Jump Start your Career out of College

With a degree in Finance and a concentration in accounting, I debated whether I should go back to school to get my Master’s degree right after undergrad and go into public accounting – a career path my father had chosen. I was fortunate enough to stumble upon a career that offered me both Finance & Accounting in a Leadership Development Program at a Fortune 500 company. The offer was for three years, three difference locations & assignments within Finance & Accounting. I had access to the top executives at the company and got to attend annual leadership seminars. I also built a support system of about 50 other program participates that could help guide me along the way. During the program, I received a competitive post-college salary with an average of 5% pay raise per year. After my first three years, I was offered a full-time position with a 35% pay raise.  Here are some of the lesson’s I learned along the way that helped me jump start my early career.

Lesson # 1: Development programs are excellent opportunities out of college

If you’re ambitious and want to jump start your career, I cannot recommend enough a leadership development program. Many companies offer these programs to build young talent in the organization with the hope of retaining them to fill gaps in the organization. Some offer formal training through classes and seminars, while others offer on the job training. Almost all of them are great to help build broad connections with other young, like-minded individuals but also provides exposure to the company’s leadership. Not all development programs are built the same – some are in roles for as little as 3 months before rotating while others may be 1 year or more. These programs are better suited for those that like a fast-paced and constantly changing work environment and are flexible in your job requirements.

You do not always have a lot of say in the type of role or the location you will be assigned. Some companies allow you to bid for roles while others may assign at their own whim. It’s important to understand in advance how much say you’ll have during the program and to stay flexible as circumstances within the business may also change. 

These programs are not for everyone. If you prefer a routine, take a little longer to learn a new skill, or don’t have ambitions to be the future leader, then a direct hire opportunity is probably more appropriate.  Some programs also require you to move frequently which can also be stressful for those that rely on support from family and friends. Although companies do a good job making these moves relatively effortless through relocation benefits, be realistic about whether you can handle the frequent change.

Some companies are now offering leadership development programs for mid-career employees to help fill the gaps in executive roles. These programs typically require your Master’s or MBA.  Keep these in mind if you’re looking for a career change.

Lesson # 2: Find a Mentor

A mentor, formal or informal, is a great way to guide your early career. A formal mentor might be assigned by your company – it could be someone within your function or possible even Human Resources. A formal mentor might offer more structure on certain topics and help offer solid career advice.

My best experiences have been the informal mentors. Finding a work “buddy” with several years more experience in your function or at the company can offer valuable insights you may not get from your Manager or Human Resources. Informal mentors can help when you need a second pair of eyes on your work.

Make sure that your relationships with your mentor is mutually beneficial. Invite your mentor out for lunch and offer to pay. Or help teach your mentor with a skill where you excel. I’ve personally always valued computer tips from the younger generations – whether it cuts a couple key strokes or helps them eliminate time from pulling a report. Ask your mentor for feedback. Everyone can struggle with how and when to provide feedback. If you have a mentor that you’ve worked with for a while, ask them for feedback about how you’re doing. If the feedback is negative, don’t react in a defensive way. Hear their message and seek additional clarity to ensure you fully understand. If they only have positive feedback, ask them to come back to you later when they had more time to consider some development opportunities.

Lesson # 3 : Learn about your Business

One of the regrets I’ve had in starting new jobs over the years is not spending more time up front learning about the business I was working in. In Finance, sometimes it’s easy to work within your silo and forget the impact you have the broader organization. It’s also harder when you’re in a role for a while to go back and start asking questions that it feels like you should already know.

There is usually a wealth of readily available information on company’s public websites, such as their investor relations page and annual reports. As an employee, you can also leverage the company’s intranet that may have interesting company news or marketing materials.  There can also be information available at larger companies via online learning portals or in person training sessions. Ask your Human Resources department where to get the best information.

