Job One

It is the first question I get at the start of nearly every interview with entry-level candidates:

“What is the number one quality you look for in a new employee?”

It’s a great question with about a thousand different answers depending on who you are, what your institution values and what the needs are of your current department.

My thoughts on this haven’t changed in the last several years, mainly because I believe it covers many areas that can lead to a successful transition and retention of exceptional employees.

My answer is: Professional maturity.

So what does that mean?

1)Be Brilliant with the Basics: The first year is about learning and mastery. Learn to do the basics of your job exceptionally well. Then teach others who are new or are struggling. Your willingness to teach others matters…and it is noticed!

2)Show Initiative: “How can I help?” might be my favorite sentence. It demonstrates your willingness to be a team player.

3)Say Yes As Much as Possible: There will always be a lot on your plate so figure out how you will manage all of the competing priorities early.

4)Be a Good Supervisee: Don’t ask what your boss is going to do for you, ask what you can do for your boss…and your department. Be a giver, not a taker.

5)Don’t Participate in Group Think: Don’t make someone else’s issue your issue. Support is one thing. Jumping on the negativity bandwagon is another.

6)Don’t Play Leap Frog: If you are upset about something go to your supervisor. If your supervisor is the reason you are upset, still go to your supervisor first. Leap frogging or jumping your supervisor to go to his/her boss is not appropriate unless there is a serious or potentially illegal situation that is affecting students. Learn to work within the system. You know how we all get upset when students call the university President to express their anger instead of simply telling their Residence Director about a housing issue? It’s the same concept.

7)Dress the part: Looking young is a blessing. Don’t make it a curse by dressing like a student. Understand that while your role may require you to be casual at certain times (especially with late night or weekend commitments) you have the opportunity to interact with parents, faculty and upper administration on a daily basis so look like the outstanding professional that you are! I could go on and on but feel free to read more of my musings on this topic here:

8)Understand email etiquette: Emails should never begin with “hey” unless perhaps you are writing to your friend or sibling. Understanding how communication should occur at a professional level and taking the initiative to form well-crafted written and verbal communication is a great way to demonstrate your professionalism as a new employee.

A few other folks (actually a several dozen!) chimed in on Facebook when I asked this question. A few of my favorite responses:

“Spend time with elders in the community and get to know the unspoken ways of getting business done.” –Jacob Diaz, Seattle University

“Higher ed is a very small world…..Play nice in the sandbox!” –Beth McCuskey, Purdue University

“Never find yourself saying ‘that’s not my job’”-Josh Gana, University of Washington

“Demonstrate flexibility, positivity, strong work ethic. Be open to new ways of thinking and approaching problems. Strive to approach your work in a way that makes your (glowing) performance evaluation easy for your supervisor to write!” –Jill Childress, Oregon State University

“Remember the concept of the honeymoon period. Once that period passes – remember that it is ok to be frustrated. The job might not be “perfect,” but you still have the opportunity to approach each day with a “can do” and a positive attitude.” –Brian Gallagher, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale

The two most frequently asked questions I receive when someone calls me for a reference check on an employee comes down to these two points:

1)Are they the kind of employee who is always upset about something or are they generally positive? (i.e. are they easy to supervise, have a good attitude and gets along with others?)

2)Do they do the bare minimum or are they always seeking to do more? (i.e. is it going to be an uphill battle to ask them to do more than the basics or are they a self-starter, team player and internally motivated?)

These questions reveal the kind of person they are seeking (or are not seeking) and speaks to several points about professional maturity.

You will make mistakes. Several, actually. We all have! Think about the kind of professional you want to become and what steps you will take to share your time and talents within your new position.

Strong starts are critical to joining any new organization. As new employees join our departments this summer what other tips or advice would you give to them?

Follow me on Twitter: @annmarieklotz

About annmarieklotz

I write about all things education, personal & professional development and growth. Once is a question, twice is a discussion and three times is a blog post! Born and raised in Detroit Michigan but currently calling the Pacific Northwest home. I work at Oregon State University and belong to a fantastic community of higher ed professionals around the globe! Lover of theater and the arts. Live your best life!
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14 Responses to Job One

  1. marcikwalton says:

    I would add the ability to understand and respect campus politics. You may not like them, but they exist. The important piece is to work within them so you can make positive change on campus, without threatening relationships. Learn the reasons behind “that’s how we’ve always done it” before scoffing and rolling your eyes!

    • Totally agree Marci! I think we have all had a moment where our own beliefs were in conflict with campus politics. Learning how they play out, what is changeable (and what is not) and understanding the campus agenda helps us to understand our role and how to manage change, new initiatives, etc. Great point, thanks for reading 🙂

  2. Eric Stoller says:

    My friend, I need to critique this…However, not as your friend, but as someone who cannot abide by sentences that with or without context read as “Don’t make it a curse by dressing like a student.” We perpetuate hierarchy and classism and ageism when we think in this manner. I don’t care whether or not either one of us comes from a low income situation. I know that we both do. And that it is part of our story. However, our current stances on things cannot be so warped that they assist the very things that pushed us down when we were younger. I’ve always felt like an outsider who is allowed to thrive inside our system. My skills with words and thought often allow me to have access. But, I will forever strive to deconstruct this status quo that you hold onto so dearly. We will never have education for all if we continue to perpetuate little things that when combined create access for some and barriers for others. Student affairs at its best, is a field that provides access, support, and love. At its worst, our field helps to create narrow vision for the future. We socialize as much as any other field and yet we do not acknowledge our role in it. I love you dearly as a friend and find great conflict with your words as a professional.

