(June 25, 2013)

Brazen Careerist

Transitioning from college student to professional can be as challenging as it is exciting. There's a lot to learn, and many of those lessons were never covered in your professors' syllabuses.

Here are five tips on hitting the ground running at your first real job:

1. Be a sponge

There's no better way to get off on the wrong foot when starting a job than by acting like a know-it-all. Attempting to impress your new boss and colleagues can backfire if you're not tactful and selective about how and when you present your ideas. Make a great impression by soaking up information rather than dispensing it at every turn.

Yes, you were hired for a reason, and there will be opportunities to share your knowledge and perspective -- but pick your moments. Focus on finding your footing and learning the ways of the company, not offering critiques, corrections or comparisons to what you were taught in college. Balance confidence with humility while remaining mindful that the real world can be different than the one presented in the classroom.

2. Don't expect praise on every project

Every generation gets saddled with certain stereotypes. It's often assumed that Millennials crave constant affirmation thanks to teachers, parents and coaches who piled on praise while Gen Y was growing up. But the positive reinforcement might not flow as fast or as frequently in the office. Sometimes a job well done won't yield a pat on the back -- or any acknowledgement at all. That doesn't mean you haven't done good work.

Expecting persistent praise and immediate rewards can lead to disappointment for you and frustration for your manager. A majority of employers say the sense of entitlement exhibited by college-educated, first-year employees has increased over the past five years. Be wary of the "entitled" label and try not to bolster it.

3. Take constructive feedback in stride

While nobody relishes negative feedback, learning to accept it is one of the best things you can do for yourself. It's true that criticism, even when it's delivered in a kind and constructive way, can sting. The trick is to not take it personally and to anticipate that you will receive it.

It's not a question of if you'll get criticism, but when. Adjusting your perspective means that you won't be rocked when it's delivered. Every piece of feedback has a valuable takeaway, so be grateful that people take the time to share it.

When you make mistakes (and you will), don't rattle off excuses, act defensive or point fingers. As Robert Half said, "Not admitting a mistake is a bigger mistake." Instead, listen intently to what your boss has to say, be accountable and view it as a learning opportunity.

4. Start networking now

Networking is key to your career. It's like investing; if you start early and you're consistent, you'll see far better returns than if you begin later and try to catch up on lost time. Build relationships with as many people as you can. Use orientation and training sessions to get to know co-workers in different corners of the company. Have lunch with colleagues, get involved in cross-departmental initiatives, sign up for the softball team and strike up conversations at the vending machine.

In short, act engaged and be friendly to everyone. The more people you know, the more you'll learn about the inner-workings of the business. Plus, you never know whose help you'll need one day. You also might seek mentors or sounding boards outside the organization. Additionally, join industry associations and stay active on LinkedIn and other professional networking sites.

5. Recognize the value of soft skills

Hard skills are teachable technical abilities such as writing code or crunching numbers. Soft skills are the less tangible -- but equally vital -- personal attributes, attitudes, habits and social graces that enable you to work well with others. Examples include verbal presentation skills, active listening abilities, flexibility, diplomacy, empathy and intuition.

Finance professionals, for instance, need stellar soft skills to add insights to complex data. IT specialists use interpersonal abilities to generate buy-in from nontechnical co-workers. Regardless of your field, boosting your emotional IQ will help you establish rapport with colleagues and better anticipate others' needs and concerns.

How can you build your soft skills? Join Toastmasters, volunteer for projects that will put you on a team and ask your mentors for honest feedback. The bottom line: soft skills are absolutely essential to advancement today. And the higher you rise, the more important they become.

Make your life easier by identifying role models who display exemplary people skills and following their lead. Also get attuned to the work styles, moods and communication preferences of your co-workers, and aim to be an affable and adaptable team player.

Last but not least, stay positive during your acclimation period. When you feel overwhelmed or experience moments of self-doubt, take a deep breath and remember that everyone in the office was once in your shoes.

(Paul McDonald is a contributor to Brazen Careerist. He is senior executive director with Robert Half International, the world's first and largest specialized staffing firm. Brazen Careerist is a lifestyle and career blog for ambitious young professionals. This isn't your parents' career-advice column. Be Brazen.)