You were promised that once you earned your degree, your career would fall into place as easily as slipping a suit on in the morning. But you might be realising that getting a job is as hard as building a house, and all those years of university have only just established the foundations for your future career.
What if you can’t find a job in your chosen field of study or the job you’ve spent so long qualifying for doesn’t turn out to be what you’d envisaged? It’s a depressingly disheartening feeling.
It’s important to take a proactive approach. You can’t change everything you think is unfair about the world, but you can evolve yourself in order to adapt and thrive. It’ll take some time and effort, but see it as an investment in your career and earning potential and as vital to success these days as a university degree.
You are probably already working as your own public relations coordinator on Facebook in order to present a certain image of yourself to others, so why wouldn’t you also take control of improving and marketing yourself as a premium product to employers.
The first step in your personal product development is not to understand the customer (employers come later), but to understand yourself.
‘Know thyself’ – that ancient Greek maxim has persisted for thousands of years for good reason – it’s the fundamental first step for success and happiness. By clearly identifying your strengths, weaknesses, passions and purpose in life, you can find your niche, ensure you’re heading in the right direction and sell yourself more effectively.
This process is like going running to improve cardiovascular fitness or lifting weights to become stronger. Having a solid understanding of what you have to offer and continually relating your plans and actions back to your ultimate goals will ensure that you can clearly communicate your value to employers and don’t find yourself in a dead-end job you hate.
Early on in my career, I spent a lot of time thinking about who I was and what I wanted to be. I told my boss I wanted to work in the Amazon jungle and learn to speak French. He thought that was hilarious, but three years later, he was transferred to Brazil and later invited me to set up the company’s office in Cayenne, French Guiana, to take Brazilian geologists exploring for gold in the Amazon jungle using French operations teams. Like most successes in life, it was partly good luck and partly thanks to my commitment to finding out what I really wanted rather than just letting the currents sweep me to where others wanted me to be.
The second task for young job seekers to focus on involves learning how to connect with people and maintain relationships. Research from Stanford University has found that the most important determinant of long term career and business success is a person’s ability to forge close relationships.
This doesn’t mean you have to know Richard Branson to become successful. It means that it’s crucial to be good at creating a connection and getting to know who people really are.
When I look back on how I got my own career break, I’m reminded of a particular chance meeting. I was working as an exploration geologist for a small company and was interested in learning the job, but couldn’t see much purpose or vision in it and I was becoming disheartened. While walking around a deserted old gold mining town, I bumped into another geologist. We quickly built a close rapport and it was then that he started telling me about a company that sponsors geologists on study leave after four years or so of proven service. He subsequently recommended me for the program and four years later I was studying at the Colorado School of Mines on a research project in Brazil – my dream come true.
It’s really important to learn how to make a positive impact in new relationships fast. Research varies on how quickly people form an opinion of a new acquaintance, but the answer lies somewhere between 30 seconds and one tenth of a second. It’s pretty scary when you stop and think about how little time you have to convince someone that you’re worth your salt.
It can even be simple things like positive body language. Luckily for me, I started young with non-verbal communication skills. My school nick name was ‘Grinner’ and it still sticks today. There is no better way to start communicating than with a smile, as long as it’s sincere – there’s nothing more exciting for me than meeting someone new and getting to know them. If you ask the right questions, everyone has an interesting story to tell.
It’s vital to understand the impression you make on other people, so you can work on your presentation and modify your approach in certain situations. This requires researching and practising interpersonal techniques.
Learn about different ways of approaching people by reading up and observing those charming souls who have that certain je ne sais quoi. Try stuff, then keep what works and throw away what doesn’t. If you’re subtle, you can harmlessly experiment in all sorts of social situations. Sometimes the results might really surprise you.
This experimental approach will open you up to the bigger game. You can take small incremental steps at low risk and see how people react to you. How are they taking your approach? Do they perceive you as inauthentic and take a step back, or do they move towards you and ask you a personal question.
Recently, I was sitting through an intense argument, wondering how I could turn things around without contributing to the tension. I took note of everyone’s posture and then realised I too had a tense posture. So I relaxed my shoulders, reminded myself of how relaxed I am with my family and then started speaking as if to an old friend. My welcoming approach changed the mood instantly, new thoughts came to mind and the conversation took a more positive direction. What I actually said didn’t matter. It could have just been a well-intentioned joke to get people laughing. It’s how I said it that counted. Try it sometime and you might be surprised.
Knowing what works and why will also give you choices. For example, you might not want to play the all-round nice guy in certain situations. You might want to come across as aggressive and edgy in a negotiation where you’re worried about being perceived as a push-over. This is where practice really pays off, because now you can make the choice based on experience rather than a spontaneous over-reaction.
It’s in my nature to be easy-going, so I had to learn to play harder in business negotiations. Many times I’ve had to slip on my ‘cold fish’ personality, tone down my enthusiasm and wait out for a better deal. If you’re patient and you know it’s a seller’s market, then it’s possible to drive your sale price through the ceiling using the right approach.
If this sounds like learning how to sell, then you’re right on the mark. Selling has traditionally copped a bad name, but modern sales techniques are focused on having purpose, listening and empathising with the customer. What I’m talking about though is more than just improving your selling skills; it’s also about developing your self-awareness, communication skills and creativity, which are valued more in our new ideas-based economy than knowledge and, increasingly, university degrees.
Learning sales techniques might seem inauthentic, but I still recommend giving it a try. It’s like trying on a new suit; it might be a little uncomfortable at first, but if you tailor it to your needs, it can be an invaluable asset. What use is a university degree if you can’t sell yourself into a job and then sell your ideas to your employer or to customers?
Now for understanding your customer – potential employers. Employers are always impressed when you can show that you’ve taken the time to research their business, identify their needs and explain the contribution you can make to their goals.
Before going for any job, it’s a good idea to spend a few days researching the company, the industry and thinking of how your assets (which you’re now well aware of) could create value in their areas of need. Look for stock broker reports that talk about what analysts think the industry and the company should be doing. You don’t need to second guess your interviewer, but they’ll be impressed if you can demonstrate knowledge about what the company is facing and possibilities for their assets.
Make sure you understand what your job title is commonly understood to involve, so you can align your skills with these activities and position yourself as an expert. Everyone is an expert in something. If you can’t figure out your personal expertise, then ask your friends or a mentor. You might not be Steve Jobs, but we all have talents. I’m thinking of skills like organising people, persuasion and focus. Skills that come from our personalities.
I would highly recommend asking for mentorship from someone who inspires you in your chosen field. As well as the connections they have to offer, an experienced mentor is well placed to help you with these three tasks and answer your hundreds of questions in order to take you from university to a ‘real job’.
One of the great pleasures I derive from mentoring young professionals is seeing them evolve and learn how to achieve their dreams. You might not believe that you’re cut out for the top jobs that you dream of, but I can assure you that every top dog was once a fumbling puppy chasing its own tail. It just takes a bit of strategic planning and perseverance to build your own dream career.
If you’re looking for career advice, or how to make your workforce more innovative, you can read more at www.nickpoll.com or contact Nick Poll on 0417 006 172.
About Nick Poll: With a 28-year career in mining, corporate development and entrepreneurship, Nick is an expert in business and mentoring, with a passion for helping people find their purpose and reach their full potential.