by Robin Reshwan
“Plan for what it is difficult while it is easy, do what is great while it is small.” – Famous Chinese military strategist and philosopher Sun Tzu was likely not thinking about careers after college when he penned this, but his sentiment is spot on motivation for college students as they approach the middle of their fall semester. My career has involved coaching, advising, hiring and mentoring thousands of professionals in a wide range of industries, professions, locations and levels. One unifying trait among those that are repeatedly satisfied and successful in their career is the dedication to expanding knowledge and relationships BEFORE actually needing to use them. In other words, people who are expansion focused have a much wider network and range of options than those who procrastinate. Not only do they reap greater benefits, but less energy and stress were required to acquire these assets. So, in the spirit of Sun Tzu, here are three simple (but impactful) activities for college students to expand their professional prospects.
First, initiate a conversation, outside of class, with a professor, administrator, career center or university employee before winter break. Relationships are the turbo-booster to professional endeavors for many reasons. You can get “insider information” to have a deeper understanding of a process, business structure, job, profession or industry. You can research pathways in a more personal and relatable manner. You can gain a needed reference for job application. At the very least, you can gain confidence in speaking to professionals with a range of seniority and interests. And, as an extra bonus, hopefully you will meet and learn about an interesting person who can become part of your long-term network.
Sounds simple, right? It is – yet most college students don’t do it. A college campus is filled with an entire village of professionals who have chosen to add benefit to the lives of students. Helping you is not only in their DNA – it is in their job description. Don’t let your nerves regarding “What will we talk about?” deter you. You can ask: How they chose their career? This job? Their college major? What they would do differently? Their take on the job market? What dream job they would pursue? How things have or will change in their field? What things you can do to figure out a career you love? Etc. The list is endless – the key is to pick any question, ask a chosen contact if they have a few minutes for some advice and have a conversation. Be sure to be a polite listener (since you did seek them out). Hide your telephone – so you can be attentive. Show up on time for your meeting. And, thank them in person and via email or LinkedIn later.
Second, sit in on a class, lecture, presentation or event that is outside of your comfort zone. The professionals that experience the most growth and career opportunities are those that can learn, unlearn and relearn. The rapid change of technology demands an ability to move from comfort to discomfort and uncertainty, over and over again. Know how to drive a car? In a few more years they may drive for you. Know how to use “Turnitin.com” to submit a paper? Perhaps your school has a different method to avoiding plagiarism. Feeling confident in your own skin while grasping new concepts, ideas, viewpoints and methods is a must – and it requires practice. Use the rich diversity of activity on campus to build a wide (or wider) range of interests, inspiration, influence and empathy.
Third, ask a manager, “What do you look for when hiring?” This can be a professor with a research team, the supervisor of the coffee house, the staff at the career center or even a phone call to your aunt. The more times you ask this question, you will quickly learn that while everyone has a few specific preferences, the desired traits are universal. In general, managers look for likeable, coachable, respectful, honest and driven employees. With this “raw material,” you can go most anywhere as an intern or new graduate. As you progress in your career, roles may require some more technical and tactical professional skills. But, being likeable, coachable, respectful, honest and driven continue to be the brand standard of a desired employee at every level.
The great news is that expanding your opportunities is a very manageable endeavor if you act on the “little by little” approach. Seize the simple, available activities whenever you can. The results will have a major impact on internship and career options.