Saturday, May 19, 2012

What I Wish I Knew When I Graduated

A student recently asked me, what five things do you wish you had known when you graduated.  I think they really meant, "what mistakes did you make that I should avoid'!  In the Master of Science in Business Analysis program at Catholic University, we want every one of students to have the best chance of success.  So in addition to the theory, skills and critical thinking, we also give them sound practical training and advice.  Here's my list, I hope you'll add to it.

1) Listen Better:  That requires patience, open mindedness and avoiding jumping to conclusions.  Listen to the whole discussion.  If you understand the matter from the other person's point of view, you will be better able to defend your point of view.  Listening is a skill.  Practice it.

Lauren Keates Practices Listening
2) Hone your Social Skills: Remember names and details of people you meet.  Find one of the several memory tricks that works for you.  I practiced two; repeat the person's name in conversation a few times when introduced to commit it to memory.   Write a few facts on the back of their business card while fresh in your memory.  Add to your knowledge of the person through Linked In and Google searches.  I find people are impressed when you remember details about their family.  Maybe they mentioned their child is visiting colleges so when you meet again, ask if they made a choice.   

Kathryn Sullivan explains the next course
Learn proper etiquette in social situations, particularly business meals and receptions.  Learn your way around a formal dining table, what silverware to use when, how to eat soup, how to handle that pesky olive pit.  Become adept at the stand-up cocktail hour.  Learn to hold your drink, appetizer plate and napkin in your left hand so your right hand is clean and free to shake hands.  If alcohol is served, stick to wine or beer.   Avoid hard liquor in settings where you meet new people (the idea is to network, not drink).  If the event goes on for several hours, alternate your drink with club soda with a twist. (it will look like gin and tonic and folks will be amazed at your stamina!)  Don't be a victim of bad impressions and career limiting incidents caused by alcohol.   We think this is so important we devote an entire evening session in our program to learning and practicing the art of  social skills.

3) Invest in your Appearance:  I know it's a cliche but clothes and appearance do say a lot about you.  It's hard to justify a large clothes budget when you're starting out with bills to pay and school loans.  But you have to look at this as an investment in your future.  You spent tens of thousands of dollars on an education to get here, capitalize on that investment.  For Christmas or graduation, forgo the latest electronic gadget and ask friends and family to contribute to your "professional wardrobe fund".  Thank them with a picture of you "dressed to the nines".  

Mary Ann counsels the women on attire
As with etiquette, our program invests in a seminar with students to learn how to look  professional, even on a budget.  No one is going to say he/she is a sharp dresser.  But they will say he or she is impressive without realizing the clothes helped form that impression. 
I have heard so many comments after presentations about the things that stick out, the slacks that are too short, the shoes are scuffed, that inappropriate blouse.  And when in doubt, best to be over dressed than under dressed..

4) Network, Network and Network some more:  I previously wrote a piece on this in my blog.  I just can't emphasize enough the importance of creating and nurturing a lifelong network of contacts.  It is so much easier today with the social media tools like Linked In and Google + and Facebook.  Separate the social from the professional and manage the latter with great care.  I find Christmas cards are a good way to just touch base and let people know you value your association with them.  Or divide your list into 12 monthly piles and drop a note to this months list to let them know what you're doing.  A lost art is the hand written note, rediscover it and set yourself miles apart from the e mail crowd.  Invest in note cards with your name on them.  Simple, elegant, professional.  I've never forgotten a region manager at Exxon that sent a birthday greeting to me as a 23 year old employee.  It was a simple act that meant a lot.  I tried to follow that example with my own employees throughout the years, always with a hand written personal note about a recent accomplishment, project or, better yet,  family event. 

Andrew MacDougall with Tobi Kuhle Kehinde
5) Develop Life Long Mentors:  John Chisholm, former DC Government Human Resources Deputy Director and founder and Managing Partner of Smart Insights Group, LLC is an individual I've come to admire.  John has served as a willing mentor to so many young graduates and yet he talks frequently about his mentors.  I am reminded that we all need a guiding hand, an objective mirror and a moral compass.  I think when you outgrow mentors, you stop growing.  Choose wisely and let them know how much you value their advice and guidance.  Buy them dinner once in a while to show your appreciation.  Unlike networks, your mentor list should be small enough to be manageable on a frequent basis.

Now it's your turn.  What do you wish you had known when you graduated...

Professor Stewart McHie 
Program Director, MSBA

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