How to approach your first job

Your first job. Strategy and what to look for.

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What do you look for in a job? What is the best strategy

You’ve graduated from school, and it’s time to start looking for work. How you approach this important decision is critical to success in your career and therefore your finances. In this blog post, I want to run you through my first job, what I learned from it and how I leveraged it to grow in my career. Then, we will hear from Calvin Oliphant, a recent graduate from the University of Victoria in British Columbia, to get first hand perspective on what the job market looks like today, and how he is approaching his job hunt. Enjoy!

My first job, in retrospect

When I was going to school at McGill University, I learned that it was customary for business students to secure an internship in the summer between the third and fourth year of an undergraduate program. I always like to tell the story of how I secured my internship, because I think it gives people context into what a little grit and determination can do in the business world.

It was the summer of 2006, and I was working in an administrative role at an insurance company in Vancouver. By then I had selected my major as accounting and so I knew that the best course of action was to land an internship role at one of the “Big Four” chartered accountancy firms. For those who don’t know, McGill University is in Montreal QC. I lived in Vancouver and really wanted to work in Vancouver upon graduation, and so I knew it would be a little tricky to land a job locally when I was away studying in Quebec 8 months a year. I knew I had to act while I was in town during the summer of 2006 to make sure I was all set for summer 2007. So during the summer I started my quest to interview at all of the Big Four firms, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, KPMG, Deloitte and Ernst & Young. I called HR people. I scoured the internet. I tried connections. I even went to each firm’s office tower to see who I might meet.

Ultimately, my stroke of luck was that Ernst & Young (EY as its now called) employees had security badges in order to access their offices. Each person’s badge was usually attached to their belt for easy grabbing and swiping at each door in the office. The badges had a bright red “EY” on them. So when I went to the EY tower in downtown Vancouver, it was easy to tell who worked for EY when they walked out of the elevator for lunch. So I loitered in the lobby waiting for EY badges to come out of the elevator. Eventually I started walking and talking with a guy with a badge. His name was Grant and he was kind enough to give me a business card (probably to get me to go away). I followed up, thanking him for his generosity and so forth, and he ended up passing me along to HR (again probably to get me off his plate). I had some great discussions with the HR manager at the firm (her name was Lindsey) and managed to secure myself an interview with a partner (his name was Scott). At the end of the summer, I had myself my offer for my internship in 2007. I felt like I was on top of the world! I remember the kindness of everyone involved during that summer in 2006 and I try to pay it forward when people ask me for advice on my career and show me they have the same determination to build a career.

Anyway, I started at EY in June 2007. I didn’t leave until August 2016. EY is a massive company. Tens of billions of dollars in revenue. Hundreds of thousands of employees in hundreds of countries. It provides accounting, auditing, tax, consulting, transaction and other services to clients big and small all around the world. What better training ground to grow my knowledge and set myself up for my career. While I was there I was fortunate enough to travel to clients in places like Albuquerque, New York, Toronto and Houston. I worked with client contacts and EY teams in London, Hong Kong, China, Denmark and the Channel Islands. I worked on audits, reviews, tax returns and prospectus’. All of this experience really broadened my horizons into how businesses function, how their business models make money and how their workflows efficiently kept their teams busy. But do you want to know the #1 thing I learned in my 9 years at EY? It was a tidbit of advice given to me by a partner who counselled me through my years as a Manager. His name is Ken. Ken told me that while everyone is working in the business, the most successful people work on the business.

Ever since then, I’ve been trying to balance my work between everyday tasks that need to get done (working in the business) and thinking big picture about how I can improve the company’s processes, build its network, attract new clients or vendors and identify opportunities for growth. This is the mindset that results in meaningful value creation for the business, which in turn makes the people responsible valueable. Therefore, to me, the #1 focus of your first job should be to grow your skillset and knowledge base of how the company you’re working in “works” so that you are able to identify ways to improve the business while you are there, as well as take your knowledge onto future roles to help those companies improve their businesses. If you can do this, you’ll set yourself head and shoulders above your peers who are focused on working “in” the business.

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A Discussion with Calvin Oliphant

  • Tell the readers about yourself and where you’re at in your career.

            I grew up in Calgary Alberta, and over sixteen years I’ve become accustomed to having my life revolve around school, waking up each morning with the same routine day in and day out. As a recent university graduate however, I realize there is no longer a given structured routine for me to follow each day. What I accomplish now isn’t driven by the need to achieve a good mark but the desire to derive value from a meaningful career. I graduated from The University of Victoria with a B.A. in Economics, and a minor in Business, but in hindsight knowing what I know now perhaps I may have taken a different route. Only during the past year, likely due to the isolation in the pandemic lockdowns, I’ve been able to reflect on what subjects I’ve thoroughly enjoyed and which industry I’m most passionate about. Truthfully, I seldom enjoyed my econ classes, instead finding finance and real estate to be more intriguing.