A good way to get to know the business is to set up time with different functional area experts, such as Finance, Marketing, Technology, Information Technology, Commercial, Human Resources, Operations, Supply Chain, Sourcing, and Customer Care. The list goes on and on, but each one will offer a unique perspective on their personal history with the company, insights to what’s important to their functional area, as well as potentially career advice on how to succeed. When you start a new job, ask your boss for a list of key contacts that you should be interacting with and set up a quick 15 to 30-minute introduction session over the first few months on the job.

If you work in an office building and your company produces goods, you might also be able to schedule a tour with a plant manager to see the production facilities and learn more about the products. This is one of the best ways to learn more about the nuts and bolts of the company’s operations. Taking the time to learn about the business is a great way to understand the dynamics of the company and how you influence them, build a network, and show your passionate about your business.

Lesson # 4 : Take time to learn the Fundamentals

One of the most uncomfortable lesson’s I had in my early career was sitting in our technical controller’s office and he started asking me to draw out the accounting for a specific transaction.  Although my major was Finance I had learned “t-accounting” in college, I was uncomfortable and struggled to layout the example in the format our controller requested. I wanted to give up honestly – but he wouldn’t budge. He was willing to invest the time with me to train me how to lay out the transaction.

That time was invaluable to my long-term career and I’ll always appreciate the extra time he spent reteaching me the basics. There were many occasions when that simple training came in handy that allowed me to visually represent the accounting transaction to other colleagues. The reality is that right out of college no one really expects you to be an expert at anything. College isn’t necessarily going to directly prepare you for the nuisances of your real-world job.  College teaches you how to learn and gives you some fundamentals that are sometimes abstract. It takes time to form all those connections to your real-world job but invest the time in yourself to learn about your role and accept the help from those that are willing to help you along the way.

Lesson # 5: Make friends with IT

This lesson for me has been so important. It’s so frustrating when you start a new job to jump through all the hoops to get your computer and all the required system access. Get started on the right foot by meeting your local IT resources in person and building a rapport. You still want to follow all the local processes, like submitting an IT Help Desk ticket, but building this relationship early will pay dividends in the long run.

Having a friend in IT means when you have the blue screen of death or get locked out of your computer, they can quickly help escalate and get you back up and running. I once dropped my work cell phone on the bathroom floor during year end close and shattered my iPhone screen. I didn’t have time to run to get the screen replaced until the following week. Local IT was able to provide me a temporary phone and change my SIM card in a matter of minutes.

Another reason IT can be incredibly helpful is they know about new technology before anyone else. Learning technology is an incredibly powerful way to become more productive and set yourself apart from your peers. If you’re comfortable learning technology and you have enough knowledge of the tools used in your business, you can quickly become an asset. Partnering with your IT team to learn about the tools and spend time with them to understand how and why certain tools should be used is great foundation for your career.

Lesson # 6: You don’t need Academic Credentials to be Successful

Early in my career, I worried about getting more professional credentials to set myself apart from my peers. Although I do agree that academic pedigree is important for certain companies to get a foot in the door, it’s not typically required to stay or to get promoted.

At first, I noticed that some of my peers were starting to take additional credentials, such as the Certified Managerial Accounting (CMA). I studied and passed the first exam in a series of three, but due to the demands on my early career and moving annually it was very difficult to complete all the sections of the exam in the required timeframe. I ultimately never completed, but I don’t feel like it has hindered me get the next role.

Other peers have taken advantage of company sponsored MBA programs that allow you to work and study. None that achieved their MBA actually got a leg up at our company. Most of them never got a promotion and to avoid repaying the costly employer contributions to your education, they often were stuck in the same job. On the other hand, if your company request’s that you get your MBA, it might be a prerequisite for certain promotions in the future.

Lastly, I would avoid getting your masters right after getting your undergraduate. I was fortunate enough in my undergrad to take MBA level courses as I was part of the honor’s college. These were great networking opportunities – but I didn’t feel like I had enough work experience to take full advantage. For those that get their master’s right after undergrad, sometimes you might fulfill the educational requirements for that big job but if you don’t have enough work experience to back it up, you’re again stuck building up your resume which takes time.

Hopefully some of these tips are helpful. Let me know what career tips work for you!

Questions, Comments, Thoughts?