Pulling all-nighters. Subsisting on a diet of Gatorade and Red Bull for weeks at a time. Sporting a toga in sub-zero temps. During your time in college, chances are you’ve picked up some questionable habits. But you might be surprised to hear that some of the skills that helped you succeed as a student could actually set you back in the workplace. Let’s take a look at some of these nasty habits and how ditching them will help you transition from straight-A student to all-star employee.
1. Expecting Gold Stars
In school, there’s generally an unspoken agreement: You do your assignment and your teacher will take the time to review it and give you detailed feedback. If you’ve done what was asked of you, it’s only natural that you’ll get a good grade.
In the business world, things don’t generally work that way. Managers are often too busy to prioritize giving positive feedback. It’s much more common to hear from your supervisor when you’ve done something wrong or made a mistake than when you’ve done a good job.
Gold stars are also all about you, but in the business world, you need to think about the bottom line. In other words, how is your work helping to move your company forward? You might not always be able to tie each task in with an actual profit on your company’s balance sheet, but are you enhancing a product or improving a service? Are you eliminating an inefficiency or supporting another team whose work does bring in the money? Learning to align your goals with these types of outcomes rather than getting a gold star from your manager is one of the first steps to leaving that student mentality behind.
2. Following the Rules
In a classroom, you learn to follow whatever rules your teacher or professor sets. You raise your hand before speaking, wait your turn, hand things in when they’re due, and generally do whatever your teacher tells you. In a work environment, you need to think beyond the rules and expectations in order to stand out.
It’s pretty common for companies to use a five-point scale for performance evaluations. I was really surprised the first time a manager explained to me that doing exactly what you’re supposed to do (just the way you would to get an A in school) would only earn you a score of 3. If you want to get a 4 or 5, you need to go above and beyond what’s expected of you. This can mean completing tasks well ahead of the deadline, helping your teammates with some of their duties, or coming up with a new project that’s not strictly part of your job description. This leads nicely to the next point, which is…
3. Maintaining the “Asking for Permission” Mindset
As a student, part of following the rules is only taking action when you’re asked to do so. You probably never went to your professors asking them to give you extra reading or papers to write, right? As a rockstar employee, you need to be proactive and come up with your own ways to make an impact.
I don’t mean to say that you can just take over the company’s Twitter account or start hiring new people without permission, but start thinking about a project you could undertake alone or with a team of coworkers. Maybe you’d like to start a company blog, organize a lunch and learn session, or propose a more efficient workflow.
Spend a little time (not at the expense of your regular work) brainstorming and outlining your concept. Think about what resources you’d need for your project and what the desired outcome and benefit to the company would be.
Once you’ve presented a few ideas to your manager, you’ll have a better idea of how much initiative you can take in the future and how you can approach projects that aren’t strictly outlined in your job description.
Here’s an example from my own experience. When I launched the AfterCollege Blog, I inherited AfterCollege’s social media accounts, too. I asked our CEO Roberto if it’d be okay for me to start following new people and interacting with them. He sent me an email that simply said, “Ask for forgiveness; not permission.” Once I saw that, I knew that he didn’t want me to bother him with small questions like that and he just wanted me to take charge and responsibility for my actions. Lesson learned!
Also, one bonus reason to start your own project is that this is great material for your résumé and future job interviews. Potential employers LOVE hearing about how you took initiative and executed an independent project.
4. Avoiding the Spotlight
In a classroom or lecture hall, you might have to hold all questions until the end, and, depending where you went to school, you may not have had heated debates with your professors. It’s not uncommon for recent grads to want to fly under the radar and refrain from contributing to meetings.
This is why that’s a bad idea: Contributing to a meeting is a great way to get noticed, and it may be your only opportunity to interact with senior management. Don’t be the person who sits silently at the end of the quarterly meeting. Take the opportunity to ask your CEO a question (either about the content of the presentation or the company’s overall strategy). This shows everyone that you’re listening and engaged, and it might just help you develop more of a rapport with the bigwigs.
True story: I used to work in the satellite office of a company of about 4,000 employees. The CEO would occasionally visit our office and hold meetings with us. My boss always had questions for him, and eventually our CEO was able to call on him by name. Think of the possibilities that could arise from being on a first-name basis with your CEO, especially if you work in a large company.
Even in a team meeting, you should strive to make contributions regularly. Clarify points that are vague. Make a suggestion to improve an inefficient process or improve your team’s performance. Use the opportunity to crowdsource a problem that you’ve been facing recently.
Interaction like this can build camaraderie and lead to new solutions you wouldn’t have arrived at on your own. It’ll also show your manager (and everyone else) that you’re a team player and have everyone’s interests at heart.
5. Letting Fear of Failure Be a Motivating Factor
When you’ve been motivated your entire life by the fear of failing (a class or assignment), this can be a huge hurdle to overcome. But failing or making mistakes is a healthy part of growth—as long as you’re able to step back and identify what went wrong.
When something didn’t work out (whether it was a product launch or your job itself), take some time to evaluate it as objectively as possible and turn it into a learning experience. Many companies now encourage employees to experiment and fail in order to promote innovation and growth. Ask for input from coworkers and supervisors. Failure can be a great opportunity for growth and learning if you allow it to be.
Just as you’ve (probably… we hope!) outgrown the desire to live with 16 other people in a four-bedroom house and the ability to sleep standing up between stacks in the library, it’s time to outgrow some of those other college habits that’ll no longer serve you in the workplace.
Give up the quest for gold stars, stop following the rules, nix the “asking for permission” mindset, quit hiding from the spotlight, and forget your fear of failure. Pick up some new habits in their place and you’ll be ready to ace your performance review, which BTW, just might come with a cash bonus.
Want more on this topic? Here are a few other posts we like:
- “Women Need to Realize Work Isn’t School” Whitney Johnson and Tara Mohr, Harvard Business Review
- “Did Getting Straight A’s Destine You for Career Failure?” Meredith Lepore, Levo League
- “TEDx: The Art of Workplace Innovation” Lisa Bonner, Blogging 4 Jobs
- The FAIL Blog, work edition
Homework time! Which of these habits do you think you’re most likely to be guilty of? Think of how you could replace them with new and improved work-friendly habits.