When I landed my first job out of university, I was young, excited, hopeful and naive. I was going to be part of a graduate management trainee programme with one of the country’s largest banks. Then, the reality of work life burst my little bubble.
On paper, my degree could not have been more suited for the role. Having spent four years earning a Bachelor of Management Studies (Honours), with a double major in Finance and Marketing, I had developed a solid foundation in the areas of management—and topped this up with a good dose of financial understanding and insight into customers. I added trimmings too, holding down part-time jobs and volunteering throughout university life.
Like many management trainee programmes, my role was structured as four-month-long rotations over a two-year period. This was one of the main attractions for me, as variety has always appealed to me. I was, like half the people in their early twenties out there, still searching for what I wanted to do in life. I soon came to question my capabilities, that maybe, my personality wasn’t best suited for the role.
You see, one of the main highlights of programmes of this nature is that it can fast-track your learning and development within the organisation. But in order to do so, you need to be someone who grabs the spotlight, i.e. you need to demonstrate yourself as someone who can take initiatives, is sociable and is able to add value.
Even though I love people, I am naturally reserved and better at interacting in smaller groups of people. I enjoy coming up with ideas, but prefer listening and understanding the situation before rushing to offer my opinion.
Looking back, I probably came across as someone quiet (my small stature in a city where Asians are a minority did not help), someone who does a decent job but nothing more. I did not feel like I was shining, nor was I demonstrating all I had to offer.
I’m grateful to say that all was not lost and I met some great managers and mentors along the early years of my career. With their help and guidance, I was able to identify areas that I needed to work on, and considerations that I needed to be aware of when treading the murky waters of working life.
Interestingly enough, all these areas had a common theme—they are what universities do not teach you.
Let me share some concepts that were not taught in university:
The relationships you have with friends and family are different to the relationships you build at work. The relationships you build in a small workplace is once again different compared to the relationships you build in a larger workplace.
How do you ask a colleague you’ve never spoken to to get something done for you with nothing in return? How do you make sure that the next time you go back to them, you would have built a better relationship with them than the last time?
My initial struggle was being too “considerate” (and perhaps naive) when colleagues would pass on work requests to me, which then had a detrimental effect on my own deadlines.
I thus had to learn to tailor my approach to different people, to help them see the benefit of completing my work requests or sometimes, simply ask for help from a mentor or manager.
This is one that really struck me when I first heard about it at a graduate development session with the human resources team. During this session, I learnt that personal branding is how others perceive the value of work you are able to consistently deliver.
When you are part of a large organisation in particular, first impressions really count, and bad impressions spread. In other words, if you do a bad job, not only are you setting a bad impression with the colleague you were working with, but potentially with other people who speak to the colleague later on.
Another honest piece of advice I was given was to learn how to command attention. Naturally, a tall, athletic male (for example, Harvey Specter from the hit television show Suits) with a booming voice is able to command the attention of everyone in a meeting. People will, naturally, listen and feel like they need to abide by his requests. Whatever he says sounds credible because it is backed with natural confidence.
Someone who may not have those traits can learn to make up for it by being extra prepared for the meeting and by doing your research. Over time, people will notice that what you have to contribute is valuable and your personal brand will solidify over time.
Surviving workplace change
This was one of the toughest lessons that spanned nearly five years.
Starting out at the bank, I was full of hope and optimism. But by the end of the two-year programme, unexpected events at work—as a result of workplace change—came flying my way, often not within my own control or the control of my managers.
I experienced first-hand the aftermath of restructuring, miscommunication, and organisational silos. While I was able to overcome each of them, it perpetually put me under a stressful and trying time.
After a few years of having empty promises and unsubstantiated reasons thrown at me, I couldn’t help but feel a build of resentment towards the organisation.
The turning point came one sunny day, when I made some life-changing decisions. Instead of bottling up my frustrations, I shared it with my director and even sought out her advice on what she would do if she were in my shoes.
Rather than letting negative feelings takeover, I chose to focus on what I could be thankful for each day. And just like that, work got better. My expectations were better managed, there was a newfound transparency between myself and the organisation and doors started to open.
I learnt to stand up for myself, and it taught me the importance of finding opportunities during a time of change, rather than to get caught up in all the negativity and noise. I learnt that the first and most important step of surviving issues at the workplace begins with a positive mind.
Where I am today
Staring at my screen with my fingers typing away at my keyboard, I am writing this article as part of my sixth job out of university. I have grown, I am still excited, hopeful but more empowered. I’m not one who regrets the things I’ve done, but there have been times when I secretly wished I had learnt the importance of some of these areas that my university did not teach me earlier on. It would have saved me unwanted stress, dissatisfaction and tears, and made me a better employee.
Lim Kwan-Lyn loves helping people connect the dots, be it in the business world, or by empowering others. A year ago, she left her corporate job, went on an OE where she was part of Leaderonomics and is now working at St John New Zealand managing products with a social cause.