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How to Get a Job and Start a Career – Part 1

A few months ago, I was contacted by my Alma Mater to offer up suggestions on courses they could offer to better prepare their students for the job market. Specifically they wanted to know what skills were lacking in recent graduates. This didn’t surprise me considering the current discussion around the difficult job market and whether the rising cost of an education is worth the expense and debt.

You’ve heard the term “boomerang generation” or “failure to launch syndrome?” This is when young adults move back home with poor or no job prospects, looming debt and in need of their parents financial support. It’s no wonder colleges are trying to find ways to better prepare their graduates.

Courses based on skill are a very good idea, but perhaps we should look a bit deeper into the root of the problem. Too many graduates bank on the value of their diploma and assume a career will follow. Not true, a career is something you earn over many years of mastering and honing your professional skills. As a business owner I have employed hundreds of people and seen my share of great and terrible employees. Including truly great super stars who have come to us right out of college and some who just crash and burn. I believe it all starts way before the degree is earned.

Real Work Experience

The first thing a potential employer will look for is previous work experience and good solid references. Strangely, it appears getting a part time job while you are in high school and college has gone out of vogue for many these days. I’ve heard many parents claim they are doing their kids a favor by keeping them out of the work force for as long as possible so they have time to enjoy their youth.

I’m sorry, but that attitude is short sighted and robs your kid of some potentially wonderful life changing experiences, triumphs and teachable moments. Instead, look at teen employment as an opportunity to give junior a head start in the real world and possibly shortening the length of time he’ll have to work in the long run.

College graduates need to show they not only have work experience, but can “stick to it.” Completing a job well done builds confidence and can actually be fun often creating wonderful memories and lifelong contacts. Experiencing a bit of failure doesn’t hurt either. In the work place, you learn to take criticism (from someone other than your parents) and how to confront conflict. Failing teaches valuable lessons about life, helping to build character instilling empathy and compassion for others, character traits that will become important in leadership roles in the future.

If you can get work in your field of study through internships, that’s great. But don’t rely on the one week a year your Dad has you come clean his office. It needs to be a real job with real responsibilities. Check with your college about placements or use your personal contacts. We have employed many interns at our company, and numerous have gone onto build very successful careers. Holding down a real job teaches general business protocol (like showing up on time), socialization skills, understanding chain of command and respect for team work.

Office work is always a plus – being familiar with tools like presentation binders, phone systems, scanning machines and mastering the latest computer programs (Excel, Word, Adobe and PowerPoint or Keynote) are all very important. Just yesterday a successful commercial television producer lamented that her new college recruits have no idea how to use PowerPoint so she is left to do the arduous task of creating the “production bible” herself, not having time to train the newbies during a fast-paced shoot schedule.

I would never look down on restaurant work and manual labor either. Learning how to serve customers, whether you are serving food or mowing lawns, teaches valuable client service skills. One of my managers skilled at hiring super stars – once told me she always looks for restaurant experience because it is the ultimate pressure cooker job, having to meet immediate deadlines and training you to think on your feet.

Work your connections, be aggressive and make them proud. Almost all my first jobs were through my friends and family contacts, everything from paper route girl (in junior high), a summer job as a nanny, a clothing store clerk, a factory worker, an office assistant, ski instructor and waitress. My first job out of college was working for a TV production company outside of Boston. My boyfriend happened upon a TV production shoot and requested a business card from the Director on the shoot. I then called the poor guy incessantly for 2 months, until he finally agreed to interview me. He promptly hired me as his assistant (firing his not so reliable temp).

My next important career job was in California. New to the area, I scoured the want ads (before the ubiquitous internet). I found a job opening for a sales assistant at a local TV station. Not exactly TV production, but close enough. I used the same method, different coast – calling and harassing the sales manager until he agreed to hire me. Being aggressive works, just don’t become a stalker.

Great Attitude

Enthusiasm and passion for your work is important no matter what you do. If you’re like most people, you will come out of college into an entry level position, you may feel is beneath you. The worst thing you can do is show disdain for your current job or employer. I truly believe you can find fulfillment in any job – just by focusing on being the best at what you do. If you don’t plan on keeping that job forever, your motivation should be to get a great work reference. Or you may find a career path within that company, and work your way up the proverbial career ladder.

My mother taught me the importance of having passion for my work at a young age. When I was in college, she got me a summer job working by her side at a medical supply factory. Her job was to fasten metal sutures to a long thin nylon thread using a high powered microscope. She would sit at her station 8 hours a day, eyes in scope, using a foot pedal mechanism to fasten the thread to the metal suture. She often had bruises around the bridge of her nose from the scope and wore the skin down on her fore-fingers from handling the thin metal pins. My job, by the way, was to insert the finished sutures into clear plastic envelopes, to be sealed by the next person on the line.

Her dedication to perfection was always evident. She showed up early for her shifts, took only her allotted vacation time and took great pride in the excellence of her work. She not only did high quality work, but also produced large quantities of work. I’ll never forget the day the handsome young President came onto the factory floor, greeted me and told me how my Mom set the standard for excellence in his company. My Mom the factory worker, was an important person in her company, pretty cool.

Strong Work Ethic

Not surprising, the next important thing is strong work ethic. Always show up on time, stay late to get the job done, no matter what. One summer, I worked for two attorneys in charge of finding national retail locations for a shoe store chain. Each day, I would scurry out of the building well after my shift had ended, I was typing up important legal documents and wanted to make extra sure they were correct. Mom would be there patiently waiting, happy I was taking the time to do my job right. Then we would rush home, in time for me to change, get a quick bite to eat then drop me at my night job waitressing.

