Launching your career after graduation can be daunting. From struggling to land interviews (“We regret to inform you…”) to negotiating a decent salary, there are plenty of mistakes that early-stage professionals can avoid with the right approach. Here are six of them to guide you:
- Focus on inputs (acquiring skills) over outputs (making money)
- Master presentation & public speaking
- Learn how to write – and write often
- Sell your value, not your skills
- Always be ready to leave
- Network like hell
Focus on inputs (acquiring skills) over outputs (making money)
It’s tempting to prioritize a higher starting salary over everything else. After all, you’ve got bills and student loans to pay off. But starting salaries for newbie jobs are never high enough to matter, as illustrated by the comments under this post I published on Linkedin.
As Nikhyl Singhal of The Skip brilliantly outlines in this piece on picking your first job, the salary you start off earning is often insignificant in the long run – whether you get an extra grand or two from negotiating. Negotiation brings you incremental salary increases – but gaining and honing new skills brings you exponential salary growth. Don’t aim to go from R10,000 to R12,000pm – aim to double or triple your salary each time you move. Expanding your skillset gives you that leverage.
When choosing companies to work for (assuming you have options), pick a company or team that has:
- A great boss. One bad boss can sour your entire experience at a company. Do your research on whom you’ll be working under: stalk them on LinkedIn, Google their name, and read about their previous works. Like a marriage, your boss will determine much of your happiness and growth in the workplace.
- Advancement opportunities. The more rungs on the company’s ladder, the higher your chances of getting promoted in a shorter time and earning a higher salary.
- Training resources. Pick a company that invests in your growth as a professional – whether through conferences, workshops, or allowances for books and courses. This is worth its weight in gold – you’re essentially being paid to learn and improve your value.
- Competent colleagues. Again, LinkedIn is your friend here. Stalk the people you’ll work with to see where they’ve worked and what they’ve done previously. You’ll benefit from their experience through proximity. Reach out to them online and mention that you’re applying for a job at the company and want to know what it’s like to work there.
- An experimental and failure-friendly culture. Pick a company that lets you test lots of ideas and forgives failure. Experimentation breeds innovation, and companies that understand this don’t mind you ideating and executing wacky ideas. They know that if you succeed, they win, and if you don’t, you gain valuable experience (a win for them).
Master presentation & public speaking
Depending on your chosen path, you’ll need to express yourself often: to clients, colleagues, and the C-suite. This calls for sharp visual and spoken presentation skills. To improve these skills, you can:
- Take public speaking classes: If there’s a local Toastmasters club near you, sign up ASAP. You can also volunteer to speak at local events, offer to host/MC your friends’ events, and practice giving speeches or training sessions at work.
- Take design courses: You can sign up for design courses on Udemy, LinkedIn Learning, Coursera, and other learning platforms. You can also play around with tools like Canva and the Adobe Creative Suite. For corporate purposes, you’ll need to master presentation design as well – here’s a brilliant piece on how to craft a good one.
Learn how to write – and write often
Writing sharpens your thinking and is beneficial to your career. Master the art of writing concise proposals, summarized reports, and both internal and external memos. Practice makes perfect – a good idea is to blog often or write social media posts about topics you’re passionate about. You can also get guidance from courses, hire a writing coach, or offer writing services to improve your own writing (my favorite approach).
Up to this point, you’ve spent your entire life learning academic writing – long essays designed to fill up pages or word counts to appease your lecturers. As you start your professional career, master copywriting and business writing instead. The former teaches you how to convince and sell, and the latter teaches you how to inform and educate (there are overlaps, of course). Here are some excellent copywriting courses you can take online, plus courses on business writing.
Another thing: learn how to write better emails. You want to keep your emails short and sweet and provide as much context as possible. People should be pleased to receive and read emails from you, not put off your emails till later. Here’s a guide I put together (with examples) to help you write better emails.
Sell your value, not your skills
A common mistake new graduates make (and even mid-career professionals) is selling their skills, not their value, to the organization. They settle for ‘market-related compensation’ because they haven’t yet learned how to align their pay package with the value they bring.
As I wrote on LinkedIn:
If your role is single-handedly responsible for bringing in R2m/yr in revenue, don’t settle for less than R200k/yr (or more). Likewise, if you’ll be responsible for *saving* the company R2m/yr, levy a commensurate ‘tax’ on those savings as your salary.
By definition, this requires you to do your homework about the company and ask a million questions during the interview process.
Remember, the hiring team always knows exactly how much your role is worth to them, so the onus is on you to close that knowledge gap so you can effectively sell your ‘value’ and not settle for a ‘market-related salary’ (which is rarely in your favor).– Mohammed Shehu
The above advice applies to freelancing and entrepreneurship as well. Not all clients are created equal, so not all services will be valued (and thus priced) equally. Adopting a value-based approach to compensation rather than a skill-based one will do wonders for your bank account.
Always be ready to leave
This advice applies before you get the job and once you’re in it. During the interview process, be enthusiastic about the opportunity to work for the company – but be ready to walk away from it. That mindset removes desperation. Pulling this off requires you to (a) apply for many positions to increase your options; and (b) ask piercing questions about the workplace, the resources available, your growth trajectory, and potential roadblocks to watch out for. The latter will be uncomfortable but necessary.
Once you get the job, never get too comfortable. Workplaces change: your fantastic boss may leave, your colleagues may turn hostile, the workload may increase unbearably, the company may lose clients and revenue, or COVID-19 may come along and lead to your retrenchment. Getting attached to a job is risky, and your mental health, psychological safety, and financial freedom must come first at all times. Understand that as much as your company values you, they can replace you at any moment.
Set firm boundaries at work, sharpen your skills, stay in the know about new opportunities, supplement your main income, and maintain professional connections outside your workplace so that you’re always ready to leave. This brings me to my next point:
Network like hell
As I wrote in Put Yourself Out There:
When a recruiter or hiring manager searches for candidates, their first port of call is their personal network. If they can’t find someone within their network, they’ll head to LinkedIn next. It follows that if you want to be found for that role, you need to be in their social circle or on LinkedIn—ideally both.
Your CV alone will not get you a job. Being on LinkedIn is a great start, but it will still not get you a job. Actively searching and applying for jobs is an excellent step forward, but you’ll need to go further than that: Befriend, Engage, Give. This is the only type of BEG-ing that gets you far in life.– Mohammed Shehu
The opportunities you seek are in the hands of other people, and you’ll need to seek out those people and connect with them. These people are everywhere – but you need to be bold enough to approach them, curious enough to learn who they are and what they do, and generous enough to help them succeed so they can help you in turn. Easier said than done.
One more thing: kill your shyness. The phrase “I’m shy” implies that the world should cater to your social awkwardness instead of you stepping out of your shell. It’s also damaging – the more you tell yourself you’re shy, the more self-fulfilling it becomes. It’s been known for centuries that fortune favors the bold, whether in business, romance, or war. Being ‘shy’ in the corporate world is not cute – it’s a costly way to get run over, ignored, and set aside when big decisions – and big payments – are being made. The earlier you work on your social skills and self-esteem, the better your career will perform.
This goes back to mastering public speaking – it helps you get over your fear of talking to people and expressing yourself. Remind yourself whenever you meet new people that they just don’t know how awesome you are yet – so show them.
Start your career with a bang
Hone your skills, learn how to talk to anyone, write relentlessly, sell your value, always have options, and network like hell. That’s the secret sauce.
Mohammed Shehu, Ph.D. writes on content and marketing for creators and brands. You can find him online @shehuphd everywhere.