An A–Z Guide for the Fresh Graduate

By Kan Siew Ning, Adjunct Faculty, SMU Lee Kong Chian School of Business and School of Information Systems

‘Tis the season for graduation. My heartiest congratulations to all the graduating students whom I’ve had the privilege of sharing a classroom with. Undergraduate life is full of ups and downs—most of you would be relieved that you have survived and some of you will rejoice that you have done well. Whichever the case, you have just reached a significant milestone in your life.

As is my custom, I write an advisory message each year to all graduating students who will be starting work soon. And this year, instead of the usual alliteration, I have chosen the A to Z approach. Wishing all of you a successful career ahead in the next 30 to 40 years!

So let’s begin…

Adjunct Faculty Kan Siew Ning

Attitude. One of the most important things you need to do well in at the workplace is to have a positive and thankful attitude. Bosses usually like positive-minded workers more than people with negative and complaining attitudes.

Broaden your horizons by reading widely; travel when you can, talk to people living in other countries and cultures, and learn from people in other fields of work to see how you can improve yourself as a person and do better in your career.

Cake. You cannot have your cake and eat it. You cannot have a top-notch career, and be a good spouse, a good parent, a good son/daughter all at the same time. Why? Because you have only 24 hours in a day (see: Time)—spend it wisely to maximise your happiness (see: Happiness).

Drilling. Every person will find a new thing difficult to do—be it having your first subordinate to care for and nurture, or writing and delivering a speech, or giving a press briefing, or doing a presentation to your CEO for the first time. Over time and with much practice (drilling), you will gradually become better. Compare LKY’s speeches in 1965 and in 1985—they get better over time and all due to having the discipline of drilling and perfecting the ‘kungfu’ (see: ‘Kungfu’ below). There are no shortcuts.

Ethics. By now, you ought to have a clear ethical compass that will help you withstand a lot of temptations to bend (or break) the rules at the workplace. It is a slippery slope from following the rules to bending the rules and finally to breaking the rules. My advice is: don’t go down the slope.

Fairness. Do not start your career thinking that all companies and bosses are fair—far from it. From my personal experience, only about seven in ten bosses are fair—get used to it. The day you were born was the day life started being unfair—life is not fair because we live in an imperfect world. Don’t fret over unfairness because it will only sap your much-needed physical and mental energies, and will distract you from the real work and bettering your own kungfu (see: ‘Kungfu’ below).

Give back to society. SMU students would be familiar with your 80 hours of community service project (CSP). But your contribution to the community need not stop at graduation. Find some time each year to do more for the under-privileged who live among us—it does not matter whether you do it in cash or in kind—just do it. Because it is good for your personal well being—doing things to help people without asking for anything in return.

Happiness. You cannot “photocopy” somebody else’s journey to happiness simply because what makes your friend happy may not make you happy… you are, after all, different people. If you have a great affinity for children and want to have a big family, it may make you happier than having a lucrative career that pays you very well. If you have no intentions of getting married due to various reasons, you may be very happy chasing after every rung in the career ladder until you reach the top. Be clear what really makes you happy in life and chart your career accordingly.

Intellectual stimulation. Remember to feed your brain even though you may not touch another textbook for the rest of your life. Newspaper articles and good Internet articles are not really textbooks, but still provide some intellectual stimulation. If you are not adverse to reading books, visit the library at least once a month to borrow one book (to start off with). Do not deprive your brain of brain food.

Job. Learn to differentiate between a job and a career. A job is something you do to earn money to pay the bills, but not necessarily something you enjoy doing because either the nature of the work does not suit you, or the office politics (later) totally drains your energies. A career is somewhat like the sweet spot in your tennis racket—it is something you enjoy doing because you are skilled in that particular type of work and you look forward to coming to work even on a Monday.

Kungfu. Also known as skills and competencies, this has to be honed day by day. You will become better at doing something if you have the resolve to hone your kungfu every day regardless of whether the task is small or huge. It could be marketing skills, research skills, presentation skills or project management skills. Even Wong Fei Hung and Ip Man had to practice kungfu every day, though they were at the top of their career ladders.

Lifelong Learning. Most of you would have heard me repeat this to you a few times in class—so this is me nagging again. Do set aside time to learn and not just do fire fighting at the office. After graduation is actually the best time to learn because you are free from assignments, tests and exams. Remember to prioritise time for learning, and if you are up to it, consider doing a postgraduate degree.

Money. You can approach money from two perspectives—make it your Master or make it your Slave. If money is your master, I feel very sorry for you because you are going down the road to misery. If you make money your slave, then you are on the road to greater happiness. Do not let money master you. A good litmus test is whether you would accept a job that pays half a million dollars a year but requires you to consistently work 15 hours a day and/or require you to do unethical things.

