Monday, April 4, 2011

Career Advice to Graduating Students

It’s the end of another academic year. For profs, this means that there are 3 certainties: final assignment grading; mark submission; and a lot of students swinging by for career advice. Tonight, I dedicate this blog to my graduating students, friends, and readers who are embarking on a new career journey. By the way, get ready for some clichés tonight. But as my good friend (and branding mentor) Professor Demetrios Vakratsas says, “clichés are usually true.” (Demetrios gives it 110% every time that he teaches).

What a lot of students do not know is that their profs really care about them. The entire teaching proposition is predicated around the idea that the prof (and his/her course) will make the student better on exit of the course than he/she was on entry to the course. For the prof (to use another cliché), teaching is about molding the future leaders of society. It is a privilege and a wonderful responsibility to be entrusted with this purpose.

When students seek advice from me on career, I tell them that my perspective (which you will see below) is only one perspective. It is only to be incorporated in to the mix of advice which should come from parents, siblings, employers, mentors, friends, other profs - and insights from personal reflection.

Having said that, career launch for a graduating student is a very exciting time. It’s one of the very few times in life when the career chalk board is blank and there are very few career choice constraints. Picking a career path is a tall order for anyone, much less a 23 year old (or younger), who has limited experience and exposure to industry. A lot of what I write about tonight will be based on advice given to me from others and some of it is based on what I wish others had advised me. Nothing that I write is rocket-science, but my hope is that it will be helpful to my readership.

So, here goes:

1. Love what you do
Any sports-caster would be proud of me for starting off with a cliché, and this line is about as cliché as it gets: Love what you do. As Confucius said, “Find a job you love and you'll never work a day in your life.” It’s profound and simple- and the ancientness of it suggests that ever since Adam (or at least Confucius), people have searched for their role in life. But the idea of getting paid for what you would otherwise be doing is an awesome concept. I remember watching Sylvester Stallone on Oprah (just writing that line is going to cost me a lot of readership!) and he spun this ancient concept as “Find out what you would do without pay, and do that for your career.” In other words, if you love coming up with zany ideas, work in advertising or new product development. If in your spare time you love drawing- make advertising storyboards or write comic books. If horses are your thing, work with horses. The underlying assumption, of course, is that if you really like what you do, you will want to do it more, likely be better at it, and as the experience accrues, so too does the expertise.

How do you find out what you really love (or like) doing? If you don’t already know, here are a couple reflection exercises. One: Keep a detailed hour-by-hour diary for a week. See how you spend your off-time. Revisit the entries and examine where your leisure time is enjoyed. Two: Answer this question. If you never have to work another day in your life, what would you be doing day-to-day and month-to-month?

2. Be good at something, and the bad stuff, fahggetabout it
Like it or not, the market rewards expertise. If you are the world’s fastest runner- you’re going to be sought out for races and endorsements. Now very few folks will ever be the best in the world at something (Kudos if you are!), but if you are the best waffle maker in your town, you are likely going to sell a lot of waffles. Before you know it, you’ll be attracting customers from the surrounding areas and beyond. Make yourself the better mousetrap.

A good friend of mine did a lot of hiring at McKinsey. According to him, their staffing involved hiring based on “spikes”. Spikes are nothing more than areas that people are really good at. Imagine that, the world’s top business consulting firm hiring on this simple principle. Your spike might be problem solving. It might be motivating people. It might be something else. But, if you are good at something, it is easy to be successful doing it.

It is usually not too hard to identify the spikes- just think back on life when you constantly were “winning” at something. Maybe you won public speaking awards all your life. Maybe your friends always ask for your interior design advice. Still need a little more help finding your spike? Try a Myers-Briggs test). It can be a useful tool to help align personality types with spike- and careers.

I’m not quite finished on this "be good at something" either. The concept (which is not my line- but comes from a friend of mine) puts the emphasis on what you are good at. There is a natural flip-side to it too. If you are investing time and energy at being good at something, it also means that you are doing less stuff that are naturally bad at. I remember having drinks with a former MBA student of mine. He had really bought in to this idea of knowing what he was really good at and focusing on that. Over drinks one night he said, “Bob, I just focus on what I’m best at – which are operations and leading people. The stuff I am not good at, I leave for others who are competent in those areas.” I remember “cheers’ing" the glasses while saying, “Dude you’re going to be my first former student CEO.” He’s now 3rd in command of one of the world’s largest alcohol brands. Guess what he’s doing? Leading a massive operations team.

