When Tida Jarjou was hired as a temp employee at a broker dealer in Stamford, Connecticut–her first role out of college–she found herself in a team meeting with four white men. “[I] realized I was the only African American and woman on the team,” she told Fast Company. She felt self-conscious. “I was worried that my chances [of obtaining a full-time position] were slim and that the only slots available would go to the white males instead of me,” she says.
But Jarjou did land a full-time job with the company. The week of Thanksgiving, senior management gave its workers the option of working half a day. Most of Jarjou’s colleagues took this option, but Jarjou decided to stay behind to demonstrate her commitment to her work.
She ended up dealing with an angry client, who demanded that their issue be fixed right away. Jarjou knocked on the door of the only other person in the office, who happened to be the company’s CMO. They resolved the matter together. Less than two months into her job, the company offered her a permanent role. She discovered that the CMO had spoken highly of her as she was the only temp who had asked for his help.
As a junior employee, intern, or a temp worker–it can be difficult to gain the attention of senior management, let alone impress them. It can feel even more daunting when many of those senior managers don’t look like you. Two professionals told Fast Company how they navigated this challenge early in their careers .
Perception and presentation matters
Office dress-codes might be on the way out, but it can make a difference in how others perceive you. Charreah Jackson, a senior editor at Essence and author of the upcoming book Boss Bride: The Powerful Woman’s Playbook for Love And Success, told Fast Company that when she interned at the magazine between her junior and senior year, she made a special effort to dress like the editors did. “I just remembered thinking, I never want to signal my age,” Jackson said. By looking like a young editor, rather than an intern, she was presenting herself to be taken seriously.
Jarjou echoed this sentiment. Three years after her job at the broker dealer, she decided that she wanted to transition to the New York finance world. She ended up getting a role as a “floater” for JP Morgan Chase, an associate that filled needs for various investment teams on a short-term basis. Once again, Jarjou had to prove herself to get a permanent position. She answered phones and dealt with clients –illustrating that she was a self-starter who understood the business. “I tried to be as polished as I could. I made sure I really dressed for the job that I wanted. I listened to the conversations that the associates were having. I joined Toastmasters to practice my public speaking and focused on how I presented myself.” She eventually joined a team as a full-time investment associate.
Treat your role like an extended interview
Jackson and Jarjou both treated their temp positions and internships as an extended interview process. Jarjou told Fast Company, “I showed a sense of urgency working as a temp and didn’t rest on my laurels.” At the broker dealer, the workers’ output was measured in the customer relationship management system. “I knew anything that was quantifiable–where I could show my value–was the best way for me to control my output. I knew that I might not have the same social leg up as the white men on the team, but what was in my control was the quality of my work output. I stayed longer, I asked the right questions, and I showed genuine interest in the business.”
Jackson made a special effort to study the industry and the publication during her internship, and later on when she was hired on contract as an editorial assistant (she was eventually made into a full-time online associate web editor a few months later). In addition to making an effort to ask as many questions as possible, she also stayed in touch with different members of the team when her internship ended and she went back to college for her senior year. Every month or so, Jackson would come up to New York from D.C., and organize a meeting with a different staff member from Essence. One day, she was introduced to the new web editor, who happened to be hiring for an editorial assistant at the time. She ended up hiring Jackson.
Keep your ego in check
Jarjou believes that her willingness to be vulnerable was critical to her success. “Had I been so consumed with my ego, worrying about myself and how the CMO might perceive me if I approached him, I would have missed the opportunity to make a positive impression on senior management and wouldn’t have added value to that client’s experience,” she told Fast Company. She also knew that what the CMO thought of her wasn’t something she had control over, and as a result–it wasn’t worth spending her energy on.
Start building relationships before you need them
When Jackson started her internship at Essence, there was one piece of advice from their editor-in-chief that stuck with her–build relationships before you need them. Now that she is on the other side, Jackson said that she is amazed at how many interns don’t stay in touch when they finish their internship, only to contact her when they graduate and are looking for a job. “Every hiring decision is made by a person, [so] you really need to make [building relationships] a priority,” Jackson says. During her internship, Jackson would go out of her way to find commonalities between her and the senior editors, and give (genuine) compliments on their work.
Jarjou agrees. Even when the senior leadership doesn’t look like you, there are always ways to show that you are not so different from each other. “I like to think of it as a matter of education. Consider building rapport with higher-ups and help them to understand you just as much you want to understand them.” She acknowledges that it’s important not to lose yourself and pretend to be someone else in the process, but she had to have an “interest of the majority” in order to find her place there. “It’s a dance that you have to do, you have to figure out what other people are doing. Assimilate to the extent that you’re comfortable. I don’t think it hurts to do that.”