Starting a job can feel like stepping onto a movie set without a script. Everyone knows the plot; the challenge is figuring out the role.

Managers often know what they want from top performers but rarely explain it. That perspective underpins The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right, a new book by HBS research associate Gorick Ng.

Educated during the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, the class of 2021 concludes an unusual academic experience only to face an unsteady global economy. Ng’s book sets out to help these job seekers—a group that’s often clueless even in the best of times—get started on the right foot.

“It really is possible to bottle up life experience and tacit knowledge and deconstruct it to accelerate the learning curve,” he says.

Ng says that unlocking the best career opportunities requires job seekers to achieve three Cs:

  • Competence. Prove that you can do the job well, and people will offer you more responsibility.
  • Commitment. Demonstrate that you are excited about your job, and people will invest in you.
  • Compatibility. Prove that you can get along with your teammates and managers, and people will want to work with you.

Why are all three necessary? Because you may be competent and compatible, but if you don’t send signals that you are committed, your manager could worry that you will quit. Or you may be compatible and committed, but if you can’t do the job, none of that matters.

Ng offers job seekers and new hires the following tips:

1. Look for a company that's hiring like crazy

More than a year into the pandemic, as the economy improves and recruiters begin to ramp up hiring again, Ng advises job seekers to zero in on companies that are advertising multiple openings.


“Companies aren’t hiring to fill a role,” says Ng, who is also a career coach and advisor at Harvard College. “Companies are hiring to solve a problem or achieve a set of goals. And if they are hiring like crazy, they have problems to solve.”

Expand your focus beyond job boards. The more you can understand what capabilities companies need right now, the more likely you will be able to offer assistance. You might even be able to create a role for yourself.

Start off by focusing on compatibility, Ng advises. Reach out directly to someone in the company with a similar educational background or other potential connection and ask for an introduction or advice about getting a job with the company.

“One option to get someone’s attention is to pitch ideas to executives. ‘I noticed you are trying to do this. I have a background in this. I’d love to help you do this,’” Ng says. “I’ve seen people submit formal presentations.”

2. Ask good questions

Keep up with the big picture of what an organization does, what it’s been accomplishing lately, who its competitors are, who its key executives are, and how their roles fit together. This knowledge will help you craft good questions and demonstrate your competence.

Ng says it’s an unspoken rule: When you are asked, “Do you have any questions?” you should always say “yes” and come prepared with a smart inquiry.

A good question is one that you could not have answered on your own. You can approach it in two ways, either by saying, “Here’s my question, and here’s why I’m asking the question” or by saying, “Here’s what I know, and here’s what I don’t know.”

This signals to the employer that you have done quite a bit of homework to get a feel for the organization.

3. Spark connections

Joining a new company without the benefit of in-person meetings can make it challenging to build workplace relationships.

So, instead of checking your email while you wait for colleagues to log on to a Zoom meeting, use that lull to spark a conversation. The topic doesn’t have to be heavy. You can comment on the weather, an observation about work (“We’ve got quite the agenda for this meeting!”), or even just the day of the week (“Happy Friday!”)

After the meeting, follow up one-on-one with a question or to say “thank you.”


“Gratitude and praise are free and can be a way to turn silence into a dialogue into a professional relationship,” Ng says.

If you’re working remotely, consider befriending at least one person who is working on-site. That way, you are aware of what’s happening in the building and have someone to advocate for you when you aren’t in the room.

Also, pick a few important meetings, such as staff retreats, to attend in person. When you are present, be extra visible by greeting as many people as you can.

4. Take ownership

Although every team will want you to be productive as soon as possible, not all teams will know how to provide the necessary support. Ng suggests a couple strategies:

  • Observe others and take notes: If you don’t have regular workgroup meetings, consider asking your manager to suggest meetings you could join to learn how processes work on the team.
  • Volunteer for work: New projects are opportunities to show your competence and your commitment. But be careful not to over-commit. Volunteer only if you have the time to follow through.

5. Claim an unoccupied lane to shine

Most organizations want the same four things:

  • More customers, clients, donors, and fans;
  • Better products, services, and reviews;
  • Faster ways of getting things done;
  • Cheaper ways to keep everything running.

Ng advises that if you can further one or more of these goals, you can boost others’ perceptions of your potential—and your promotability.


Says Ng, “The better you understand what matters to those who matter, the more you’ll be able to align yourself with work that matters. And the more you do work that matters, the more you will matter.”

About the Author

Carolyn DiPaolo is a Florida-based freelance writer and editor.

This article originally appeared in HBS Working Knowledge.