Years ago, I worked with a student named Alex. When he first interviewed with my company, he was rough around the edges. But we needed to fill a training class fast, so we gave him a shot.
I assigned the group a tough task: to memorize an essential part of our training manual in about 12 hours. I’ve given this assignment to hundreds of people, and only two have ever completed it. Alex was one of them.
So we selected him for our sales team. We looked past his long hair and tattoos, coached him on presentation language, and believed in him and his abilities, despite his tough background. In his first 10 days, he made $6,000 in sales (which is comparatively exceptional). He went on to become an assistant manager. It might sound like a cliché, but from Alex, I learned not to judge a book by its cover.
I’ve worked with college students and other entry-level employees for 19 years, and I still learn new things from them all the time. Although I’d assumed that I would be the one teaching them about the world, they’ve taught me how to be a better manager, a better worker and a better person—and they can do the same for you.
Here are three lessons I’ve learned from managing entry-level employees that you can use in your everyday life:
1. It’s important to care about others’ stories.
A couple of years ago, we worked with a former football player. He was confident, intelligent and impressive—the kind of guy who could walk through the rain and not get wet. He presented so well in training, I assumed he had all of his material on lock. But when he didn’t catch on quickly, I started pushing him instead of digging deeper into why.
I ended up pushing him right out the door. I hadn’t taken the time to learn who he truly was, and that resulted in a teary-eyed employee ashamed of his performance because he’d never failed before and didn’t know how to ask for help when he started struggling. When he quit, I realized I needed to talk less and listen more. Everyone has a story.
From a managerial standpoint, take my failing as inspiration to build into your hiring process systematic opportunities to learn about candidates. Deeply learn. Make a stronger effort to get to know your higher-ups, co-workers, vendors, industry colleagues and even new acquaintances in your personal life. Ask questions like, “What hardships have you experienced? What is the lens through which you see the world? What are your aspirations for the future, and what do you need to get there?” Questions like these can unlock new levels of connection, loyalty and relational equity that you might have been taking for granted.
2. Be eager to learn, and you’ll be prepared for anything.
Confidence can only go so far. An eagerness to learn, however, will take entry-level employees well beyond their next jobs. When I interview young professionals, I almost always ask, “Why should I hire you?” I’ve received a bunch of answers, but one really made me smile: “I might not be the most impressive on paper, but you’ll never have to tell me the same thing twice.”
The employee who gave me that answer was an awesome learner, always ready for more. And she inspired the same thirst for new knowledge in me (I’ve since uttered “you’ll never have to tell me twice” several times myself). A passion for knowledge is the ultimate competitive advantage in the marketplace. It keeps me up-to-date on my industry, ensures that I can take on new challenges, and equips me for a future rife with innovation and enthusiasm.
To adopt this professional learner mindset into your life, subscribe to thought leadership newsletters and email briefs. Keep an ongoing “to-read” list to ensure you’re not defaulting your spare time to mindless television or the front page of Reddit. If you’re not a reader, consider picking up a hobby that requires knowledge you don’t yet have. Nothing sparks an educational flare like genuine curiosity.
3. Combining vulnerability and transparency leads to trust.
One young woman I manage gives me “just so you know” updates. She’ll let me know what’s going on with her, which in turn helps foster empathy from me. She’s helped me learn that transparency really is the best policy.
Furthermore, there is tremendous power in combining transparency with vulnerability. When many of my young employees take the lead on something, they’ll openly admit to their co-workers or clients that it’s new and oftentimes uncomfortable for them. They won’t try the hardheaded “act as if” policy made popular by their bosses. I’ve observed their audience open up and cheerlead in a way they never would have if I were taking the lead. Vulnerability spirals its way into authentic conversation and progress.
Take that openness to heart. Be more open with your boss, manager or peers about the way you think, why you make the decisions you make and what’s going on in your life. Heck, even chatting about these topics with your family more often could be beneficial. Sharing more about yourself with others can bring you closer; it shows people they can trust you, and you’ll never feel like you’re being anyone other than yourself. Try sharing a little bit about your inner workings in your next meeting—you very well might level-up your personal brand.
I’ve learned incredibly valuable lessons from my time working with entry-level employees, and I hope you take those lessons to heart as well. And the next time you get a chance to work or talk with someone in an entry-level position, keep an open mind and humble outlook, and you’ll be on your way to your own personal and professional growth in no time.