It’s graduation season, and a newly minted group of young people are about to embark on the rest of their lives. And they have lots of questions about that thing in front of them—the world of work—that have seldom been answered during their school years. Often, they didn’t even know what the right questions were. I thought this would be a great time to check in with Mara Weissmann, co-founder of SharpenUrEdge Training® for young adults entering the work force and co-author of TACK: The Young Adult’s Guide To Getting In, Succeeding, and Influencing Others in the Work World.
Mara has some really good advice for young people starting their careers. Pay attention.
Sydney: Everyone talks about millennials being so different than previous generations. What do you think?
Mara: Because of the era in which millennials were raised and educated, they bring to the work world distinct attributes that set them apart from prior generations of workers. Millennials will perform busy work but after they do it for a bit, they want their work to be meaningful and want to move up the ladder quickly and get promoted. They expect a boss who is a mentor, their time to be respected, to learn something new every day, and flexible work hours and location. Millennials want continuous recognition for their efforts and intelligence and a work environment that is friendly, positive, challenging, and social. In my opinion, millennials will change the workplace over time for the better but they will have to do their part to reduce the expectations gap that currently exists in the work world.
Sydney: Are colleges and universities doing a good job in preparing young people for productive lives and careers? What grade would you give higher education on this?
Mara: Certain colleges and universities are doing a great job, as Robert Franek highlights in his new book, “Colleges that Create Futures.” Unfortunately, I see resistance, among higher educators, to accept career/life readiness programs. It’s generally viewed, particularly by liberal arts educators, as “vocational” and inconsistent with the mission to help create enlightened, thoughtful citizens and centers for intellectual development, experimentation and enrichment. Contrary to educators’ beliefs, this training can be designed to be innovative and creative and consistent with higher education’s missions.
A great example of this is Middlebury College’s MiddCORE program (Creativity, Opportunity, Risk and Entrepreneurship) where skills such as leadership, collaboration, strategic thinking, persuasive communication, negotiation, crisis management, financial literacy, idea creation, design thinking, networking and empathy are developed without rubrics but rather, through complex challenges and mentorship.
I think that colleges and universities, universally, will begin to “move the needle” on career/life readiness programs when endowment funds are conditioned upon enhancing career centers and developing curricula for such programs. If pressed to give a grade, I would give a C- since far-reaching benefits from this kind of training are not being realized by the majority of college students and graduates.
Sydney: How can anyone make a good first impression?
Mara: Typically, the first directive asked in an interview or when you meet someone in business is “tell me about yourself.” I find that many experienced professionals can’t succinctly provide a “30,000 foot” overview of their pedigree, career highlights, strengths and reasons for seeking an opportunity. Millennials really struggle with this.
The first thing to do is nail down your “elevator pitch,” which should be 60 seconds or less. In addition to whether you have the technical skills to competently perform a job, employers evaluate you for your coach-ability, drive, temperament and emotional intelligence. Think about and prepare answers to behavioral-based questions that employers may ask. Ask yourself, what value did I gain from that experience? Articulate and convey that value to avoid sounding like a boring list of where you worked and what you did. Finally, there is the like-ability factor. Be friendly, tilt your head slightly when you respond to a question and tell stories to depict your value and experiences, and smile often.
Sydney: What are your top 3 tips for young people starting their careers?
Mara: First, young adults should assess their expectations about the work world. Businesses don’t change as fast as young adults would prefer. Be conscious of the pace of a career path and don’t rush the process of career building. Be accepting of criticism and know when to play your individual role and when to be a team player.
Second, do not tune into WIIFM-What’s In It For Me. Possess an altruistic mentality of “what can I do for my company” not the other way around. Have little expectation of things in return as you start your career (except a place to hang your coat and a paycheck). This “customer/client service” attitude will go a long way and will reap success in the future.
Third, opt for face-to-face and telephone (not email or texting) communications when you can in dealing with your colleagues.
Sydney: What’s your best piece of advice for parents?
Mara: A parent of a college senior told me that she advised her daughter that she had a lot to offer and should hold out for an important first job. I give opposite advice. A first job is not one’s last. When a client is presented with an offer from a legitimate company, after evaluating pros and cons, I, often, recommend to “jump in.” It’s entry-level, likely entailing menial work. It can be a grind, but you will learn a lot, work as part of a team and will gain valuable insights into a company. If that first job doesn’t work out, it can be a great motivator to redefine one’s professional goals.
Advice to Parents: empower your children to make their own decisions, encounter and deal with adversity, and interact with bosses and colleagues who have different social styles. Parents should be good listeners but not enablers of dependency. Developing independence and resiliency are keys to success and our millennials must learn to think on their own, pick themselves up, and dust themselves off after a misstep or setback.