College graduation season just wrapped up, which usually means two things for me, especially since I have two college-aged kids and a junior in high school. First, my mailbox is full of college or high school graduation announcements (my wife gives cool gifts!). And second, as co-founder of an award-winning recruiting firm, I get asked for job-search advice—a LOT!
In all honesty, it’s not just the freshly minted college grads who seek my advice. My email is passed around by seasoned execs and lots of folks in between. I don’t think a week passes without being asked something along the lines of, “Can you talk to my kid… or my wife’s best friend… or ME’? I guess I asked for it by describing myself as a “connector of dots, ideas, and people”!
If you’ve got kids or nieces and nephews, or friends with kids—young adults searching for entry-level jobs—and want to impart some advice on them, this article is my advice to you. For free! I also encourage you to check out the companion piece, on how you can best serve as a mentor to the next generation.
While I’m more keyed into the entrepreneurial community, I truly believe most of this advice applies to everyone—including those in business, academia, healthcare, you name it.
I do know it’s tough out there for new grads—playing beer pong and partying late into the night turns into searching for jobs and prepping for interviews pretty damn quick! And if you have a new graduate in your life who’s just starting out, it can be hard to give practical advice. It’s been longer than I’d like to admit since I was in their shoes myself!
Here is some of the key guidance I give to new grads who seek my help getting started. (HOWEVER much of this advice is also very relevant for anyone seeking a fresh start!)
Tip #1: Don’t try to do this on your own
We live in an individualistic society, where we praise people who pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make something of themselves. We value hard work and determination as core values that show a person has what it takes to succeed. While those qualities are necessary to make it in almost any field, the notion that it means you should try to do it on your own is silly. Even the most successful people in their field (think Michael Jordan, Steve Jobs, Batman) had help along the way, including coaches, mentors and teammates.
Tip #2: Begin building your professional network
Building a network from scratch seems impossible. Where do you even start? I won’t sugarcoat it—it’s not easy. But it’s so valuable for your career, now and definitely in the future. It may sound old-fashioned, but it takes grit, determination, and effort to put yourself in a position to succeed. Nothing’s going to be handed to you.
As Woody Allen once said, “80% of success is showing up.” Guess what? You already have the makings of a network. You have people around you who love you and want to see you be successful! The key is to identify the people in your life who can, and will, help you. For clarity, “help” doesn’t mean “give you a job.” It means providing you with some level of assistance. It may be as simple as meeting you for coffee to discuss your goals, pointing you to a resource you may have overlooked, giving you some tough love, or setting you up with a friend who’s in your field.
“But Kurt, I just graduated, I don’t know anyone!”
First of all, even if you think you don’t have a network, I promise you do. Don’t just think in professional terms. Think about ALL of the people you know. Your pastor, your dad’s best friend, a former boss, your professor—the possibilities are endless. You never know who in your personal network will know someone who can help you professionally—you just have to ask.
Tip #3: Consider concentric circles
Think about your personal connections as concentric circles, with you at the center. Identify the people who know you, your skills, and character the best. These people make up your inner circle, and they’re a GREAT resource for you as you’re starting out. They’re your biggest advocates, both in giving practical advice AND teeing up conversations with others. Don’t be afraid to use the connections you have!
Next, think about people who don’t know you as well, but would still have an interest in seeing you succeed. Maybe this is a former teacher, friends of friends, or a distant relative. The next level might be opportunities offered by your school—career centers, placement offices, etc. Don’t count these out! You’d be surprised how much having a degree from the same school as a potential boss helps. Here in Texas, the Aggie network is a prime example – I know many A&M grads who will ONLY hire other Aggies!
Tip #4: Be “mentorable”
Your goal in working through the concentric circles should be to identify folks who can be a mentor to you. Ideally, you’re looking for someone whose career path you may like to emulate. But it doesn’t have to be a perfect match—be open to mentorship from anyone!
Personal example: I had a lawyer friend of mine, David Washburn, who taught me one of my central tenets when networking. “Always ask the person you’re meeting with what YOU can do for THEM”. It was a great piece of advice 22 years ago and still is today. I believe that question completely shifts the dynamic of the conversation. I’ve helped countless people with simple things like recommending a church or a little league organization to referring new clients or helping them sell their business.
Once you’ve identified possible mentors, reach out to them (directly or ask for an intro from a mutual connection). Explain that you’re looking for advice as you begin your career. Offer to buy them a cup of coffee and pick their brain for 30 minutes.
Here’s a pro-tip for you: At that coffee meeting, DO NOT bring your resume. This probably seems counterintuitive since you need a job after all. But showing up and slapping your resume on the table is basically giving that person a job to do (finding YOU a job). And that’s a job they don’t want and probably don’t have time for!
Instead, show up with an open-mind, a learner mindset. Seek their advice and guidance. They’ll likely not only share their story and those of others, they’ll probably think of others with whom they can connect you—including prospective employers. Ask about the steps they took to get where they are today. Think about how you can learn from them and apply lessons learned to your own journey. Be open to actual advice and constructive feedback – there are often nuggets of gold in the wisdom of others who are willing to share freely!
I remember when Ben Ponder first moved to Austin around 10 years ago, looking to build his network. He sought counsel and connections—and always offered mindshare in return. We helped each other out and he ended up having an amazing career at Siete Family Foods and Ponder Brands. He’s now a highly connected thought leader in the Austin CPG scene.
Tip #5: Quality over quantity—always
My personal preference is to have fewer, deeper connections, than a network filled with a boatload of people I don’t know. For example, I’ve overheard young go-getters competing at a networking event to see who can collect the most business cards. But I guarantee you the person who has three meaningful conversations comes out of the event with more value than the person who collects 100 business cards.
Building a great network is about relationships!
Pay it Forward
Whether I’m offering advice to someone I’ve known for their entire life, or talking to someone I’ve just met, my goal is to always be open and honest with them. It’s not easy to make it in this world we live in—especially when you’re just starting out. But with some love and support from people nearby and mentorship from others who have “been-there and done-that”, you – an uber talented, newly minted grad – will have a fighting chance.
And for those of you who are in a position to help out the next generation, try to remember what it was like when you were starting out. Like I said, it’s been longer than I’d like to admit since I began my journey—but I remember some of the pain and rejection like it was yesterday. Check out my companion article, Paying it Forward, for those of us in a position to pay it forward.