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03.22.17

5 Critical Skills You Will Need to Hit the Ground Running After College

Critical Skills You Need

J
OURNALIST AND FORMER EDITOR of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jeff Selingo has written an insightful and essential guide as to why some people prosper after college and some fail or find themselves underemployed. You need more than a degree.

There is Life After College is a book that every student should read—twice. Frankly, it would hurt those already in the workplace to read it as the ground is shifting under our feet as well.

Employers are looking for T-shaped individuals. The vertical bar represents depth of knowledge and the horizontal bar represents the ability to work across a variety of complex subject areas with ease and confidence. Something a liberal arts education is designed to do.

Selingo notes that too many undergraduates want to be spoon-fed. “They sit back and wait for professors to deliver lessons in the classroom. They participate in campus life but too often from the sidelines, so they lack and deep engagement in activities that provide much-needed skills for the job market. They fail to cultivate relationships with professors or staff on campus who might lend advice or act as mentors. And they are reluctant to chase after experiences—whether undergraduate research, study abroad, or internships—that help them discover their passions and arm them with the interpersonal skills so in demand by employers today.”

Selingo has distilled a lot of wisdom into five often overlapping skills needed to succeed in your career and life. (You see these concepts are appearing more and more in leadership development studies as well.) I’ve listed them here with brief outtakes for each from the chapter. The book provides much more detail and practical career and life advice that is well worth taking the time to consider.

1. Be Curious, Ask Questions, and Be a Learner for Life
The recent graduates who succeed in their careers are flexible about how they learn. “They have ideas and act on them,” said Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO. “Being able to get stuff done is a capacity that is rather important.” Most of all he’s looking for a mind-set with creativity, passion, and empathy at its root. “I want diversity of experiences in college that have exercised their brain,” Brown said.

On executive said, “Our industry is changing so fast that we can’t depend on what students already know. We need people who are creative, curious, whose brains are wired to constantly ask what’s next. What we need are learning animals.

2. Build an Expertise, Take Risks, and Learn the Meaning of Grit
“We see a lot of transferable skills in athletes,” Marie Artim, vice president of talent acquisition at Enterprise, told me. Enterprise is not alone. As employers search for signals that someone is ready for a job beyond achieving the baseline bachelor’s degree, participation in collegiate athletics is seen by many as one clear indicator of commitment and drive in a generation of college graduates often lacking both.

The qualities prized in athletes obviously apply to other college activities. Employers told me they value musicians, game designers, and writers in much the same way.

“We want to see that they have a passion, and they show proficiency and go deep in it.” The more time students spend trying to master a skill or a job, the more likely they are to encounter failure. “Our best employees are problem solvers and are able to weave everything they know together—customer service, empathy, persuasive skills, leadership skills, flexibility, and work ethic,” Marie Artim of Enterprise told me. “They can think on their feet.”

Selingo adds, “What is unfortunate is that our desire to protect our kids and fill every waking moment of their schedules with organized activities seems to only worsen as they get older.” So they never find opportunities to take risks and perhaps fail.

Recruiters are looking for applicants who have overcome challenges and learned from their disappointments.

3. Every Job is a Tech Job
Understanding the programming language behind the apps on your iPhone or the basics of artificial intelligence is now seen as basic foundational skills by many employers. Learning to program is much like learning a second language was in the twentieth century: You might not become proficient enough to move overseas, but you could get by if you traveled to a particular country.

“It’s more about giving people the skills and tools they learn in the act of coding,” Carol Smith, who oversees Google’s Summer of Code program, told Wired magazine. “It gives them the critical thinking skills that are important whether or not they go into computer science as a profession.”

The generation entering college and the workforce now are often referred to as “digital natives” because they were raised on technology from a very young age. But their relationship has been largely passive: switch on the device and use it. Being digitally aware isn’t about turning more people into computer geeks. It’s about moving from a passive relationship with technology to a more active one—especially in understanding the how and why behind machines, not just the what.

4. Learn to Deal with Ambiguity
“Excelling at any job is about doing the things you weren’t asked to do,” said Mary Egan, founder of Gatheredtable, a Seattle-based start-up, and former senior vice president for strategy and corporate development at Starbucks. “This generation is not as comfortable with figuring out what to do.”

The ability to negotiate ambiguity on the job requires people to think contextually, to provide what I call the “connective tissue” that occupies the space in between ideas. It is the “killer app” of today’ workplaces. People who make these connections do so by following their curiosity and exploring and learning from peers. Knowledge is not only what is in our brains, but also what is distributed through our networks. Learning happens by building and navigating those networks.

5. Be Humble and Learn from Your Peers and Mentors
People who manage recent college graduates all had the same complaint about their new hires: they’re too impatient about their careers and unrealistic about their roles within a company. A friend who is my age and a manager at a major media company told me about new graduates who applied for senior roles after less than a year on the job and who were flabbergasted when they didn’t get the promotion, which went to someone with ten or twenty years more experience.

Being socially aware goes beyond knowing your role within the organization. It includes important skill sets like written and verbal communication as well as the ability to deal with negative feedback, speak in public, and, most of all, interact on a basic human level with coworkers and clients that doesn’t involve texting them.

eBay offers classes on managing your personal brand (because graduates usually can’t set goals for themselves), giving an elevator pitch (they often can’t get to their point fast enough), managing your calendar (once again, time management), and performance reviews.

Selingo emphasizes that what you do in college (and therefore what you become—who you are) is typically more important than where you go.

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Posted by Michael McKinney at 12:27 AM
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