Michael Gardner, executive search and career management professional, Thinkinghire, delivered the following address on Sept. 26 to the graduating class of 2010 at Boston University Center for the Digital Imaging Arts:
I am honored to be with you today at your commencement from one the best digital arts programs available. I recall the feelings I had at my own graduation: a mixed bag of them-- everything ranging from excitement to relief to nausea -maybe due in part to overly excessive graduation celebrating? More importantly it was a tremendously positive feeling of possibility and optimism. Do you feel it?
My first piece of advice for you is this: Bottle up the feeling you have today and carry it with you throughout your lifetime. Keep it on a shelf near your desk. Whenever you need a dose of positive energy, uncork that bottle, take a whiff and place it back where you found it. That positive energy is what makes us successful. People who dare to dream to do great things do them because they believe in themselves. That bottle should serve as a reminder to you everyday that you have the ability to be successful, and the self-confidence to attain even the most challenging goals. You’ve already done that once- today’s degree is your number one proof point.
I also remember what it was like to have to face some tough situations early in life and rely on my own self-confidence. When I was 17 years old, my father was diagnosed with heart failure and his only chance for survival was a heart transplant. It was the mid 80’s, and he would be the 77th heart transplant patient at Temple University Hospital - the leading heart transplant teaching university in the country. His dream, he told me, while he was waiting for a donor, was that I attend college, graduate and be happy in my life.
At the time I had not even submitted my first application. Things began to deteriorate quickly, and I found myself registered in a race to deliver a dream to a man who meant more to me, than anyone I had ever known and was about to lose. A friend of my family who happened to be the head of alumni of the college I ultimately attended helped me expedite an application, guided me through the process and helped me get a recommendation from every high school professor whose class I had ever attended. With some serious huspah, I received an acceptance letter. My father received his heart. I lost him shortly after on Father’s Day just a couple of days following my graduation and six weeks before I would attend the first day of college in which I would meet my wife whom I am still married to nineteen years later.
With a potent dose of self-confidence I fulfilled someone’s dream, I found love and I started down a path of self discovery. Had I know my dad was that smart I would have listened to him a lot earlier in my life…
Five years later, a year after college graduation, and a few days after our one year wedding anniversary I decided that my degree was not getting the respect it deserved as I was taking two buses and a train to get to my job in the mailroom at IBM. Sure, I got to see a ton of direct mail, but I was pretty sure that I could do more with my degree in graphic design, so I interviewed with MacTemps a temporary agency at the time that placed desktop publishers. When I met with the staffing agent, she did not want to see a portfolio. She did not care that I could design a multimedia presentation (nor did she understand what that was). She wanted to know how fast I could type.
I took a typing test - which I failed. They politely thanked me for coming and I was sure I’d be back in the mailroom in the morning. To my surprise when I arrived back home, there was a message on my answering machine from the staffing agent. It seemed that just a few minutes after I left they received a call from The Discovery Channel who was interested in finding a person who could design in Multimedia and was I interested in showing my electronic portfolio? YOU BET. I called them back, took the interview details and was ready to launch my career in design. Only one problem: Laptops at the time didn’t have the power nor the memory to support Multimedia. There was no easy internet to use to transfer files. This was Windows 3.1, so plug and play did not yet exist, so the chance of loading up an external hard drive with my work and making sure that it would work correctly was pretty slim. Nope - my only option left was that I would have to lug my 3 foot tall CPU tower and my 17 inch 50lb monitor with my to the interview at Discovery Channel.
The next day I arrived at the interview with my computer bungee strapped to a flatbed cart in tow. I felt like I was one of the Beverly Hillbillies of multimedia in reality series that was the precursor to the Apprentice. At the end of the interview, I heard the words “you’re hired”. And after thanking them, I asked: May I ask why? The interview smiled and said, “Because your presentation was great and you showed us a different approach, and it’s clear that you are passionate about what you do.”
I etched these words into my memory, and have referred to them repeatedly through my career. While things have changed a bit since I lugged that cart, I give the same advice today to those who are considering a career change or are at a milestone in their career path. Now that you have your degree, you may be faced with an entirely different type of challenge: putting that degree to use and obtaining the position that could serve as the launch pad to your professional success.
I tried to think of a few things that every new graduate should consider as they hit the graduation milestone and embark on the transition to the professional world. What I realized is that it boils down to these basic things:
1. What are you passionate about? Before you launch into a full scale effort to find your next opportunity, Take the time to figure it out. Approach the next step in your life just like you would a design problem: dream a little, do your research, consider possibilities and create a basic sketch of what you want to achieve in the effort.
