Formal education can be important at any stage of a professional’s working life. When undertaken as part of an integrated career planning process along with other forms of professional development, it can make a significant contribution to advancing a person’s career. Over time, professionals with an enduring commitment to formal and informal education become skilled in incorporating new learning into their established workplace practices.
With far more study experience in place than career track record, graduates and young professionals face a particular set of challenges associated with making the most of their formal education. One important task is to take control of the impression you create for those around you at work. The likelihood of a successful transition from university life to being a productive, valued employee is significantly increased for those who are mindful of five factors:
- rethinking how you manage your time;
- giving preference to the practical application of your knowledge;
- building additional work related skills and knowledge;
- developing your professional image; and
- getting the support you need to develop as a professional.
When asked which topics crop up most frequently in performance improvement conversations with new graduates, employing managers often cite time-related factors. Late arrival at work and meetings, missed deadlines and last minute requests for more time to complete a piece of work are just examples of behaviour that unnecessarily tarnishes reputation.
As you transition away from student life, think about time management habits that have served you well as a student but may not go down well at work. For example, if you’ve routinely succumbed to the thrill of the last minute rush to submit an assignment by the due date, think carefully about the potential impact of that approach in your new workplace. Check others’ deadlines before assuming that you can afford to deliver your work to them at the last minute without prior negotiation.
Make sure too that you have a sound strategy for maintaining your work-related energy for five days a week, forty eight weeks or so every year. The luxuries of student life like a late start on the days you don’t have an early lecture are well and truly behind you. And your years of thirty odd weeks of semester time with long breaks for recuperation between them are also a thing of the past.
Rethinking how you manage your time in your new full-time working life should also include planning social activities so that they don’t directly or indirectly impinge of your productivity at work. Late nights before non-working days are manageable; too many late nights during the working week soon show up at work in ways that can be hard to erase from the minds of people you need to impress!
Your qualifications probably counted for a lot during the selection process but once you’re on the payroll, your employer is going to be far more interested in how you apply the knowledge for which you were hired. Your part in that process is to focus the practical application of your skills and knowledge to whatever is important to your employer. This can mean giving lower priority to personal career aspirations for a while.
For example, an IT graduate took on an entry level role in the IT department of a large manufacturing company and found himself involved in the provision of support to end users. It was eye-opening for him to discover how naive many of them were in their use of technology and frustrating to realise how much of his time would be consumed by their need for support at the most basic level.
His mentor helped him realise that he had been assigned to that work because he had expressed interest in user education. His personal professional interest in advancing his technology knowledge even further would need, at least for a while, to be lower priority than lifting users’ levels of competence – an important component of the organisation’s IT strategy.
Building work-related skills
As a 21st century graduate you are likely to have begun to develop a range of generic skills that have broad application in the workplace and have the potential to complement the skills of your chosen profession. Being a team player, effective communication and knowing how to take the lead are just examples. Once you’ve joined a workplace, take time to assess whether your skills in each of these and similar areas are adequate and where there is scope for some fine-tuning. Explore also whether your new workplace calls for skills that are as yet unfamiliar to you.
For example, a newly graduated student of business assumed that four years of syndicate work had adequately prepared him to work in any team. But it soon became evident that there were far more complexities to deal with in a work-based team than in a university syndicate. Inter-departmental tensions, competing perspectives and interpersonal differences all had to be worked through as the team to which he had been appointed came to grips with a major project. The way in which the team’s manager helped a diverse group of people to become a high-performing team inspired this graduate to add ‘leadership’ to the professional development component of his career plan.
Developing your professional image
It pays to make an early start on thinking about how you want to be perceived as a professional because there is a great deal you can do to influence others’ perception. Maintaining a student mindset after joining the full-time workforce can get in the way of graduates and new recruits being seen as valued colleagues.
For example, are you really a team player or have you routinely done just enough to get by when called on to operate as part of a team such as any syndicate work in your university program? Most workplaces require people to be competent team players, willing to work with people from different disciplines and with diverse backgrounds. It’s not enough to produce high-quality work as an individual – you are likely to be expected to also support and complement the work of others.
Many other factors contribute to the image you project at work. It is worth becoming a keen observer of what it takes to become a respected member of your workplace. For example:
- When asked for an opinion about a technical area which you are known to have studied, how able are you to give a clear, succinct response? Can you do so in non-technical language when necessary?
- Do your appearance and behaviour project a professional impression? Style of dress and personal grooming are just part of this. Another contributor is your general conduct at work including interactions with others. The article Managing your professional image for career success has more on this and the significance for building your reputation as a professional.
Being supported in your development as a professional
To be the best you can be as a professional takes more than talent in your particular field even though that makes a significant contribution.
Ideally in the first three to four years after graduation, your professional development should include:
- gaining and consolidating expertise in your discipline;
- an organisation orientation, with exposure to a range of areas in the organisation;
- training across business processes such as client/customer service, sales and finance, team management, communication skills and leadership and management skills;
- training in health and safety;
- application and understanding of the relevant code of ethics; and
- a focus on career planning.
Professional development during your first few years of work should give you the chance to develop the skills you learned in your university course. Your role as a graduate should involve undertaking tasks of increasing scope and complexity under the supervision of higher-level professionals. You should be exposed to different methods and approaches by assisting more senior professionals – these development opportunities are what you should aim for as a recent graduate.
Graduates and young professionals can also benefit greatly from working with a mentor; somebody with plenty of practical experience in the same or a related field and a keen interest in helping you succeed.
The idea of mentoring is not to develop a clone of the mentor. Rather, a good mentoring relationship calls for a mentor who understands what makes organisations tick, can apply their experience to contemporary circumstances and for whom the mentee (the person being mentored) has a good deal of respect.
You might be fortunate enough to have access to an internal mentoring program in your organisation. Another source of mentoring support might be the university from which you graduated and yet another is your professional network.
A good mentor challenges you to think and provokes you with their thoughts, makes helpful suggestions without trying to impose them on you and celebrates your success ahead of their own as your mentor.
About the Author
Dr Janet Fitzell is an independent organisational consultant and facilitator, specialising in organisational, leadership and management development through her company FourLeaf Consulting Pty Ltd (www.fourleaf.com.au).