Transitioning from school to work | Feedback

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On average, graduates starting their first corporate job are 23 years old. In the US, kids starts 1st grade at the age of 6.

1st grade was when I was first introduced to formal grading via the check system.

There were 4 grades:

  1. Exceeding expectations: ✔+
  2. Meets expectations: ✔
  3. Below expectations: ✔-
  4. What are you doing: 0

The system was consistent. You were given a check grade for every homework assignment and at the end of each term.

It was crystal clear. You and your parents knew exactly what your standing was and why.

It was actionable. If you got a ✔-, the teacher explained why and you were suppose to fix the mistake next time.

Since the age of 6 and until the age of 23, some version of this clear, consistent, and actionable grading system is deeply embedded into the way you operate. It is the ultimate feedback loop which judges your success and failure.

Whether you study harder or relax more is modulated largely by the grades you receive.

If you’re getting C’s in calculus, it may be worthwhile to spend a few extra days studying for the next test. On the other hand, if you’re acing your classes, you probably don’t need to study more.

Feedback loops are critical to shaping your progress and making your more successful.

But the day you start your first job is the end of the grading system era.

In your career, the new grading system is performance evaluations and feedback. Here are 3 "features" of this less convenient grading system:

  1. In most company cultures it’s not consistently rigorous
  2. It is inherently very subjective
  3. It’s often not easily actionable

Consistently rigorous feedback

From my observations, many companies do not have a culture of consistent and rigorous feedback.

It is on you to push your managers and peers for feedback. Without consistent feedback, there will be no feedback loop to modulate your behavior.

Over time, this will severely harm your development and career:

  • You won’t know your strengths and weaknesses.
  • You will be less aware of your abilities and how others perceive you.
  • You won’t get assigned to interesting projects.
  • You won’t get to work with the best people.
  • You will be passed up for a promotion.

Eventually your career will fizzle out with little upward trajectory.

A stellar manager understands the value of feedback and will implement a strong feedback process for you, but you cannot assume this will happen. The risks are too great for you to depend on other people to provide feedback. You need to go out and collect it.

Starting on day 1, make it clear to your manager that feedback is important for your development.

Then, ask them to give you real time feedback when possible.

Immediately after a meeting, presentation, or any milestone, ask your manager to pull you aside and give you immediate positive or constructive feedback on your work. By receiving feedback in the moment, you are closing the feedback loop quickly and accelerating your learning. This makes a huge difference over a few months or years.

Secondly, schedule periodic formal feedback sessions far in advance. Ask your manager to take these sessions seriously and source feedback from various colleagues you work with.

Choosing the time period between feedback session is a tricky balance between work intensity and time. You want to choose a cadence that gives you enough time to produce work output for your manager to judge, while also keeping it as short as possible so you learn quickly.

In high-intensity work environments like management consulting, it’s common to have feedback sessions every few weeks.

During an internship or your first job, you may want to start with a monthly 45 minute meeting to discuss work progress and feedback. After you learn the basics of working in the professional world, you can shift to a longer time horizon of quarterly feedback (once every 3 months).

Find the shortest time period that feels comfortable and makes sense for the pace of work at your company.

Feedback is subjective

Unlike school, there is usually no right or wrong answer in the professional world. Your feedback loop is reliant on your manager’s judgement of your work quality and behavior, which means feedback is inherently subjective.

Therefore, it’s important to work with a manager you trust and respect (although you may not be able to control this when you first start working).

To make things more confusing, as you receive feedback from multiple managers and peers you will likely stumble upon contradictory feedback.

In these situations, it’s helpful to remind yourself that feedback is subjective. Some people will perceive working with you differently than others, and contradictory feedback should be expected.

Ultimately it’s your job to internalize, filter, and prioritize feedback. Try working with a mentor who’s removed from your day to day work to rank the importance and believability of your feedback.

You may find it worthwhile to take certain pieces of feedback with a grain of salt. Just make sure this doesn’t become your default reaction when you hear feedback you don’t like.

The worst thing you can do is become a feedback rejector -- someone who immediately closes up and rejects any constructive feedback because they view it as an attack on their self-esteem.

Feedback is often not actionable

Strong managers give highly actionable feedback with immediately obvious next steps to improve your performance. However, less experienced managers will provide helpful, constructive feedback that’s often not actionable.

This is not an excuse for ignoring their feedback. As mentioned earlier, feedback is too important to put the entire burden on your manager. It is your responsibility to coach your manager towards providing actionable feedback.

A running joke with my friends in strategy positions is that managers will often tell first year analysts to “be more 80/20 with their work”, which is strategy jargon for being hacky and quick with your analysis to get to a good enough answer as fast as possible. In other words, it means be smart about how you use your time.

The problem with this feedback is that telling a recent graduate to be smarter with their time is not particularly helpful. A senior colleague once told me:

“If you knew how to be smarter with your time, wouldn’t you already be doing that?”

Most strategy analysts know it’s important to be 80/20, but that’s a vague skill that’s difficult to improve, especially without concrete examples.

To make constructive feedback actionable, ask your managers for specific examples of instanced in which you underperformed, and develop a plan to improve next time. It is 10 times more helpful if your manager cites a specific examples with the previous 80/20 feedback.

For example, “with project [abc] you spent 1 week figuring out [xyz], which led to [y] outcome. However, you probably could’ve taken this alternative hacky approach to figuring out [xyz], which would have saved you 4 days and still led to [y] outcome. On your next project, look for quicker paths to getting to the same outcome.”

This specific example makes the ambiguous 80/20 feedback much clearer. You can then make this more actionable by asking your manager to review your work plan prior to the next project and brainstorm areas to take shortcuts and be more 80/20.

The second challenge with feedback actionability is that it can be confusing to figure out which areas to prioritize. As recent graduates, our immediate tendency is to invest all our energy into fixing our weaknesses.

But some of the best advice I’ve heard from experienced colleagues at LinkedIn is to focus on honing your strengths, rather than fixing your weaknesses. Your strengths are what will make you stand out, get promoted, and build a brand for yourself.

Of course it’s important to develop some baseline proficiency in your areas of weakness, but you don’t have to -- and will not -- be stellar at everything. So rather trying to become perfectly well-rounded, redirect that energy and double down on your strengths.

Feedback is a gift

Lastly, remember that feedback can be a tough pill to swallow but it’s a gift that allows you to become the best version of yourself.

The next time you walk into work, whether that’s tomorrow or next summer, sit down with your manager and discuss how you both can set up a system for continuous, high-quality feedback.

If you don’t take the initiative to set this up early on, you will be flying blind -- like taking classes and exams without a grade.

However, by learning how to harness feedback loops early in your career, you will grow at an incredible pace.

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