3. Suck the Marrow out of Life
When I was a teenager, my sister Jacqueline, who was master of hooky one-liners, told me, “We’re just renting life.” If we are LUCKY, we are able bodied long enough to do some cool things. But, one day, we all get the call of failing health/death. Marrying this reality with my dad’s favourite cliché, “Son, no one ever wishes that he spent more time at the office when he is on his deathbed”, we can get a life orientation. In other words, work comes second to the most important things in life: family and friends (and relationships and experiences with them).

There are two exercises that I encourage everyone to do. First, make a list of the “cool things to do before you die.” Then, make the list happen. There is ZERO reason to put this off. I’ve been doing this for over 10 years now (because of one of my friends had mentioned that he was doing it). What I find is that the more stuff I cross off my list, the more stuff I want to do. The more stuff on the list that I do with family and friends- the stronger my relationships with them become. It's solid winning. Lists can include anything from “spending 3 months volunteering in an impoverished area” to “writing a cook book.”

The second exercise comes from an academic. A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of hearing Professor Marshall Goldsmith speak at a business conference. Marshall is a super-premium coach for Fortune 500 CEOs. I can’t be as eloquent as he is, but the gist of the exercise is this.

“Picture yourself as a 99 year old man (woman) taking your last breaths of life. You’ve got time to write one last letter to yourself. What would that wise 99 year old man or woman write to you today?”

Thinking about that still gives me goosebumps.

4. Baby Steps
Here is another cliché question that those entertaining new jobs ought to ask themselves.

“What is your ideal job? Describe it.”

These perfect jobs are often “a few years down the road”- especially for those starting off on a career. But there is no time like the present to lay the foundation for that career. Once that ideal job has been reasonably identified, take some baby steps to reach it. Are there any skills to pick up to help you get to that position? Every term, I tell my students to use their university projects as a platform to develop industry expertise and relationships with potential employers. If you are still in school and cosmetics rock your world, why not do all of your projects on L’Oreal, Maybelline, Mac and Mary Kay? You are doing the work anyway. Plus the prof will likely give you constructive comments on the projects. If your paper is a “rockstar”, then present it to the company. If you are the Human Resource Manager at L’Oreal, who would you rather hire? Young woman #1 who has a marketing degree- OR – Young woman #2 who holds a marketing degree but over the course of that marketing degree used Market Research class to investigate consumer shopping patterns of cosmetics, Brand Management class to audit cosmetic brands, and Advertising class to create communications for a cosmetic brand?
If you are out of school, these baby steps still work. Start a blog on a topic related to a topic that you are interested in, for example. Consistent baby steps help you become "good at something".

5. Have the right philosophies
There are two philosophies that I would like to close off with tonight. While not directly related to life choices and career, they still support the notions that I wrote about above. The first relates to dreams. The second relates to gratitude.

My last blog post was about brand Rebecca Black. She’s the 13 year old child who put out a video that has around 90 million You Tube views. Her video gets ravaged by commenters on YouTube with hundreds of comments like, “Go kill yourself. Your music is so bad”. Reading these comments deeply troubled me, so I wrote the following as a comment on Rebecca Black's YouTube channel.

“To all the haters out there, please spend time pursuing your own dreams, rather than trying to destroy someone else’s.”

If you “support the dreams” of others, there is a selfish spillover benefit too. There are a lot more celebrations to go to and that's a lot of fun.

I’ll share a personal story about how supporting the dreams of someone else came back to reward me personally.

