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Ten lessons for college grads

OK, so you have the degree and the technical skills. Here's how to build on that all-important first job and develop a career.

By J. Michael Adams

The first job after college is the most important in anyone's career because it establishes the foundation of a lifelong professional reputation. With that in mind, here are 10 lessons recent graduates may not have learned in school. They should learn them now, if they want to build that critical first job into a successful career.

1. Don't be a hermit. A few years ago, I helped a graduate land a job, only to learn he was fired after just six months. When I called his boss to ask about the problem, I was told: "John performed his job well, but never said 'good morning' to anyone. He was just too aloof to fit in here." Casual interaction with peers, whether it's a coffee-break talk or a shared lunch is what creates the bonds that make professional interaction more effective.

2. Dress to the culture. Distinctive dress is part of the college scene, but not the workplace. In the corporate community mavericks are often cut loose from the herd. If the culture calls for a suit, buy a good one and keep it clean and pressed. Even if the culture is long hair, jeans and a T-shirt, the T-shirt had better not have spots on it, and the hair should be clean and combed.

3. Winners always arrive early. Being on time is no longer sufficient, whether it's the start of the workday or of a meeting. Some think "Coming in late is OK as long as you stay late." Wrong! It simply doesn't work that way. You must be present or you will be viewed as a slacker.

4. Be ready for surprises. Always carry a pen and a pad, or note cards with you. If you prefer to use a PDA or palm device, make sure you can take notes quickly. It can save your job, especially when your manager calls you into her office the first week on the job and reels off the five things she wants done by tomorrow. Can you imagine her reaction if you have to ask to borrow a pen and a piece of paper?

5. Read it twice before hitting "send." Professional electronic communication is vastly different from the instant messaging you do with your friends. Brevity is a virtue and also diminishes the chance of typos or errors. Always ask the question, "Would I feel OK if this message appeared on the front page of the company newsletter tomorrow morning?" Keep it brief and read it twice.

6. Put it on paper. Important communication is always on paper - or in a text file attachment that can be printed out. Write clearly and to the point. Don't try to be "cool" or clever. Neither has much value in the workplace. An effective outline for nearly any memo is: a. define the problem, b. offer your analysis and c. make a recommendation. Find someone you trust who will proofread and edit everything before you send it. If you can keep it to two pages or less, you will be viewed with appreciation and awe.

7. Know your place, rookie. You may have been a senior last year, but you will soon find yourself back in freshman mode. Prepare for this, and recognize that you don't have the knowledge base to express strong positions right away. Of course, always respond to queries, but initially listen, and ask questions before offering a contrary opinion. Wisdom and respect come from first learning the local culture - people, principles and priorities. Remember, the goal is to be included in the sophomore class.

8. Use technology, but don't let it define you. You will probably be a step ahead of many in your company when it comes to using technology. Some people love gadgets and revel in demonstrating knowledge and expertise. However, these are only tools. You will always be more valued for your ability to think, work with others, and solve problems. Don't start with the tool and look for a use. Begin with the problem and select the best tool.

9. Read one major newspaper every day. The greatest influences on your organization will come from outside the workplace. Having a handle on what's going on in the world will give you a competitive edge. View it as always being ready for a pop quiz during those pre-meeting chats with your boss. It's also what successful professionals do.

10. Let your workspace show your personality, but be thoughtful. Decorations, or lack thereof, send strong personal messages, as does neatness or sloppiness. It is important to think about the messages you want to send. Messy desks and flippant signs say a lot about you, but so do tasteful, humorous cartoons and interesting photos. Make your workspace a reflection of how you want to be perceived.

Your first job after college will probably not be the type of position you see yourself working in for the rest of your life. However, it's less important what your first job is about than the type of person you prove yourself to be doing it.