New job? Your first 4 weeks will determine long-term success – or failure.

When I started high school, my mother was at pains to impress the following advice on me:

“It’s very important that you get a reputation as a first-class student right from the beginning. It’s about expectations: If  teachers approach your work expecting it to be worthy of an A, they’ll be less critical; if they approach your work expecting it to be worthy of a C, you’d have to do something unbelievably spectacular to earn an A.”

In other words: Two months of slacking at the beginning of grade 9 could affect my entire high school career, which in turn could affect what university I went to, which in turn could have an effect on The Rest of My Life.

(She also told me that a typewritten essay would generally earn 5% more than a handwritten one, even if the content was identical – simply because the process of reading typescript is more enjoyable than reading handwriting.)

It’s just as important to set expectations in your new job.

Every new job has a honeymoon period: The first few weeks or months during which the company’s still excited about hiring you, you’re still excited about landing the job, and everyone’s confident you’re going to have a long and productive relationship. You may have the added advantage of replacing a drooling half-wit, compared to whom you look like the Second Coming.

But this period doesn’t last forever – just ask any Prime Minister or President after their first 6 months in office – so it’s important you use this opportunity to establish yourself as a positive, hard-working, team-playing, initiative-taking, results-oriented resourceful wunderkind who arrives early, stays late, and outperforms the competition.

Performance measurements may be objective. The people using them probably aren’t.

Sure, good managers do their best to establish quantitative metrics for performance and try to schedule annual or quarterly reviews of these metrics, blah blah blah.

But the truth is that when it comes right down to it, and a bunch of managers are sitting around a boardroom table discussing who should get promoted, who should get a raise, and who should be groomed as long-term management material, your manager isn’t handing out an actuarial table comparing the performance metrics of everyone on the team.  Most of the discussion is going to be based on ‘gut feel’ and a lot of sentences are going to start with “My impression of John is that he’s a great team member…”

John may or may not be a better team member than anyone else, but he’s going to get the promotion because he’s gained a reputation for team-playing.

Build a strong reputation in the first 4 weeks, and the next 4 years will be a lot easier.

All eyes are on new employees during their first few weeks:  Your  co-workers are watching you to determine whether you’re going to make their day-to-day work lives better or worse; your manager is watching closely (and probably working closely with you) to ensure s/he’s made a good hire; and your manager’s manager is also paying attention to satisfy him/herself that your manager is doing a good job of onboarding and training you. Heck, depending on the size of the company and your role within it, the C-suite (CEO, CFO, etc.) may also be paying attention.

Later, they won’t have time to scrutinize you and your work so closely – they’ll simply assume that you continued behaving the same way you did in the first few weeks.  Get a reputation as an A-list performer, and they’ll still think of you that way 2 years from now; get a reputation as a B-lister, and you’ll have trouble ever changing their minds.

5 ways to establish yourself as an A-lister, right from the get-go

Establishing yourself as an A-lister isn’t hard – it just requires a little extra effort for the first few weeks.

1.  Arrive early, stay late

This is probably the single most important favour you can do for yourself in your first 4 weeks.  Make sure you arrive and are working at your desk 15 minutes before your manager (and your close colleagues), and make sure you’re the last to leave.  Do this for the first 4 weeks without fail and I promise you’ll have a reputation for being a hard worker that will survive even if you start leaving at 5:05.

2.   Spend extra time working on a special project that you weren’t asked to do

In your first week or two, you’ll hear your manager start a sentence with “We’ve been meaning to get to this, but…” – meaning a spreadsheet, a chart, a database, a file cabinet that needs organizing, a process for ordering something. It doesn’t matter what it is, and it doesn’t matter if it’s ‘administrative’ (and therefore possibly beneath you). Get it done. Don’t tell anyone you’re doing it – just stay late one night and do it. The next day, when your manager comes by, casually mention “It’s all taken care of…”

Suddenly you’re the self-starting, initiative-taking, can-do kind of employee that everyone’s always dreamed of. Which is the kind of image that’ll pay dividends later.

3.   Dress up

More and more offices are ‘casual’ these days, and it can be tempting to slip into jeans and flip-flops if that’s what everyone else seems to be wearing. But keep in mind: Your manager – and many of those other people who tend to sit around the boardroom table discussing your future – is probably of the generation (i.e. over 35) who aren’t quite so enamoured of flip-flops as office wear. You don’t have to wear a 3-piece suit every day, but staying away from jeans and faded H&M tops for the first few weeks sends the message “I’m promotable, and you can put me in front of the clients.”

4.   Put candy on your desk

Some offices are full of gregarious people who make an effort to introduce themselves and ask you out for lunch right from the first day. Others are…well, maybe people are shy, or liked your predecessor and are reluctant to be your best friend, or maybe there are some weird office politics that you’re wise to stay well clear of.

The best way to encourage people to (a) think you might be a nice, friendly person and (b) come by and introduce themselves, is to put a large, prominent container of candy on your desk. (I myself have found a container of Chupa Chups lollipops quite effective, but any sort-of cool, wrapped candy will do.) Then sit back and watch as your new co-workers stop by, introduce themselves, and provide you with valuable information about your new work home.

5.   Ask co-workers for advice

Yes, you want to impress your manager. But it is your close co-workers who have, collectively, a louder voice in these first few weeks, because you can bet your manager – and their managers, if you’re working close to people who report to other managers – will be asking them what they think of ‘the new person’. So don’t be a know-it-all island: Ask co-workers for advice about how to order staplers, where to go for lunch, what the Monday meetings are like – whatever. The key is to make them feel like experts and you seem like a willing team player who isn’t there to make them look bad.

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