A few years ago, a former student of mine asked me to oversee an independent study. For profs at McGill, these requests are a pain-in-the-ass because independent studies are time consuming (due to bureaucracy and actual study mentorship) and you don’t receive any compensation or credit for it. This student, however, had a dream to work in professional sports (hockey or football) marketing. (He understood points 1 and 2 above). As such, I chose to support his dream. His independent study was excellent and he used it as a platform to launch his professional sports marketing career. Since then, he has been excelling in sports marketing and growing professionally ever since. But here is the kicker. On my "list of things to do before I die", I had listed: “Learn how to play the guitar, write a song and have it played in a stadium.” (What a long shot, right?) Well, the song that I wrote for my nephew’s 5th birthday about his imaginary friend was played at a the sold-out Family Day at the Calgary Stadium. (Check it out here). My former student (totally an awesome guy) became the director of marketing of a professional football team and volunteered to support one of my dreams. That's gratitude and takes us to a discussion of gratitude.

Last year a former student of mine asked for a letter of reference. I hadn’t heard from her in 7 years so I was pretty surprised she asked me for a letter of reference. I dug up her file and realized that she had performed at the top of her class. Thirty minutes later I had finished her letter of reference- and it was a beauty. Since this was a non-confidential letter, I forwarded it back to her. A week later she replied this:

“Since it is so nice I need two more. Make them out to these addresses:”

I complied. Another week later this note:

“I need one more. It goes to this address:”

I did that again, and forwarded it on to her. What was incredible was this: Over the 4 correspondences that I had with her, I did not receive a single “Please” or a “Thank you”.

A week later, the phone rang. It was one of the potential employers advising me that my former student was about to be made a lucrative offer. The manager responsible for hiring said, “We read your letter of reference for xxxx and it was really strong. As part of our hiring routine we follow up." After reinforcing the letter in a phone conversation, the employer asked me, “Is there anything you think could be improved on from this candidate? “To which I replied, “As I wrote in my letter, based on my in-class experiences, she is a highly competent individual with world-class abilities. The only thing that disappointed me was that I did not receive a thank you after writing her reference letter.”

The manager on the other end of the phone said, “Say no more. We won’t be making her the offer.”

You could argue that this former student was unprofessional. But in reality she lost a job because of a lack of gratitude. Her failure to say “Thank you”.


  1. Amazing post Bob. Every students should read that post before graduating or even when in the program. The end is so true and reminds me other stories about egocentric high-achievers. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks JF- but I think you like this one b/c it has a link to Van Halen Dreams :-)

  3. This is one of my favorite blogs. Thank you for the good advice!

  4. I love and this and all of your amazing posts.

    I can't believe you preformed in a sold-out stadium- this makes you even cooler.

    Keep loving life!

  5. *I love this and all of your amazing


  7. Great stuff as usual Bob. Keep on keeping on!

  8. Thanks for this great post, Bob.

    #1 on that list is one of the best pieces of advice I have ever received and passed on to anyone. A lot of people don't realize how important it is to love what you do - makes you happier in the long run. Growing up in a family that was always strapped for cash, I always thought finances were what mattered to me most. As I grew, I realized that happiness is the road to success - and like you said, if you love it, you'll work harder and get better at it.

    Also, I would say "passionate about what he/she does" is one of the strongest brand associations anyone can have. So, win-win!

  9. I absolutely LOVE this post! I wish you had given our class this post in our last class! I'm graduating this year and still a bit lost as to where I'm heading towards, and it's a bit scary to be honest.
    I've always told my friends that out of my 90 credits, about 12 credits were classes in which I felt that I truly learned something that I could bring with me later in life, and 3 of which were taught by you :)
    I'm glad I've gotten you as an awesome brand teacher, hopefully will be able to bump into you again!

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  11. Thank you Bob! I really like this post!
    It's very helpful. Some of your points really enlighten me:)

  12. I wish I had read this when graduating. I'm stuck in a well paying IB job that I hate.

  13. Thanks for sharing this most useful career advice.

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  15. Wonderful blog... and a perfect time for me to read it. Also, I am more determined than ever to follow where my passion lies =) Also, your advices during the Brazil Study Abroad have allowed me to retake some of my decisions. Bob, you truly are inspirational :D

  16. Aloha!

    I assign this blog post as required reading to my students at the University of Hawaii.

  17. THANK YOU FOR POSTING THIS PROFESSOR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  18. Oh! what an excellent post this is... a great wealth of information! It teaches as to how you should live your whole life. Hats off sir...