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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Changing Jobs

Thrown Into the Deep End? 4 Ways to Survive Sink-or-Swim Training

On the first day of my new corporate job, I expected a strategically laid out, step-by-step training plan, which would flawlessly transition me from timid newbie to confident, competent professional.

What I actually received was a swift shove into the deep end of a bottomless pool of information. To my dismay, my company didn’t have a formal training plan—new employees were just supposed to jump in, learn as they went, and do whatever it took to keep their heads above water.

Is this the ideal way to do things? Probably not. But unfortunately, sink-or-swim training is the norm at many workplaces. So, how can you survive—and more importantly, succeed—without getting overwhelmed or over-stressed? After being on both sides of the table (both as a new employee, and later, as a manager at the same company), I can tell you that it’s not going to be easy—but with these tips, you can make it.

1. Make Friends Quickly

When you don’t have a trainer by your side, your saving grace will be a few go-to co-workers who you can approach with your questions. Your teammates probably had similar panic-inducing training experiences, so they’ll likely be willing to lend a sympathetic hand to help get you settled. So, strike up friendly conversation from the get-go, because when you can’t remember how to access your voicemail or find a client’s account in the CRM software, you’re going to need the help of someone who does it regularly.

However, keep in mind that while your team is a great resource, training you isn’t necessarily part of your co-workers’ job descriptions. While they’ll probably be happy to answer a few questions, they won’t be able to dedicate a huge chunk of their time to explain every detail of the job. So, forge a connection with as many of your teammates as you can—you’ll be able to evenly distribute your questions and, more importantly, develop relationships and a culture of teamwork along the way.

2. Put in the Extra Effort

Sure, the rest of your team may leave the office at 5 on the dot, but if you’re truly committed to succeeding in a trial-by-fire environment, you're going to have to put in a little extra effort until you’ve grown more comfortable in your new position.

This looks a little different for everyone, depending on your specific role and the field you’re in. For example, if your position requires you to learn detailed processes, maybe you need to take notes throughout the day, then set aside time in the afternoon to type up a summary of each thing you learned. Maybe you just need a little extra quiet time in the morning before everyone else arrives to make sense of the mess of files stacked on your desk. No matter what approach you choose, putting in a little extra time and effort in these first few weeks will make a huge difference in your learning curve.

3. If You Can’t Find What You Need—Ask

As I struggled during my first few weeks on the job, I’d watch my boss bustle from meeting to meeting without a glance toward me, and I couldn’t help but think, “Does she even know she has a new employee?”

Here’s what I quickly learned: Instead of pouting at your desk, waiting for your manager to come ask if you need something, take the initiative to approach her. It’s intimidating to ask your new boss for help, but it’s important, particularly if you’re having a hard time learning something important or can’t track down the resources you need to finish an assignment. Remember, even though she’s busy, she wants you to succeed.

That said, when you ask, be specific. You may be tempted to approach her with a broad “So, what should I do now?” But considering she may not know exactly what you’ve already learned and what you still need to tackle, it’ll be hard for her to provide direction.

Instead, try, “I’m getting ready to dig into a client’s account, but I’m not too familiar with our customer service policies. Is there a training video I can watch, or a specific employee I can shadow to learn more?”

4. Jump Right In

I’m typically very timid in new situations, and I like to have as much information as possible before I start on an unfamiliar task—if I’m going to do something, I want to do it right the first time! So imagine when, on my third day at my new job, there was an angry client on the phone and my boss volunteered me to jump on the line.

I tried to protest (“But I don’t know what I’m talking about!”) and even suggested a compromise (“Can Sam take the call, and I’ll listen in? That way, I’ll be prepared for the next one”). But it wasn’t up for discussion—the call was mine.

And I’ll be honest: It wasn’t pretty. I didn’t convey confidence, I stammered through my words, and I had to put the client on hold—several times—to ask co-workers how to handle specific questions or issues. But, no matter how terrible it was, the worst was over—and the only way to go was up.

Unfortunately, when you’re in a sink-or-swim position, you’re not always going to be fully prepared when you face unfamiliar tasks. So you can either fruitlessly wait (or in my case, beg) for sufficient instruction, or you can embrace the uncertainty and jump in. Of course, don’t go crazy—offering a customer a full refund without knowing company policy probably isn’t a great idea—but go ahead and take a call from a client, or take your best shot at putting together a report you’re not familiar with. You may not do it perfectly, but you’re going to impress your team a lot more than if you had refused to try at all.

Needless to say, you’re going to feel stressed—and that’s normal. But if you relentlessly pursue the end goal (i.e., finally figuring out what in the world you’re supposed to be doing and how to do it) with confidence and initiative, you’ll make it out of the deep end. Probably sooner than you think.

Photo of woman working courtesy of Shutterstock.