GolinHarris CEO Fred Cook is author of the new book Improvise, an offbeat career guide for new college graduates. Below, he spells out five of the most common mistakes young job seekers make when beginning their careers.
This June, 3.2 million US students will graduate from college, and 85 percent will move back home while 22 percent won’t be able to get a job. Of those who are lucky enough to find employment, more than half will work as waitresses and baristas. If you’re hoping to succeed in this tough job market, you need to improvise.
Mistake #1: Staying in your comfort zone
People entering the business world today are a commodity. They’ve taken the same courses, read the same books, and watched the same movies. Meanwhile, companies like mine are desperately seeking fresh minds with new ideas to help them navigate massive cultural and technological changes. You need to expose yourself.
Growing up in southern Indiana, I led the middle-class life of Beaver Cleaver, until I was kicked off the high school tennis team. Then my real education began. I replaced high school with a bowling alley that featured 15 pool tables, where a faculty of dropouts and derelicts, with names like Red Dog, Baby Pod, and Fat Beckham, introduced me to a new curriculum of hustling, drinking, smoking, cruising, and fighting.
Think of your life as a big magazine rack. When you’re standing in front of it deciding what to choose, resist the normal impulse to reach for People or Cosmopolitan. Instead, grab a copy of Inked, Guns and Ammo, or Bass Fisherman. Apply the same approach to movies, books, and people. Experimenting with your life boosts your creativity and your confidence.
Mistake #2: Being intimidated by senior management
Knocking on a captain’s door opened a new world for me. While my contemporaries were graduating from college, I talked my way into a job as a cabin boy on a Norwegian tanker bound for Asian destinations I’d never imagined. In your career, you will encounter “captains” that can transport you to unexpected places. You just have to talk to them.
Senior executives are intimidating to those just starting out. But they’re the ones who can have a real impact on your career. Stalk them in the hallways. Corner them at events. Drill them with smart questions. Seek their help. If you want to be a captain tomorrow, you should start by asking one today.
Mistake #3: Thinking you need just the right experience
Many job hunters worry they lack the necessary credentials. This is a legitimate fear, but it can be overcome. When you reach the top, everything you say and do will be scrutinized by the press and the public. Luckily, on the way up nobody pays much attention, which allows those of us who lack standard business prerequisites to improvise.
Absence of experience didn’t inhibit my pursuit of a career in the travel industry. I created a resume that reshaped my exploits as a cabin boy, doorman, and chauffeur to land a job as a tour guide. Then, I packed my suitcase with a dozen guidebooks about stops on our itinerary that I’d never visited. I discovered, with a little preparation and imagination, I could convince anyone of almost anything.
Most people think improvising means making things up. I prefer a different definition: creating something special from whatever ordinary ingredients happen to be available. Improvisation is a mandatory business skill, because in a world where politics and economics change faster than Facebook profiles, being a leader is a lot like being a tour guide who doesn’t know where he’s going.
Mistake #4: Always following the rules
Most executives rise to the top by adapting to their company’s culture, meeting quarterly financial goals, and not getting fired. They follow a well-worn path that includes stops at an Ivy League college, Brooks Brothers, the BMW dealer, and the local country club. How do you get accepted into this exclusive pledge class? It took me fifteen years to figure that out.
At age 36, when I landed my first PR agency job, I volunteered for every boring assignment. Once I made myself indispensable, instead of asking for promotions, I asked for opportunities—on other accounts, in other business units, in other offices and, as a last resort, in other companies. Every offer helped me advance to the next level until I eventually became CEO.
The business world is full of rules. Some succeed by following them, others by breaking them. But if make your own rules, no one will notice.
Mistake #5: Being afraid to fail
It takes courage to improvise. In the beginning, you may feel anxious and intimidated. But every time you try something new you gain a little more confidence. Start by watching a foreign film or tasting lamb vindaloo. Next, send a thoughtful email to your boss or an outrageous resume to a company you’re dying to work for. Then, consider launching your own business.
Don’t worry if you fail. Life is the sum total of your experiences, not your promotions. Make it special.
Cook’s book, Improvise, is available now.