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Leave the Arrogance Back at School

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and author of Lose the Resume, Land the Job

It’s not just a graduation—it’s a transition to a whole new world.

Suddenly, you’re no longer surrounded mostly by peers of your own age. You’re interacting with colleagues who may be your parents’ age or older. Even more shocking, leaving academic life to take your first job means you aren’t focused only on your own performance.  Instead, your No. 1 priority is making others—especially your boss—look good.

To earn a good reputation as an asset to the team, here are five things you must leave at home when you start your first job.

Your arrogance.

Being the new person means you do the grunt work—the stuff nobody else wants to do. If nothing else, consider it a rite of passage. When I graduated from college, I was recruited to join a large accounting firm. Immediately, I bought my first good suit and a hard-sided leather briefcase. But when I arrived on the first day, my assignment was moving boxes from one floor to another. In fact, I had to do it all week long. Then came my second assignment: taking inventory in a dusty old warehouse where I was greeted by a guy in overalls with questionable grooming. He offered me coffee, pulling a dirty cup out of the sink and giving it a wipe with an industrial paper towel. I ignored the ring of unidentifiable scum around the top and drank it anyway.

No, hauling boxes and counting old industrial parts weren’t my dream assignments. But had I complained or acted as if the work was beneath me, my first job could have come to a very quick end. Arrogance gets you nowhere—at any level.

Your entitlement.  

Expecting preferential treatment and feeling deserving of certain perks will alienate you immediately. Doing so could label you as entitled; once you have that reputation, it’s difficult to change it. Don’t expect that you’re going to get the best assignments, have contact with major customers, get a parking space, or be leaving on an international business trip any time soon. And whatever you do, don’t constantly ask for a day off or how soon you can take vacation time.

Your “showing up” trophies. 

This isn’t elementary school soccer. No one is going to give you a prize just for showing up. You’re supposed to be on time and ready to work. If you want to distinguish yourself as an outlier—among the 20 percent of people who do 80 percent of the work (and get the lion’s share of attention)—you have to perform. In our studies of what contributes to success, at the entry level it’s all about attention to detail. In other words, you’re carrying out tasks that others assign to you—and doing them really well.

Your college days.

On your first day, your new colleagues will probably ask you where you went to school, what you majored in, and so forth—but only to get to know you. After that, cut the college stories. Nobody wants to know about your GPA, your fraternity/sorority, or your awesome friends. Instead, show a genuine interest in others. Ask about their stories. You’ll get a quicker and deeper education about the company and people’s career paths—and you’ll establish rapport with your new colleagues.

Your mother. 

It’s bad enough when parents get actively involved in the interviewing process: scheduling meetings, doing the follow-ups personally, and even accompanying the college grad on the interview. But it doesn’t stop there—and it should. You can’t bring your mother to work. Several years ago, we had to let a number of people go. The mother of one of those individuals called to protest: Surely we had made a mistake. “Johnny” was a hard worker, a great person, he’d done so well in school.… Cut the apron strings. Otherwise, it’s the mother of sudden death for your career.

The transition to the workforce gets easier if you remember one key thing: It’s not about you. As you accomplish your assigned tasks, look for ways to help others. When you do, you’ll establish a positive reputation. People will like you and recognize your value—and that will launch your career on the right track.

A version of this article appears on Forbes.com.

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  • Gary Burnison

    Chief Executive Officer

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