    • Eric, you are always welcome to critique my stance/position–that is the great thing about blogs, you open yourself up to it 🙂 As we have had this discussion before I simply want to reiterate my main 2 points, 1) It isn’t about spending a lot of money it’s about presenting yourself as a professional. This can be done at a variety of price points. Some jeans cost more than a three piece suit. 2) We don’t help young pros by telling them to wear jeans and t-shirts. The university will not give the same credibility to an entry level pro wearing a Lil Wayne t-shirt as they will with business casual approach. No question. My goal is to set up these new folks for success. I applaud your efforts to dismantle the status quo. This is not one of the battles worth fighting in my opinion. Let’s focus on helping students and then we can deal with attire oppression 😉 We can agree to disagree on this my friend 🙂

    • Crystal says:

      Thank you for saying this. I was not financially able to purchase items that would make me look like a professional for some time. Depending on where people work there may not be stores or they may not have transportation to purchase a suitable wardrobe. Sometimes the first priority is to have enough money to move to the new place of work and eat, pay off student loans,etc. I think is a question of access for some and comfort for others. I also believe that there is an expectation by majority culture to dress and talk a certain way to be accepted in the work place. I think this can go against the very thing that we aspire too in our work. If I have to chose between getting my hair and nails done and feeding my children I’m going with the latter. I think it is about effort and commitment. I didn’t have a winter coat this year because I moved from the west coast. My boss let me borrow one. Are we willing to open our closets if we are concerned or grossly offended by sometimes dress?

      • My question would be, are we willing to share with our colleagues that we need assistance? I think quite a few of us would be willing to open our closets if more professionals were vocal and transparent about needing assistance. As student affairs professionals I think we also have to think about what our attire says to not only our supervisors/senior level administrators but also to our students. Your attire is a part of your brand so what you choose to wear is what others will include in how they define you.

        My mother always told me to dress for the job I want, and not for the one that I have. Dressing professionally is not always about money. When I work with students or professionals who say they cannot afford to dress professionally,I always ask where are they choosing to shop. Many mention stores that are way outside of their price range for the need to fit in with certain brands. There are plenty of ways to dress professionally without spending a ton of money. I know a fellow student affairs professional who shops completely at thrift stores, primarily Goodwill, and has no problem with dressing professionally. Here is her blog: Dressing professionally is not about monetary value, it’s about presentation. As a mother and an entry level professional, I know it is possible to present oneself better while on a budget. Sometimes it just requires you to be vocal, to think outside of the box and get creative with what you have.

  3. Loren says:

    Seek out opportunities to learn your job better. You will get basic training, but going from “trained” to “competent” to “successful” takes initiative. YOU must ask questions, seek out additional training, join committees that cover areas of weakness, etc. Do these things in the first year or two…before it becomes embarrassing that you’ve been there so long and are still insufficient at doing X, Y, or Z.

    • Thanks Loren for reading and sharing. I totally agree–a lot of this is the responsibility of the individual employee. We need to get better at saying that 🙂

  4. Bill Mattera says:

    I would totally agree with learning YOUR job before looking to do a million other things. I think its frustrating when people are in a first year and trying to find all the other things they want to do. The cycle of a year in one’s position is how you do your job, extra campus stuff is for the second year and beyond. That doesn’t mean stagnate in your position, it means don’t get to far out of your lane so you can maximize your learning!

    • All great points Bill! I think we need to do a better job at showing a curriculum for student affairs positions, i.e., here are things to do in year one, two, etc. More as a general guideline to have folks think about ways to plan your experience. Thanks for reading!

  5. Mika Johnson says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Although I’m in job 2 I find your thoughts as a reminder of who I am as a professional!

  6. Great post, and timely to boot! I’d like to add a few thoughts.

    1) Consider your professional development plan. Most supervisors/departments offer training to their new staff, but it’s not possible to cover everything you will need to know. At the end of the training, think about your areas of further growth and development. Make a purposeful plan to build skill in those areas. Taking this kind of initiative is sure to impress your new supervisor as well 🙂 Remember that PD does not need to be expensive, or cost anything at all. Ask your supervisor or colleagues for ideas if you are stuck.

    2) Start building your network outside of your institution. Start small and branch out from there. Perhaps your regional association offers a group or event for new professionals. Every other year, OACUHO holds a New Professionals’ Training Institute (a week long intensive training program for housing & residence life professionals with three years or less experience) and it is a fantastic way to connect with other professionals. I’m still in contact with many of the folks from my “co-hort” and they are often the ones I call when I need a different perspective or voice. Building your network doesn’t have to be as formal as this though. If you are on Twitter, take part in the #sachat facilitated discussion (Thursdays at 1pm EST/EDT). It’s a great way to connect with other professionals and hear about what others are doing on their campuses.

    3) Communicate. If you don’t know the answer to something, don’t try to fumble your way through. Be up front and then seek to find the answer. If you are struggling, talk with your supervisor. They are there to support you and if you don’t let them know when you need some extra help, they may not notice/think to ask. Do not be afraid to ask for help.

    I’ll stop there or risk creating a blog post within a blog post 😉

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