internal clients, especially your manager. It goes without saying, don’t leave the office without having responded to emails.

4. Learn to write. And while you are responding to email, don’t send emails out with typos or bad grammar. Your ability to communicate, especially when you are dealing with people with whom you have not met, will sink or carry you. If you have doubts about your writing skills, there are some wonderful books. My favorite is the Harvard Business Review Guide to Better Business Writing. And most colleges have business writing courses that you can take at night. 

5. Learn to speak. Many of my fellow attorneys cringe when we hear the grammar of some college and law school graduates who are so used to speaking casually to school friends that they have developed some bad habits. There is no room in the workplace for “Myself and Ashley are going to a meeting.” More subtle is the error when you say, “Please don’t hesitate to give Ashley or I a call.” And the worst for the older generation is the booming “No problem” when we say “Thank you.”  

6. Assess what your manager wants. What is his or her style? Does he or she email you with questions over the weekend? If so, that tells you he or she is working on the weekend and you should be also. Does your boss welcome people stopping by his or her office or is he or she an email type of person? And how much communication does your manager want? If in doubt, ask. 

7. Get to the office early and stay late. Do not take the viewpoint of “what are my hours?” Instead get to the office before your manager and work later than he or she does. Be task completion-focused, not clock-focused. Because many other graduates may not know to do this you immediately earn points for being hungry and ambitious. 

8. Don’t stay at your desk. Form relationships. Connect with others. I’m a strong proponent of telecommuting and having the flexibility to work from home, within reason, but if you have a desk in an office use it. It is much easier to be noticed if you are visible. And let’s face it, there is a lot of watching and listening that you can’t get from your home office.    

9. Speak up in meetings. Ask questions (which is different from being a know-it-all). Develop a passion for what you are doing even if it is not something you are passionate about. Volunteer to take on additional projects. Be the person with solutions to problems. 

10. Listen and learn. Be conscious about what you are observing. Assess whether you are learning. The inability to think and assess critically is a common complaint from managers about recent grads. Try to learn something new every day. Make it a habit. 


Jane Howze, co-founder and manager of The Alexander Group, is a regular CultureMap contributor.