I like to engage in a very detailed dialogue with my coaching clients to help them figure out what their ideal life would look like. I ask them all kinds of questions that help them figure out what is it that they want to do—what are they really good at, and importantly what is it that would make them want to spring out of bed each day and bolt to work- not because they have to—but more importantly because they want to. This is after all, a job search- and when you are searching for something- you ultimately need to find something. If you don’t know what you are looking for, the search becomes all that more difficult. Taking some time to identify what is important to you in your career and life plans puts you in closer touch towards attaining your goals, and makes you open to possibilities that you may not have thought to even consider.
2. Be a Stealth Marketer of the Product: YOU. In my work with the American Marketing Association (which I strongly encourage you all to join, or some other professional association that aligns well with your career goals) I am constantly reminded of the amazing talent those in our field possess. Everything from being able to build brand strategies and identities, then being able to introduce those brands and bring them into visual and interactive media which ultimately makes the cash register ring- its all really incredible. Marketers like advertisers are masters of persuasion, and can help people see the benefits in just about everything, it seems. Except themselves.... Don’t fall into the same trap. As you set out to uncover what is next for you in your career, and start out on the path to get there, first consider yourself a product and think about what makes products sell- it’s always about benefits and hardly about features. Write a resume that focuses on the benefits that you can bring to an employer and link those benefits to key skills you have and you will realize that you’ll have a winning combination that’s a bit different from others in the marketplace today.
Case in point: If you were going to buy a set of Bose Speakers for your home, would you be more or less likely to buy them if the only sales collateral you saw at the point of sale was the technical manual? Chances are, you’d be less likely to make the purchase. Sure you could easily tell what the speakers could do for you- but you would have to make some assumptions about the true benefits these speakers would bring and then try to justify the expense. Now, if you saw an advertisement that highlighted the fact that these speakers were a new kind of sound like no other available today, and that my whole life as I know it could change because of this incredible new sound I am going to have- well, now my ears perk up and I’m interested. The simple rule is: Think of yourself as a product with clear benefits and features that are going to change some really lucky employer’s life. Convince them that you can deliver those benefits consistently and you have something really valuable to talk about.
3. Communicate well, and Make Your Presentation a Hit. In terms of the job search, presentation is about much more than having a great looking portfolio. It’s about more than a great looking resume or a website. Presentation is how you communicate about yourself in any channel in which you could cross paths with a potential employer. Today presentation is taking the time to clearly articulate the important elements of you to each of your key audiences in the JobSearch. As designers we understand the importance of getting the message right within a target audience. We understand that with each communication we develop, there is an anticipated behavior that we’d like to see occur. This same theory applies in your JobSearch. Take the time to clearly map out why you are the right person for the role- showcase the true benefit you can bring to an organization, and showcase your work to create a true brand experience that communicates the core of your professional perspective. Deliver the message well and consistently through every communication channel you can think of because you never know where or when an opportunity will present itself.
4. Carefully Build Out and effectively manage a powerful network. In our life, we have people who want to help us, and people who want to promote us. Some people fall into both camps. This is where getting the right message crafted about yourself and knowing exactly what you are looking for will become invaluable. If someone offers to help you open a door to an opportunity- you have just one chance to get the ask right. By clearly providing them with the details of the elements that really matter to you in your next opportunity- you will put these people who want to help you in a much better position to help you effectively. Consider the alternative: a poorly communicated ambiguous message asking for help that results in someone setting you up with a lead that you have no desire to persue. In that instance you would have just wasted a potential opportunity simply because you didn’t put the time into thinking about what matters to you and how to effective communicate it to someone who could help. The same goes for the people who like to promote you. If you can help arm them with a positive benefits driven message, then it will be likely that the right types of opportunities will come your way.
This week I was in my kitchen when my six-year-old hopped up on the barstool and asked me a timely question: “Hey Dad, how do you find a job?” I said, “Oh, you don’t have to worry about that for a long time. But just curious, what would you like to be?” He said, “A police officer.” Then he paused and said, “Actually, I want to help pets- a veterinarian. But sometimes pets get sick and I don’t like to clean up after them. Could I be an astronaut?” “Sure.” I said. “ You can be whatever you want to be.” At that moment I realized that being a parent lets you see things from such a different perspective- in this case looking at a huge concept from the point of view of someone who was about as tall as a chair, but could recognize a very important thing that everyone today should take away: whatever it is you ultimately want to be, the possibilities are endless.
Herman Miller said it best I think: Man’s destination is not a place, but rather a means by which one sees the world.
However you choose to get to your destination, promise me this- be well prepared but be sure to take a moment to enjoy the trip. You will ultimately be glad you did.
Thank you graduating class of 2010, and good luck.
Mike Gardner is principal at Thinkinghire, an executive search and career management firm based in Washington, DC. Thinkinghire helps companies find the right candidates for direct hire and contract positions based not only on talent and skills, but also by how well the candidate aligns with the company’s core values and beliefs. In addition, Thinkinghire works with senior level executives interested in making a career move and helps them develop the tools and plans necessary to compete in today’s highly competitive job marketplace.