Get your career off to a strong start with this advice for graduates from Dr Anita Sands.
One day you’re the bright young rookie and then all of a sudden you’re the grown-up in the room to whom people are turning for advice. When did that happen?
I increasingly find myself being asked for insights by people at earlier stages of their career. With graduation season around the corner, now seemed like a good time to reflect on the formative years of my career and pull together the 10 most important pieces of advice for graduates that I learned.
1. Don’t confuse what makes you good with what makes you special
First, the bad news. Even when you graduate from a great college, the fact is a lot of equally talented people are graduating too. It’s not enough to be good at what you do or to have achieved high grades; you also need to think about the things that make you special.
What stands out on your résumé? Are there extracurricular activities, hobbies or volunteer work that you’re passionate about? Do you have life experiences that set you apart?
Highlight the traits that differentiate you, and if you don’t have them yet start working on them now. It’s never too late to purposefully shape your personal brand, threading together the strands that make your life different and your value proposition unique.
2. Commit to lifelong learning
Finding answers nowadays is easy. Far rarer are people who know what are the interesting questions to ask.
You may be thinking, having just finished four years in school, that you are at the finish line. Instead, consider yourself at the starting line, and the best way to guarantee a fulfilling and exciting career is to commit to a lifelong journey of curiosity and learning.
Given the rate of change in the world today, the skills you acquired during college are going to have an increasingly shorter half-life. As Alvin Toffler put it: “The illiterate of the 21st century are not going to be those who cannot read or write but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”
3. Prepare for your tipping point
No one expects a 22-year-old to have vast amounts of career experience so, early in your career, you are hired for your potential. However, there comes a tipping point when you can start trading on your experience while you still have plenty of runway ahead.
All the jobs, roles and projects you work on, and the industries and organisations you traverse become your professional portfolio, so choose wisely. Accumulate experience that will have meaningful market value in the future, because once you reach that tipping point it will determine the kind of roles you get and the compensation you can command.
4. Pick your first bosses carefully
Anyone looking back on a successful career can point to one or more people who made an instrumental difference. These are the people willing to place a bet on you, who see something in you that you don’t see in yourself and who have confidence that you can do the job even when you don’t believe it yourself.
A bad boss isn’t going to derail your career early on, but a great first boss can help accelerate your career right out of the gates.
You want a boss who’ll invest meaningfully in your success; one who will spend their time, and their relationship and organisational capital to help you succeed.
5. Build and nurture your network
In time, a great network will prove to be a true personal differentiator so make sure you invest in and leverage yours. Don’t be transactional in your interactions, and focus on building long-term relationships.
My philosophy has been to go into every interaction asking, ‘What can I do to help?’ and never, ‘What can this person do for me?’ Some might call it karma but any help I’ve offered has come back to me tenfold, and every single job I’ve landed, without exception, has been as a result of my network.
6. Develop your self-awareness
Throughout your life and career, the single most important thing to learn about is yourself. Self-awareness is the gift that keeps on giving as it builds effective social awareness, which helps develop effective relationships.
When interviewing people, I ask them to pick three words someone who likes them would use to describe them. Next question: pick three words that someone who doesn’t like you would use to describe you.
This gives me a real insight into somebody’s level of self-awareness. If you are not able to say how you rub people the wrong way or how you come across to others, then you have some work to do.
7. Control your dark side
People don’t derail owing to their weaknesses; they derail because of taking their strengths to an extreme.
Every strength has a dark side and it’s critical that you know where the line is. For example, I’ve always valued my communication skills, but the downside of being a great talker is that I’m often a lousy listener. The same goes for people with lots of confidence – cross over to the dark side of confidence and you end up with arrogance.
Don’t let your strengths run amok to your detriment.
8. Be a good mentee
At this stage, when you are first cultivating mentors it’s important to practise the art of being a good mentee.
Be respectful of people’s time, and approach mentoring sessions with humility and vulnerability. Always prepare for the meeting and come with one or two thoughtful questions. Be open to feedback, learning, and criticism, and, no matter what, always follow up with a handwritten ‘thank you’ card.
Never forget that it’s a sign of strength, not weakness, to ask for help when you need it.
9. Your critics are your best friends
Receiving feedback – whether it’s from mentors, bosses or during a performance review – is an acquired skill.
The most natural reaction to negative feedback is to become defensive and provide a litany of rationalisations for your actions. Instead, see this kind of feedback as a gift.
Had it not been for the many mentors and bosses who clipped my wings in order to steer me to safety, I would be here relaying my version of Icarus’s story. The day your boss stops telling you how you can improve is the day they think you’ve gone as far as you can. So, keep an open mind and take the feedback on board, knowing that it’s telling you just as much about the person giving it as it is about yourself.
10. Growth comes with growing pains
It would be disingenuous to tell you that the path ahead is always going to be straight up and to the right. Life is not only going to take you in directions you never expected, but there will be twists, turns, obstacles and failures that you won’t anticipate and likely won’t enjoy.
To this day, I remind myself that there is no growth without growing pains. There’ll be ups and downs, neither of which will last. Everything you learn is something you too can teach one day.
Dr Anita Sands is an independent board director, adviser and public speaker. She regularly comments on board-related issues, technology disruption and gender equality.