by Micheal J. Burt and Colby B. Jubenville, co-authors of “Zebras and Cheetahs: Look Different and Stay Agile to Survive the Business Jungle“
If you have just graduated from college, congratulations! Take a few moments to admire your diploma and pat yourself on the back… and then get ready to attach your nose firmly to the grindstone (again). Unless you went to school under a rock, you know that graduates are facing one of the worst job markets in recent memory. In 2012, about 1.5 million bachelor’s degree holders under age 25 (that’s 53.6 percent) were unemployed or underemployed. And the trend isn’t on track to change this year, either: A poll released in April revealed that more than half of graduates admitted to difficulty in finding a job.
Clearly, you’ll need to differentiate yourself from the pack if you want to get (and keep) a job in this cutthroat environment. And it’s not just about showing how different you are from the competition; it’s about showing how you’ll make a difference for hiring companies.
In today’s economy, companies need to know from the outset that you’ll add remarkable value instead of being a drain on the payroll. If you show up to an interview and give the same boring, uninspired answers that your competition is giving, your potential employers will be bored. And worse yet, they’ll look at you like you’re a commodity — just one more in a million other college grads who simply go through the motions once hired.
You have to show and tell potential employers how you’ll bring unique and immediate value to the table. That might seem like a tall order, but a great way to do that is to tell them how you’ll positively impact the company during the first 90 days of employment.
In our book “Zebras and Cheetahs: Look Different and Stay Agile to Survive the Business Jungle“, we explain exactly what it takes for employees (and specifically, leaders) to survive and thrive in the fast-paced, always-changing, and highly competitive business world. Specifically, today’s companies aren’t just looking for technical qualifications but for candidates with a specific “softer” skill set.
Of course employers want to hire people who are committed and who will be on time and work hard. But they also need to know that you’ll hit the ground running and that you have the ability to boost the company’s overall standing, innovate, adapt, and collaborate. Leaders know that employees who are deficient in any of these areas will cause conflict and slow up the entire organization in an economy where teamwork, efficiency, and agility are crucial.
Here we share ten tips that will help you to show your value so that you can get — and keep — a job in the chaos of the concrete jungle:
1. Respond quickly.
On the African savannah, animals that are slow in making a beeline for food and water don’t last long. The same thing is true in the concrete jungle. With such a high unemployment rate for college graduates, most jobs won’t stay on the market very long after being posted. You’ve got to be Johnny-on-the-Spot if you want to have a shot at an interview.
Responding quickly to a job posting will express to the company that you are eager for this particular job. As an employer, I’m always impressed by candidates who are committed enough to put together articulate, personalized applications within 72 hours of posting. And who knows? Your cheetah-like speed may pay off. Maybe you’ll be the first one to apply, the first one to be interviewed, and you’ll so impress your interviewers with your unique skills and ideas for the company that everyone else will pale in comparison.
2. Show up in person (and early) when you can.
While it may seem obvious, this point is worth underscoring: Now that you’ve secured an interview, don’t screw it up by being late. (And keep in mind that in these kinds of situations, “on time” is tantamount to “late”!) Arriving at your interview with plenty of time to spare is just good common sense, but most importantly, it’s the first in-person opportunity for you to show your potential employer that you’re hungry, committed, and motivated.
I can’t overstate how important first impressions are. If you walk into that interview room late (or even frazzled and out of breath after dashing in from the parking lot), it doesn’t matter how firm your handshake is or how impressively you’re able to discuss your résumé. You have already sent the signal that you’ll be a weak member of the herd. The one always lagging behind. And since the weakest member of the herd is usually the first to be picked off by predators, why go to the trouble of hiring you in the first place?
3. Differentiate yourself.
This is arguably the most important thing to bring to the job interview table: a clear answer to the question “What makes you different?” Whether you want to believe it or not, you’re one of many freshly graduated applicants with good GPAs, well-rounded résumés, and glowing references. You’re not the only one who has researched the company and spent hours prepping for interviews. However, you might be the only applicant for a junior copywriting position who can provide your interviewer with a link and sample posts to your personal blog, which has several hundred followers!
And while it may sound cliché, a big part of differentiating yourself is simply allowing your personality, interests, values, and quirks to flavor the interview — just don’t go overboard and talk for ten minutes about your passion for showing your Weimaraner! After all, employers aren’t just hiring your skill set; they’re hiring you. Your personality may get you through the door, but your character will get you the job and keep you in the job. Potential employers need to understand you, like you, and be able to envision you as a part of their team before extending you a job offer.
4. Learn to leverage your past.
Of course you’ll talk about your education during your job interview, and you’ll probably have the opportunity to discuss any other experience that might be relevant to the job. But one of the most important points you can make is that you know how to overcome adversity. Whether you’ve made poor choices in the past or have dealt with an unforeseen obstacle, employers want to know that you can clear hurdles and reinvent yourself when circumstances call for it. No organization wants to hire an employee whose hand will need to be held every time the going gets tough!
Whether it’s big or small, being able to discuss a problem you have successfully dealt with shows that you are adaptable and that you are willing to evolve into a better version of yourself. It might help to think about your life backwards: Where are you today and how did you get there? What were the major turning points or challenges? You didn’t earn that degree without putting in your share of metaphorical blood, sweat, and tears!
5. Showcase your innovation.
As recently as ten or fifteen years ago, it was relatively safe for companies to stick with “the way we’ve always done things.” That’s not the case anymore. As the global economy becomes flatter, swifter, and more competitive, businesses in all industries are finding it necessary to think of new ways to solve problems on the fly. So even if you’re going into a field that is generally seen as non-creative (such as banking or engineering), it’s still smart to show that you are imaginative and innovative.