Natural. Be yourself and not try to imitate someone else wholesale. Yes, do have good role models that you can look up to but you have to be true to yourself. My advice to most people is to first put your hand to your heart, and ask yourself whether something you are about to do is really second nature to you, or if you are forced to do it because the job requires it to be done that way. If you do the “wayang show” too often, one day you will not recognise yourself in the mirror—so be natural, be yourself.

Office Politics. Even in the best companies, there will be (toxic) office politics—you have to learn to manage it or it will manage you. If you are in the boss’ “In Group” (LTB students should remember this), well and good, but if not, then learn to deal with the unfairness—this is just life at the workplace. Tackle office politics according to the ethical compass (see: Ethics) you have set for yourself and stick with its direction even when huge waves of office politics threaten to overwhelm you—your ethical compass will provide a solid anchor against such thunderstorms.

Promise only what you can deliver. It is always better to under-promise and over-deliver rather than the other way round. And this is good practice for all areas of work—be it in sales and marketing or engineering work.

Question. Learn to question everything respectfully. Question assumptions, question the rationale for decisions, question the approach to doing things (whether there is a better way). Learn to stretch your brain by asking questions at the office or whenever you read a book, a news report or an Internet article. The 5Ws and 1H would be a good framework to use for generating useful questions.

Respect. Give respect where it is due, and sometimes even where it is not due. Even if you disagree vehemently with your boss or colleagues, give them respect and maintain the relationship at a professional level. Don’t spread gossip in the office and avoid bad mouthing people you don’t like—you are better than this. And over time, if you conduct yourself this way, more people will respect you increasingly—they may not like you but at least they will respect you.

Save for a rainy day. Indulging in retail therapy may give you instant gratification but the pleasure will not last; spend only if you have to and save for a rainy day. Developing a good savings habit at the start of your career will allow you to have a good nest egg for an earlier retirement or give you spare cash to take a two-month vacation after working for 10 years, or to take two years of no pay leave to look after young children or do your postgraduate degree.

Time. Ask any person above the age of 50 and most of them will tell you that money cannot buy time. If you lose money due to a career setback or bad investment, you have a chance of working harder to earn it back (provided you have good Kungfu). Time, once spent, can never come back to you. Spend your time wisely because each of us only has 24 hours in a day.

Un-informed. AKA being blur (in Singlish). Do not be un-informed about the world around us and the society we live in because it is ever-changing and sometimes the rapid changes may affect your career and future happiness. Read widely. Stay abreast of global developments in technology, business, government and society. Watch out for new trends that may turn out to be the next, Google, Wikipedia, Uber, AirBnB, digital camera, or electric car.

Vim & Vigor. Try to be enthusiastic in all that you do, and do it with high energy. One of the keys to have high energy is to first develop a healthy body—eat healthily, exercise regularly and feed your brain with “good food”. It is important to also have a positive attitude (see: Attitude) towards life and work.

Work-life balance. If you do not focus on this at the beginning of your career, be assured that the work will increase to occupy the free time you have not prioritised. And many work-life integration measures are designed to hoodwink workers—be not deceived. You need to detox yourself from work at least once a year and for more than five days each time. Detox means no work-related emails and WhatsApp messages, and no phone calls with bosses and colleagues during the detox period. This practice will make you a happier person, a more effective worker, improves your mental health, and enhance relationships with family and friends.

X-ray (examine) everyone you meet at the work place. In the office, you will meet all sorts of people. The enemies are usually easy to detect and you should be grateful that you can identify them early and clearly so as to protect yourself against the “knives” they may throw at you. It is more difficult to differentiate real friends and fair-weathered friends. From my personal experience, some fair-weathered friends masquerading as real friends are only detected a decade or more later. So be wise and be circumspect.

Yesterday is over and will never come back again. If you have done something right, rejoice, celebrate and learn from the good experience. If things did not go well or ended up a disaster, regret will not allow you to reset and “start a new game” for yesterday. So don’t waste time dwelling on it—learn to move forward either confidently or, if not possible, move forward wisely having learnt lessons from the hard knocks of yesterday.

Zoom in on the details. Having a strategic mind, and a “helicopter that flies at 25,000 feet” is a skill worth developing. In addition to that, it would be even better to have a good eye on the details because sound strategy only makes good plans, but going into the details would increase the chances of a successful implementation of the strategic plans. Develop the good habit of walking the ground and fleshing out the details even as you fly at 25,000 feet.


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