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How to Start Work

The first weeks and months of any role are critical to future success.

Key points

  • Personal learning about the work environment, self, and others is critical to career success.
  • A 30-60-90 day mindset can help achieve goals and clarify expectations.
  • The first days in any role are the best time for intentional learning.
Photo by Akson on Unsplash
Two men and four women meeting in an office
Photo by Akson on Unsplash

It’s summer, which means lots of new college graduates are starting a “real job” for the first time. By “real job,” I mean one with no defined endpoint, one that hopefully explicitly connects to an interest or strength, or one where the stakes feel a bit higher than summer jobs or internships.

It’s the culmination of many years of hard work. But getting the job isn’t the endpoint; it’s just the beginning. And how you start, now, has critical impacts on what is to come.

The Importance of Personal Learning

With the rise of boundaryless careers—careers that span organizations and industries—increased responsibility has been put on the individual to figure out how to build one’s path, seek out opportunities to grow skills and responsibilities, understand when it’s time to make a move and find the people needed to get there (Karakus, 2021). We are in the era of the lifelong learner: education does not and cannot stop at the point of graduation. Especially with the rapid rise of technology, those who will be most successful in the future of work are those who know how to build effective relationships and who adopt a mindset of growth, curiosity, and lifelong learning.

In fact, one critical element for success in navigating these boundaryless careers is that of personal learning. A 2016 study from the Pew Research Center found that nearly three-fourths of adults would consider themselves lifelong learners, with 74 percent engaging in “personal growth” learning while 63 percent of working professionals have engaged in an activity connected to career development (Horrigan, 2016). In a professional work environment, personal learning includes both learning the specific work context and developing critical interpersonal skills, ultimately impacting both role clarity and job satisfaction (Lankau & Scandura, 2002).

Building relationships with mentors, sponsors, and other workplace role models can be an effective tool for developing these skills. These are the people who can provide that insider knowledge on how to be successful within the specific organizational context, point out landmines to avoid and opportunities to take advantage of, offer objective feedback, and advocate on your behalf. To be successful at work, starting on day one, you need to adopt a mindset of personal learning and build relationships with those who can help you grow.

Adopt a 30-60-90 Day Mindset

It can be tempting when starting a new role to want to get started and make an impact as quickly as possible through tangible, quantifiable results. But it’s important to start from a place of intention, taking small steps to learn what is expected of you and why and gather feedback. No matter how your organization does goal setting, a 30-60-90 day mindset can help you throughout your career. What does this look like in practice?

  • First, identify three-month goals. Ask yourself: What do I need to achieve or accomplish at the end of 90 days? What will be my measures of success?
  • Second, create an action plan. What needs to happen in month one, month two, and month three to accomplish those goals?
  • Third, identify individuals who can give you feedback on your progress at the 30, 60, and 90-day marks. Create ongoing feedback loops to gather the data you need to improve, adjust, and achieve your goals.

At the end of the 90 days, use the information you have learned about yourself, your work, and your work environment to set new 90-day goals. And begin again.

Use the first 30 days to establish clear goals and expectations with your manager on what is expected of you at work and how and when will you be evaluated. Having clear goals and expectations helps to reduce role ambiguity and increases satisfaction and engagement at work (Medlin & Green, 2009). It also helps to improve focus and decreases cognitive load (Masicampo & Baumeister, 2011). In other words, setting goals helps you to do work better and to be more successful.

Finally, prepare to be off-balance for roughly 90 days. That’s how long it takes to develop new patterns, get to know a new role or new organization, and start to find your place and your people. Hopefully, it won’t last that long. But if you mentally prepare for about three months of feeling off-balance, then you won’t be surprised if it does.

Observe, Question, Reflect, Repeat

The beginning of any new role is your best opportunity for intentional learning. It’s when you see things with the freshest eyes, when you’re not yet blinded by the culture or the routines of your job. While it might feel overwhelming, this is the time to take particular note of what is happening around you and why. Here are some strategies for making the most of this time.

  • Pay attention to power structures. Who gets to speak up in meetings? Whose voices get heard and whose get silenced? If you are going into an office, what is the physical office layout—where are people physically located, and why? These are all clues to the power structure and important data for you to take in, especially as you start to look for people who might serve as mentors and sponsors for you.
  • Ask questions for clarification. As the new person, you get to ask all the questions that everyone else wants to ask but don’t anymore. Don’t ask questions that you can easily research on the internet. Do ask those why questions: Why do we do it this way?; Why aren’t we asking for these perspectives?; Why am I being asked to work on this project?; and so on.
  • Reflect on how the role, organization, and expectations align with you. Part of becoming a lifelong learner is being deeply reflective. This is the time to think about how this role, organization, and expectations either align or don’t align with your values, strengths, and interests. It’s OK if they don’t perfectly align! It’s just something to take note of, and to think about for the future.
  • Take notes and email them to yourself. As you are gathering all this information, jot down some notes on your initial impressions and email them to yourself. Schedule send it for six months down the road. See what you discover when you get that email, about how much you have already learned about yourself, your organization, and your ability to be successful there.


Horrigan, J.B. (2016, March 22). Lifelong learning and technology. Pew Research Center.

Karakuş, F. (2021). A retrospective view from traditional to boundaryless career and career success. International Journal of Research in Business and Social Science, 10(3), 65-81.

Lankau, M.J. & Scandura, T.A. (2002). An Investigation of Personal Learning in Mentoring Relationships: Content, Antecedents, and Consequences. The Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 45(4), 779-790

Masicampo, E. J., & Baumeister, R. F. (2011). Consider it done! Plan making can eliminate the cognitive effects of unfulfilled goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(4), 667–683. (Supplemental)

Medlin, B., & Green, K.W., Jr. (2009). Enhancing performance through goal setting, engagement, and optimism. Industrial Management & Data Systems, 109(7), 943-956.

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