Innovative thinking is going to instantly increase your value to a company that is trying to move forward. A good way to demonstrate that you have this skill is to make a video of yourself articulating why you’re valuable and what you could bring to the table. In fact, we sometimes ask candidates to do this very thing in order to gauge how creatively each person thinks and how they react to an open-ended assignment. If video isn’t your thing, make sure to weave examples of how you’ve thought beyond established boundaries and actively sought efficient new solutions to problems into your interview answers.
6. Let them know you play well with others.
Nobody is looking to hire a hotshot employee who’s in it for individual glory. While these individuals tend to think of themselves as “superstars,” their coworkers and bosses are more likely to describe them as “prima donnas” or “self-absorbed jerks.” Instead, companies want to hire people who are willing and eager to be members of a team, and who are capable of collaborating with others to reach the best possible outcome. Increasingly, it takes the skill sets of many different people to stay competitive in the global economy. One person simply can’t shoulder the load alone.
During your interview, highlight your role in past group projects when the opportunity arises. Another major way in which you can convey that you are easy to work with is to be responsive and sincere in the interview — but don’t dominate the conversation. Believe it or not, some candidates interrupt interviewers mid-sentence, or are so determined to talk about a particular topic that they ignore the question that was actually asked. What’s the interviewer to assume if not that this person will hijack meetings, projects, and other tasks in the same way? The bottom line is you should make sure you leave the interviewer with the distinct impression that you are both a people person and a team player.
7. Solve their problems.
Before walking into the interview, you need to do your homework about the company you’re hoping to work for. And you need to go beyond dropping a few key words or phrases into your cover letter. Being able to intelligently discuss the company overall — as well as the specific position for which you’re applying — will not only show the interviewer that you are interested enough to come prepared, it will enable you to pinpoint ways in which you’ll be an asset if you’re hired.
All companies want you to be able to do at least one of three things: make the company money, save the company money, and/or solve major problems. By doing so, you’ll add immediate value. Before you go into the interview, think about specific ways in which you can tie your skills and accomplishments to achieving one of those three outcomes. Don’t just say, for example, ‘I took a class in supply chain management’ and leave it at that. Explain how you think that knowledge would help you streamline the company’s current product shipping system. Remember, interviewers care about getting to know you, but they care about determining how valuable you’d be to the company a lot more.
8. Be coachable.
Yes, interviewers want to be assured that you have the skill set necessary to get the job (whatever it may be) done well. But they also know that no matter how qualified and experienced you are, you’ll still have to learn new things pertaining to your new job and employer. And sooner or later, interviewers also know that you’ll receive criticism from supervisors, clients, or both. The ability to accept constructive feedback and implement those suggestions is extremely valuable.
Many interviewers will purposefully try to ask you difficult questions or knock you a bit off-balance just to see how you handle yourself. If this happens, don’t react defensively or become argumentative. Instead, show that you are flexible and willing to admit when you are wrong or when you don’t know an answer. Remain calm and express an interest in learning more. Most employers worth their salt aren’t looking for yes-men and blind order-takers; they simply don’t want to waste time and effort coaxing inflexible employees to grow, change, and improve.
9. Hit the ground running.
Companies want to know that you’ll add immediate value if you’re hired. That’s why it’s important for you to come to the interview not only with general ideas as to how you’d be an asset, but with at least one specific action plan for how you’d like to hit the ground running.
Here’s an example. While doing your homework on the company, maybe you noticed that their website is confusing, cluttered, or doesn’t clearly state what the company is trying to portray. Go into the interview with a 90-day plan to make it better. In my experience, most job candidates don’t think about their potential roles with a company in this level of detail. Doing so will set you apart in a major, memorable way.
10. Show your agility.
Being smart, skilled, and capable is good… but these qualities aren’t very valuable if you aren’t able to deploy them with quickness and efficiency. Employers want to see that you can effectively react and respond to questions and problems in a timely manner. Conveying that you seek out and respond well to challenges is a good way to prove your value in this area. You might want to discuss how you excelled despite a heavy workload during a particular semester, for example, or explain how your summer job working the customer service desk of a retail store taught you to be a swift and decisive problem solver.
Agility in the workplace also means that you’re a quick learner, not just a quick doer. This is definitely something you want to get across to the employer. Try to remember what he or she says earlier in the interview so that you can tie later answers and conversations back to it.
Here’s one last tip to keep in mind when going into an interview. Never ask about money up-front — save that discussion for after you’ve proven your value. Once your employer knows how much of an asset you are, your request is more likely to be granted, anyway!
And be persistent. If you get a job offer after your first interview — and it’s a position you’re excited about accepting — you’re one of the very lucky few. Odds are, you’ll have to fill out many applications and go to numerous interviews before you reach gainfully employed status. That’s okay! Keep putting these strategies into practice, and sooner or later, you’ll hear those magic words: ‘You’re hired.’
Micheal J. Burt and Colby B. Jubenville are co-authors of “Zebras and Cheetahs: Look Different and Stay Agile to Survive the Business Jungle“. Part coach, part entrepreneur, and all leader, Coach Burt is the go-to guy for entrepreneurs who want to become people of interest, salespeople who want to be superstars, and managers who want to be coaches. Jubenville holds an academic appointment at Middle Tennessee State University and is principal of Red Herring Innovation and Design.