Oct. 18, 2011 -- A friend with a new job recently called me in a panic. After working at small non-profits for nearly two decades, Theo had landed his first position at a large corporation. Although he had high hopes for the new gig, his first day left him feeling lost, bewildered and dubious about whether he'd make it to the weekend.
"I have no idea what I'm doing," Theo said. "I sat through four hours of meetings without the foggiest idea what anyone was talking about. It's like they're speaking another language. I want to rock this job, but I feel like an imposter. I'm terrified they're going to find me out and show me the door."
If you, too, have recently joined the corporate sector only to find yourself floundering like some proverbial waterless fish, fear not. With the right mindset and bit of strategy, becoming a productive, confident member of your team is entirely doable. For tips on how to make this transformation as quickly as possible, I tapped an assortment of employment experts and corporate America survivors. Here's what they recommend doing to make the right impression those first three crucial months on the job.
1. Study the system.
If you want to fit in, take mental notes, advises Maggie Ruvoldt, executive vice president of human resources at 2tor, an education technology company in New York City. Watch how your co-workers interact, how they work and how they blow off steam. Studying and then emulating these nuances is essential, "from leadership styles to work culture and preferred font types," Ruvoldt said.
2. Make allies.
Start with your boss and immediate teammates. But don't overlook colleagues and managers beyond your department. Rich DeMatteo, a former recruiter in Philadelphia who blogs about careers at Corn on the Job, advises meeting individually with colleagues and managers. Ask about their role at the company and how you can best work with them. Besides learning how the company operates, you'll learn how it makes money -- key information you need to excel in your new role. "New hires who spend time internally networking within the company perform better, are promoted faster and can expect to have a much stronger network," DeMatteo said.
3. Get in the game.
If you don't have enough work on your plate, offer to take some off your manager's or teammates' hands. "Your boss will see you as a go-getter, and your co-workers will like you more," said Jonathan Franks, managing partner and co-founder of LUCID Public Relations in Los Angeles. Likewise, when attending your first meeting, dive into the fray right away. Be prepared to join the discussion (or at the very least, introduce yourself and convey your excitement about joining the team). Be mindful, though, that you don't hog the floor or come off as a know-it-all.
4. Exceed expectations.
Ask your boss what she expects you to accomplish your first three months on the job. "What are your manager's goals and what are senior management's expectations for your department?" said John Millikin, a management professor at Arizona State University's W. P. Carey School of Business. "How does doing your job fit into meeting the department's goals? The more you understand how your role fits into the overall picture, the easier it will be for you to emphasize the right things in your performance." And the sooner you know your boss's expectations of you, the sooner you can work on exceeding them.
5. Ask questions.
No one will fault you for asking a lot of questions. As the department newbie, it's pretty much your job. "Don't assume that people will think about everything you need to know," said Maureen Mack of HR Principal LLC, a human resources consultancy in the San Francisco Bay Area. "Most of us do not get the benefit of a formal training program." Timothy Wiedman, who teaches management and human resources at Doane College in Crete, Neb., agrees: "A question that should have been asked and wasn't can have catastrophic consequences that will not soon be forgotten."
6. Admit mistakes.
Own up to your goofs -- immediately. "Do not wait to see if the boss has noticed. Most bosses are more observant than you may think," Wiedman advised. Likewise, "don't spend hours trying to figure out how to get out of trouble," said Franks, of LUCID Public Relations. Instead, work with your boss to find a viable solution and implement it right away. Doing so shows integrity and an ability to troubleshoot.
7. Nail the details.
Looking like you have everything under control is half the battle. So, make your deadlines. Show up to meetings on time and prepared. Follow up when you say you're going to follow up. Memorize people's names and learn to pronounce them correctly. Take notes if you have to. Spell-check and proofread your work religiously. And clean up your workspace once in a while.
8. Nix perfectionism.
There's proofreading your work, and there's spending four hours trying to perfect a one-paragraph email and missing a critical deadline in the process. Instead of trying to make it perfect, use the "reasonable man test." "Timing is everything," advises said Tiffany Norwood, executive vice president of Next Generation Broadband, a technology company in Washington, D.C. "If a reasonable man or woman would find it great, then press enter."
9. Take lunch.
Sure, you want to show that you're working hard. But miss lunch every day and you miss a chance to get the inside scoop on the organization, your department and its key players. Robert Laura, president of SYNERGOS Financial Group, an investment management firm in Howell, Mich., suggests dining with your higher-ups twice a month. Do so, he said, and you'll be among the first to know about big changes coming down the pike and prime opportunities you can jump on.
10. Be true to yourself.
Corporate America calls for a certain amount of faking it till you make it. But that doesn't give you license to lose yourself along the way. "It's easy to look at those that have succeeded before you and try to imitate them," said Fredrik Marø, CEO and co-founder of Evisors.com, a website that connects users with expert advisors. "But remember that you have your own unique set of strengths and weaknesses. Embrace them. If you are trying to be someone you are not, you will never do justice to your real strengths." Darcy Eikenberg, a leadership and workplace coach in Atlanta, agrees: "The corporate world has had enough pretenders -- we need you to be you."
This work is the opinion of the columnist, and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Michelle Goodman is a freelance writer and former cubicle dweller. Her books include My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire and The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube. Follow her at @anti9to5guide.