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Surviving your probationary period

Landing that first job or securing a place on a graduate scheme may be a major achievement in itself but the real effort required is only beginning. Here’s some advice on how to excel during your probationary period.

The phrase “hit the ground running” has become something of a cliché but it is certainly true in the case of probationary periods. With huge competition in the jobs market, employers need to know they have made the right recruitment decision and the significant investment involved in graduate programmes means they need to be totally convinced of your potential at the end of the period.

Of course, feeling as if you are on trial can bring additional pressure and have a detrimental effect on performance. The challenge is to find ways of proving your worth while easing yourself into the job and the world of work in general.

Prior to joining

Doubtless you will have done your homework on the organisation prior to the interview stage but in the run-up to your first day step this up a notch.

Gen up on everything you can about the organisation from company reports and accounts to recent press releases which you’ll find in the media or press section of the corporate website. Internet searches will help you to find out what has been written or reported about your forthcoming employer. Try to glean what corporate social responsibility activity it gets involved in, what issues are close to its heart and what type of culture exists at the organisation.

The more you know about the organisation, the quicker you will be able to relate to it. Once you’ve started, continue to stay abreast of developments and make sure you stay up-to-date with the issues that might affect the organisation. Join discussion groups on Linkedin, read the trade or business press and when time permits, attend conferences and exhibitions.

Demonstrate your ability early

It’s never too early to make an impression as long as it’s the correct one. Look for opportunities to signal potential early on in the probationary period. The sooner you achieve something, the more relaxed you’ll start to feel in your role. Put yourself forward for particular projects and don’t underestimate your ability to make an impact.

Jillian Burton, graduate programme manager at Lloyd’s Register, says the company doesn’t expect graduates to wait to be told what to do. Coming from outside an organisation can give you a fresh perspective, and put you in a good position to make an early impression.

“Graduates can really change things,” she says. “We’ve had examples where a process took four days to complete and a graduate came in and brought that down to a day. This is where a graduate can really add value to an organisation by challenging the way things are done – in the right way, of course – and making a real difference.”

Project the right image

While it is important to show you are a doer and high-achiever, be mindful that your personality is also on trial so don’t come across as too cocky or self-assured.

Characteristics such as reliability, adaptability, flexibility and positivity are desirable and also demonstrate your ability to work in a team. Be attuned to how you fit into the team and how the team or department’s role contributes to the overall objectives of the company.

And while it is early days, remember that the company views you as a potential future leader so you need to display your capability in this area even though no-one will expect you to be the finished article yet.

Forge strong relationship with your manager(s)

This means getting to know their personality traits as well as their role and some of the pressures they work under. Find out how they like to communicate and receive information: do they like face-to-face meetings and/or regular emails? Do they have an open door policy or do you need to make an appointment to see them? Do they have any pet hates?

Although it is likely you will be on a structured development programme, be clear about goals and what your manager expects from you on a day-to-day basis as well as the longer term. Don’t assume they’ll always know what you are doing so keep them informed but avoid badgering them unnecessarily.

Burton suggests you need to look for practical ways to support your managers.

“If there is a big client meeting next week, is there anything you can do to help them prepare such as any research?” she asks. “If appropriate, ask if you can attend the meeting and help with any follow-up actions. Think creatively about the role of your manager: look at what they do and identify some junior responsibilities they may want you to take off their plate. It could help your manager and be a really good learning opportunity for you.”

Exceed expectations in every task

Keep tabs on your personal contribution and try to elicit feedback from colleagues as well as your manager on how well you are faring. Show a willingness to learn and improve performance.

Although you might be on a graduate development programme, be proactive in seeking additional responsibility or fresh opportunities to learn and develop. Be prepared to challenge the norm, occasionally, if you think your idea could improve efficiency or save money. Constantly analyse your experiences and leverage that knowledge or learning.

“Doing a good job is fine. But if you want to increase your chances of being kept on, you need to show you can do more than is expected,” says Burton, adding that one way of demonstrating this is to find out if you can also help in other departments, such as assisting in career fairs.

“Also, look for other departments that might help you to develop your interpersonal skills," she adds. "You may be an engineer, but you still need to be able to communicate and work well with others."

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