I became a teenage reader of Esquire magazine after an article on urinal etiquette in an issue my father had caught my eye. While the article was a humorous one, it served as a lead-in to pieces on dressing for any occasion, ordering guidelines at business luncheons, and how to network. These skills are what my father would often refer to as “the stuff no one teaches you in college.”
In an article for U.S. News, Catherine Groux writes:
“[According to a York College or Pennsylvania Survey], 48.6% of human resource professionals believe that less than half of new employees show professionalism in their first year on the job. 35.9% said that the percentage of new workers that demonstrate this quality has decreased in the last five years.”
With spring graduation right around the corner, the dismal U.S. job market is soon to be flooded with the “new employees” Groux mentioned: Graduates who went to school believing a Bachelor’s degree would land them a “good job” right out of college. The reality is, however, that while a degree is a requirement for many positions, so too are a professional attitude, appearance, and demeanor. While it may be true that some universities offer courses in entrepreneurship, and most all have business clubs or fraternities, the fact is that no professor, teaching assistant, or academic advisor will provide you with the necessary skills to be a working professional.
So how can a soon-to-be or recent grad learn what it means to be professional? Here are three tactics I can recommend:
- Internships & Student Activities
Two friends of mine interned in Phillip Morris’ New York office while they were undergrads. It was the experience gained in those internships combined with their active roles in student government (and not their average grades) that landed them jobs with that company making $90k+ salaries with amazing benefits and a fantastic relocation package.
Now I’m not saying that “big tobacco” is an industry everyone should look into, nor am I encouraging you to sacrifice your grades for work or activities. What I am advocating, however, is to add extra-curricular activities to your resume that will give you professional experience. Before joining the Underwater Basketweaving Club, take a look at working for your school newspaper or radio station to get experience in advertising and marketing, become a resident assistant to enhance a skill set in management, or take a job at your school library or computer lab if IT and operations is more your thing. Universities offer a way to gain whatever experience you may want – you just need to go out and look for it.
As for internships, try and find ones that will increase your marketability within the workforce (and potentially even the company you intern for.) In today’s economy more companies are willing to take on interns because interns tend to get paid either little or no money. While this can be frustrating for a struggling college student, college is all about “the long game.” While the internships my friends took didn’t pay much at all, they graduated from college with salaries that were some of the best among their peers. When looking for internships my suggestion is not to think “How can I work for no money?” but rather, “How will this add to my skill set when the internship ends?”
And as for the friends I mentioned? They’re both in their mid-thirties. One of them has stayed with Phillip Morris for the past ten or so years, makes six figures and has been a territory manager for the Midwest, Southeast, and Southwest regions. The other went on to work for American Express before leaving to start his own travel business. Not bad for a couple of guys who decided to get involved in their school and take summer internships that didn’t pay them much at the time.
- Find a Mentor
If I asked each of you to tell me who your mentor is, it’s safe to say many of you would draw a blank. If, however, I’d ask you who your hero is you’d probably tell me the name of an athlete, musician, or other celebrity. While I too have those types of heroes, one of my biggest heroes is someone you wouldn’t expect, my college resident director.
I’ll admit it to all of you here that initially I didn’t think about becoming a resident assistant out of some sense of purpose or nobility. I wanted free room & board. In my sophomore year of college, however, I met the resident director of my then girlfriend’s building and was taken aback by his personality. This wasn’t someone who wasn’t focused on “busting” you or yelling at you to obey the rules – this was a guy who made the resident experience fun by planning positive activities and interacting with residents on their level while at the same time teaching lessons and shaping the minds of the students who lived in his building. I knew then that was the type of person I wanted to be like, and when I heard he had an opening for an RA position in his building I applied, interviewed, and landed the job. We’ve remained friends, colleagues, and business partners for the past 13 years, and I still find myself looking to him for professional guidance, advice, and motivation.
A mentor is similar to a hero, but the best way to describe the difference is that a mentor is much more “human.” Heroes tend to be people we regard as god-like: athletes, musicians, movie stars, etc. These people are idolized for what is seen as as their perfect life, wealth, beauty, etc. A mentor is someone who has success or possesses qualities that others may strive for and who is down to earth enough to help lead others down the path they themselves took.
My mentor and I are not in the same industry, but he continues to provide me with professional insights that can cross into any field. Through his guidance I’ve learned how to be a leader and better public speaker, how to develop, manage, and train a staff, and how to handle stressful and emergency situations with ease. The skills he’s helped me develop have become invaluable to my career and I can’t thank him enough.
My suggestion to each of you is to make a list of the qualities you want to improve on or one day have and then make a second list of people you already know who have these qualities. Send them an email or make an appointment to see them and ask if they’d be willing to mentor you. Be open and honest with them. Tell them what you think your positive qualities are, what you’d like to work on, why you’d like them to be your mentor and what you think that mentoring would entail. Most people will be flattered at the idea, but it’s good to have a backup or two just in case scheduling is difficult. Just remember that a mentor is there to guide you. You don’t need to take everything they tell you as “gospel”, but you should try to be as open as possible to the advice they provide you with.
I’m sure that with all the reading assignments you’ve had to endure though college, taking on more seems about as appealing as an axe to the head. This assignment is fun though: Read magazine articles on the topics or industry you’re interested in.
Smartphone and tablet apps like Editions, Flipboard, Pulse, and News Republic make pulling a stockpile of articles on any topic form many different sources easy and (thankfully) free! By far my favorite right now is Flipboard, which allows you to sync your social networks with current news and events and literally “flip” (with your finger) through them quickly. I have sections like sports, technology, business and entrepreneurship in my Flipboard account. As an example, my entrepreneurship section pulls articles from Forbes, Entrepreneur, and YE (Young Entrepreneur) magazines. I can choose to read one, none, or all of them.
The iPad-only app Editions is cool because it takes the same principle as Flipboard, but delivers your daily news in a magazine “edition” format. You’ll be notified when your edition is ready and can read it like any other digital version of a magazine. Very interactive and fun!
It is important to stay well informed. The more you stay informed on the industries you’re interested in becoming a part of, the more you’ll get used to the language people use in those industries and the easier it will be to have meaningful and topical discussions with interviewers in those industries. While there’s no guarantee that any one thing will help you land a job, I can tell you from my experience that employers love to hire people who are knowledge and well informed. An employee who stays up to date on the business sector they’re in stands out in the workplace.
There are many other ways to enhance your professional attitude, appearance and demeanor as well, but the above list is a great way to get started at little to no cost to you other than time. What are some other ways you might enhance your professionalism? Leave a reply in the comments below!
Greg Osisek resides in the Greater Philadelphia Area and has over a decade of business leadership experience. He is one of the founders and CEO of Valeo Consulting Group (http://www.valeo-consulting.com) and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @ValeoGroup, or www.linkedin.com/in/gregosisek for comment.
*** Photo courtesy of John Lee.