            By shadowing my father, who works in personal wealth management, and my uncle who’s a leasing broker, realtor, and manages his own portfolio of multi-family and commercial real estate, I’ve been able to finally set my sights on a career in real estate development that I’m truly passionate about. I am now tasked with building relationships and educating myself as much as possible through various resources. I listen to audiobooks, podcasts, watch YouTube videos, find online classes etc., the ability to self-educate has never been easier and I believe will be very beneficial as I begin my career.

  • How are you looking for your first job?

I think it was during my first year of university that I attended a conference in Calgary hosted by Brett Wilson, who was one of the dragons on Dragons Den. After his presentation I went up to get a signature for his book and he asked me “What was the most important part of my presentation?”. Of course, I panicked and drew a blank not knowing the answer. He explained the importance of networking, how anytime he has an idea, needs funding or even advice, he can simply pick up the phone and within minutes have someone ready to help. I’ve heard this idea countless times by nearly every successful person I know, telling me to build relationships and put myself out there.

While applying online via Monster, Workopolis, Glassdoor or any of the countless job boards can work, I’ve chosen to simultaneously focus on reaching out to leadership in order to make myself known. Connecting over LinkedIn, sending emails, arranging Zoom meetings all help slowly build connections with industry professionals and can greatly reduce the chance of my resume being lost in the stack. It feels like a slow process but it’s important to not get discouraged, inevitably not everyone I reach out to will be willing to help, but those that do can offer, and already have offered some of the most important advice I’ll ever receive and provide opportunities I’ll never find posted online.

Research which companies you like, what sort of work you could offer, and simply try to contact someone within the organization. For myself, I currently focus on larger international real estate development and investment firms like JLL, Colliers International, or Cushman & Wakefield. Although these are only three of the thousands of firms across the globe, so the more I contact the greater the chance of opportunity there is.

  • What do you hope to gain from your first job?

Quality experience and knowledge gained from my first job are far more important than the salary. I have no desire to achieve a large initial paycheque and would much rather be given the opportunity to gain valuable advice and learn from those I’d be working with. Furthermore, working in a large organization would give greater access to resources and allow me to form more long-term connections that again will be far more beneficial than a higher starting salary. With a glass half full mentality, the pandemic has been a blessing as it allowed me to greatly reduce my general monthly expenses. As classes transitioned to online, I moved back home from Victoria in with my parents as did the majority of my peers, eliminating rent payments, grocery bills, and other miscellaneous university associated costs. As a result, I can focus on finding a position that can offer me the greatest experience and knowledge with less emphasis on the financial compensation.

  • What are the key compensation aspects you’ll look for?

Nevertheless, it is important to note which aspects of compensation are beneficial and can add value to the position. Variable pay in the form of performance bonuses, commissions, or overtime would be incentivizing and could contribute to putting in more hours. More importantly I’d be on the lookout for common employee benefits like health and dental, paramedical, and training expenses.

Equity-based compensation such as employee stock options would be another great aspect if offered and help build my personal portfolio. RRSP matching contributions are another form of compensation incentivising a steady annual investment schedule based on a share of my salary. I think aspects such as these are a great way to ensure I’m investing income regularly and avoiding unnecessary expenses.

      Above these forms of financial compensation however, I’d be more interested in intangible benefits like mentorship programs, opportunities to travel, a desirable work schedule, or access to various training programs. Anything that gives me a better opportunity to grow my skillset and network with new people would be highly valuable in my eyes. I strongly believe the best things my first job can offer in terms of additional compensation are those that will provide me with more opportunities in the long run.

  • How long do you think you should stay in your first role?

Personally, I expect to stay at my first job for a minimum of 2-3 years, however, this is subject to change depending on the position and opportunities it provides. A few years gives time to develop meaningful relationships with hundreds of others and offers plenty experience to become confident in my respective industry. If the position shows no signs of further growth or provides little opportunity for taking on new roles and responsibilities after this initial period, I would then consider moving on to one that does. On the other hand, I am more than happy to remain in the same position for well over 3 years providing I can continuously develop my skillset, meet new people, and actively engage in new projects.

What’s important to consider is maintaining the relationships I’ve built at a specific firm if I decide to leave after a few years. The last thing I want is to develop a negative reputation whereby employers could see me as selfish or unable to commit. It’s easy to burn bridges and establishing a reputation for loyalty is difficult if your rate of turnover is higher than others. Therefore, if I do choose to leave my first position within 2-3 years, I’d first ensure beforehand that my next one will provide long run opportunities and new areas for improvement.


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