Everyone makes mistakes. In starting your professional life, it’s important to know how (and when) to apologize. While your college life may let you get by with a quick “My bad!” I promise that your colleagues and bosses will quickly write you off if you glibly utter that response. Don’t mistake silence for approval or acceptance of your error.
Someone recently asked me is I could teach a small group of college-bound high school seniors how to set up their LinkedIn profiles. Funny, because we’d just come out of our monthly Lean In Circle meeting where we went through our profiles one by one and updated them. There are a ton of people blogging in detail about tips and it’s definitely a project to think about that first little intro blurb, but I’m just going to give you a quick checklist of things to do for that new empty little profile and link them to other posts that give you some tips on how to do those things.
I had breakfast today with a friend, Brent Stickels, who is a partner in YYES, an agency with offices in Minneapolis and Los Angeles. During our conversation, he mentioned another ambitious, smart friend who’s currently in a great new job at a company, unfortunately with a very disengaged culture. He’d advised her to get out “before you lose your edge.” I thought that was great advice, and worthy of a post.
When we talk about a group’s culture, there are a lot of ways it can go bad. There are toxic cultures, where there’s actively, aggressively unkind (or illegal) stuff going on and it’s unremarkable. There’s bullying and hazing. People stealing ideas, sabotaging other people’s efforts, or blind to the larger picture. If you’re in a group like this, you need to exit, as soon as possible, with some grace. (I’m not going to touch the recent amazon.com blowup—I don’t have any direct intel—but I’ve been working long enough to tell you that in we’re-working-to-change-the-world conversations we universally love to romanticize an extreme work ethic.)
You don’t have to enter the workforce to encounter a bad culture within a group, it’s on even the most idyllic campus. Hazing isn’t just for the Greek system—other groups can be just as nasty in their rituals, nor are all fraternities guilty of this. Part of college is figuring out who you are and what you stand for. (There is more to these four years than getting a job—a really great school is going to help you learn how to make a life.) You’re going to get a lot to think about in the discussion of big ideas in the classroom and during office hours, but you should also be getting it in your non-academic engagements.
In this world no one rules by love; if you are but amiable, you are no hero;
to be powerful, you must be strong, and to have dominion
you must have a genius for organizing.
Bringing order to chaos (aka herding cats) is something you’ve been working on all through high school. If you hadn’t been good at it, likely you wouldn’t be in college right now. And if you’re working your way through school, you already know even more about this one. It’s hard to get control of all the variables in your life. In the working world you’ll need to get your variables and a lot of other people’s to synchronize in order to get things done.
College shelters you a bit from creating time management from scratch—you don’t have to propose meeting times for your classes, locate the various required books and materials from multiple sources,* or find a place to meet and a way to pay the professor. But you’re picking classes that combine into a set of major/minor and general graduation requirements as well as addressing your intellectual curiosity for new subjects. Each semester’s picks fit into the reality that you can only be in one place at one time, prerequisites completion, and physical constraints (you need a enough time to make it from one end of campus to another—even in snow or 105-degree heat) and trying to wrap it all up on the desired four-year schedule. This isn’t something that specifically goes on a resume (although I do see “graduated in three years” noted from time to time and I get the subtext, although perhaps only because I graduated early, too.). Be aware of the skills you’re building—and make sure you are working on these. As college progresses shove your parents out of the process, involve your advisors for advice and as sounding boards, but don’t look to them to move in as replacement helicopter parents. Parents: Start pushing your student to take control. By senior year you shouldn’t be managing anything. Even if you’re underwriting college, you shouldn’t even be making plane reservations. No one in the office will be doing this for your student—they have to learn now, even if they are “too busy.” Move them in freshman year, but unless you’re close and they have no other options don”t move them out or back in. they need to navigate these basic things on their own. Time management, both in the sort- and long-term, is a skill you’ve got to get down.
Those of us in the work world are consumed by meetings. It’s a huge part of getting things done, or NOT getting them done. Sure, your classes have “meetings” but this is a whole other beast. Corporate meetings fall into two categories, much like class sizes.
There are big meetings, when a large group shows up to be lectured at by someone at the front of the room.
The speakers have info they think is vital to convey. By stopping all company work for their Town Hall, All Hands, or monthly webcast, they are really serious. It costs a lot of money to have everyone stop working at the same time. Pay attention. Just as a giant introductory class might not be the most interesting part of a given academic subject, it’s foundational for everything that will come later. You still need to listen and make sure you’re getting the material down. You’re in no position to guess what’s relevant and what’s not. It’s also a great chance to get a feel for the larger culture in any new job (or with any new client or vendor). How do the folks on stage dress? What do they look like? I’d take it to heart if I only saw really old white guys on the stage or you’re in marketing but the only people ever on stage are the folks from finance and operations. There’s a subtext there.
Half the world is composed of people who have something to say and can’t,
and the other half who have nothing to say and keep on saying it.
Let’s assume you’re in the half that has something to say. You’re used to just saying it, but you’ve experienced a fairly forgiving audience—your peers, professors, and parents. (You are already used to competing with the electronics in the audience’s hands–that’s a good skill.) Out here in the real world it’s a whole new game. Everyone is strapped for time, so you’ve got to be concise. Everyone is juggling a lot of different roles and responsibilities: You’ve got to hit the audience at the right time. There can be a lot of different audiences so the words and venues you use may well be different for peers, upper management, and outside audiences. You need to practice to be good at these things. Work with similar groups on campus and get experience with a less safe audience or start asking a friendly group for feedback. (Ask your parents a serious question where they get to help with your future—they’ll be thrilled. Unless you have recovering helicopter parents—more on that in a future post.) In the interest of cutting to the chase: I’ve created a short list of the things you need to consider in communicating with other people and I’ve added context with the kinds of opportunities I think you can find on your campus.
In the Fortune CEO Daily newsletter today Editor Alan Murray reports from Brainstorm Tech that disrupter companies, all being disrupted themselves, talked primarily about “changing cultures and the people skills needed to change them.” When you’re out there interviewing, keep in mind that companies have a short-term and a long-term need. They are interviewing to fill an entry- or low-level position, undoubtedly full of basic grunt work at a desk or computer or on the road. You’ve got to be able to tackle that with a great attitude. If you’re lucky, they’ll couple grunt work with some formal training. But they are also making an investment in their new hire, even with no formal training program. They need that to pay off and so, all things being equal, the candidate who shows a glimmer of longer-term potential wins every time.
We live in a time of unprecedented change and that pace keeps accelerating. If you’re a new college grad or quickly on the track to be a new college grad, a lot of your technical skills are going to be obsolete in a few years. What will last a lifetime, and a whole career, are your communication and managerial skills. That’s where you need to focus your energy to stand out.