Phoenix’s Head of Learning, Lawrence White, shares some of his experience and observations of working with grads and interns.
A few weeks ago a friend asked me a question that took a while to answer and which prompted me to think that the ‘answer’ might be better shared. The question was this:
“Lawrence, you work with graduate recruits – my lad is graduating this year and wants to know what he needs to do to stand out”.
My initial answer was relatively short -
"Whatever it is he needed to do to stand out should already have been done by now!”
The subsequent blank look led to a fuller explanation.
Most employers look for evidence; evidence of the application of knowledge, skill, wisdom, maturity, competencies, capabilities and attributes. This means that the ’stand-out’ candidates will have ‘been there, done that’ so to speak.
What does your degree really tell a prospective employer? Frankly, it says ‘this person can learn stuff to at least ‘this’ level’ and it is your entry ticket – it qualifies you to be a ‘graduate recruit’. In no way does it guarantee you a job or a place on any graduate development scheme.
So what are the differentiators? What are the things that employers are looking for in addition to your new qualifications?
Well in no particular order…
Confidence (not arrogance)
Confidence is probably the one thing that is hardest to demonstrate deliberately without coming across as cocky or worse arrogant. There’s a fine line in there somewhere and staying just the right side of it can be tough. Solution – be authentic, be honest, be you! There is as much value in being open about your development needs as there is in shouting your key strengths from the roof-tops. Don’t’ worry about not being perfect. If you know you have weaknesses and you’re hoping to use your prospective employer’s resources to develop them, guess what – that’s exactly what they’ve put those resources there for in the first place.
Being resilient does not mean you do not experience stress, anxiety and pain; on the contrary it is defined by those things and is demonstrated by your actions during those difficult times. In order to fully demonstrate your resilience you need those experiences – they test you and they push your self-control and stamina. There is plenty of evidence to show that resilience develops with maturity and the transition from university life to work-life is a step-change for most people. Your prospective employer will probably want to hear about your challenges and how you overcame them, not to understand your levels of resilience right now – but to test the speed at which resilience will build in you.
Easy to understand
It is very understandable that you would think that leveraging your oratory acumen or plying your grandiloquence on paper will result in your prospective employer being suitably impressed with your sesquipedalian tendencies. Are you impressed? Or are you reaching for a dictionary? It is much more impressive when someone uses clear, easy-to-understand language. Don’t get me wrong, big words are fine so long as the intended audience will understand them without having to look them up. After all ‘wheelbarrow’ is eleven letters!
Very closely associated with effective communication is the need to present to large groups, verbally and visually. Most people suffer from glossophobia (oops! Sesquipedalian again) - I mean most people suffer from the fear of speaking to large groups. It’s normal to have feelings of nervousness, self-doubt and anxiety before, during and even after a presentation. A mind-set to avoid is that the ‘visuals’ are the presentation – they are not! It is you! With presentations there is really no substitute for practice and feedback. Happily you do not need to ‘get it right first time’, you just need to get it right when it matters.
Time management, planning and organisation is often the skill-set that is assumed to be OK. Demonstrating good organisational skills in your studies is clearly a good thing and will stand the prospective candidate in good stead. That said, the pressures placed upon your organisational skills are magnified and multiplied in a working environment with many people and wide-ranging, diverse tasks creating short, medium and long term demands, it is all too easy to let something slip. Employers want to understand that the bits that slip are not the important ones – the ones with big risks attached. So making sure you demonstrate a good risk-based approach is a wise thing to do.
So if these are some of the basic competencies that need to be demonstrated to differentiate a ‘stand-out’ candidate the question still remains – ‘How do I do it?’. I refer you back to the word ‘evidence’. If you have involved yourself in extracurricular activities at university – drama, sport, clubs, societies then you will have evidence. If you have worked before, or during your course you will have evidence. If you have completed an internship you will have evidence.
Now, if you’re graduating this year and you’re looking for a placement you have to accept that you are ‘where you are’ and opportunities to create more evidence is going to be limited. If you have the luxury of time then my recommendation is use it wisely because…
‘Whatever it is he needed to do to stand out should already have been done by now!’