The shoe company was my first office experience. It was very intimidating, all those smart successful people walking around with purpose, I was terrified. But I learned quite a bit about office politics and what it was like working for a large multi-national corporation. After college I decided I would be better suited to work in a small company – and eventually ended up becoming an entrepreneur myself. Had I not had that initial experience, I may have targeted a corporate career path and not be where I am today. Growing up, I never remember hearing my Mom complain about her work. It was years later I realized how important her subtle messages about work ethic were to my future success; she was grooming me for the challenges to come. The lesson; encourage your kids to get jobs and hold them to a high standard of excellence, they’ll thank you for it later.

Be Proactive

I see many employee reviews and the most common thing to trip up a young recruit is not being proactive enough. Don’t confuse this with competence. You can complete a task capably, but miss the next thing around the corner that trips you up. Being proactive means looking at an assignment from every potential angle and then prepare for unexpected. For example, when we prepare for a client pitch, we practice, offering up potential questions a client might ask ensuring we have properly researched answers. We always bring extra materials and back up equipment in case something breaks. Smart clients or employers can see a “wing it” approach a mile away. Want to impress your boss? Do something before she asks you to do it.

Attention to Detail

Lack of attention to detail is the second most common compliant I see in reviews. Double and triple check your work. This applies to any task including taking a phone message to doing complex mathematical calculations.

Don’t make a common mistake – wanting credit for the work you attempted to do – not the quality of the work done. Start paying attention to detail early in your profession. Consistently missing errors and not double checking your work will sink your career. While you may not get fired for it right away, you will be one of the first to go if there is a down turn in the economy.

Writing Skills

We look for graduates who can communicate ideas clearly and effectively in writing. You may have to write up meeting notes or write an email or proposal to your boss or a client. Make sure you use spell check and check your grammar.

If you’re communicating via email, be brief and use bullet points, so the reader can get to the meat quickly. The overuse of email has made communication often unbearable. Do everyone a favor – be brief and don’t over “reply” with non-essential communication.
If you feel your writing skills need upgrading, read more, it’s that simple. The more you read, the more you’ll recognize and replicate good writing.

Be Informed

I sometimes see young adults with massive lack of understanding of world around them. Some do not read newspapers or books (but find the time to know about the Kardashians). Having intellectual curiosity about the world around you is important for critical thinking, as well as dealing with clients, who often have wide and varying interests. This also helps in the art of conversation, which then leads to relationship building.

Oral Presentation

Not all jobs require speaking to large groups, but every job requires expressing yourself verbally. Understanding how to do this well will supercharge your career trajectory.
Speak fluently, drop verbal crutches (like, um, ya know…), as well as getting to the point quickly and succinctly. I saw a quote recently I’m going to post in all my conference rooms; “brevity is the essence of eloquence.” Too often in business, people talk too much and don’t listen (this applies to experienced professionals too). Listen, learn and speak when you have an important point to be made. Let people respond and ask questions and take notes.
Fear of speaking to very large groups has always been a challenge for me, and I still work at it. The best way to stem public speaking fear is to know your material and practice. Take opportunities to speak publically or join a club like Toastmasters. Some of the best public speakers I know were on the debate team in high school or grew up speaking in church or school at an early age.

Great References

It’s straightforward, show up, do great work and when it’s time to leave – do it with grace. Your goal, to get several stellar references, that say you’re a joy to work with and they’d love to have you back.

Always give a minimum 2 weeks’ notice and more if you can when you leave. Especially if you are working in a small company or department, where people are really depending on you, leaving someone in the lurch can dampen even the best work performance. As a matter of practice in my company – we do not give references for anyone who gives less than 2 weeks’ notice. In return I always give new hires more than 2 weeks prior to start if need be.

Never bash your former company or boss, no matter how badly you want to, especially in your next job interview. Always leave with dignity. You will need a reference and you never know who you may run into in the future as a potential client or employer, it could be the person you just bashed. Even if you are let go due to downsizing, if you’ve done a good job, you should still get a good reference. I have some memorable stories of former employee’s blowing it big time. I’m always amazed at their stupidity.

Learn Math and Love it

I know a lot of you liberal arts students don’t want to hear this, but sorry, math is extremely important in most jobs. While it is true there are jobs that don’t require math, they are becoming far and few between.

Most companies will expect you to understand their business financially, and most likely your goals will be tied to fiscal performance. Last week I pitched a new client where we spent weeks reviewing all their business data having to demonstrate a complete mastering of their commerce model. They never taught us that in my advertising classes in college. So if you are not on the business track – take an Excel class and start using it to balance your personal budgets.

Unless you’re living under a rock, you know that the highest paying job opportunities now are in the fields of technology, digital media, finance, engineering and bio technology. So if you’re gifted in math, you may want to reconsider that philosophy major.

Relationships & Mentors

Develop and foster lasting relationships with co-workers, clients and vendors. This is partly related to your references, but goes much deeper. It’s essentially creating a personal bond with co-workers that transcend the work, building trust and intimacy. People who master this also coincidently do great in new business roles. Have you heard the term “Rain Maker?” Rain Makers are the best new business closers and are typically the highest paid individuals in a company.

A mentor is someone you admire and teaches you something useful, and sometimes offers up opportunities for growth. A truly great mentor will tell you the hard truth about the quality of your work and help you strive to be the best. I’ve had several great mentors in my life and all have helped me get to where I am today.

Stay tuned for Part II – Getting the Job.

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