A Young Employee’s Guide to Being Awesome

This blog post accompanies a talk I will be doing at the UT Dallas School of Management. At SXSW Interactive 2011, Christopher Fahey and Tim Meaney had an outstanding session, Toss the Projector: Redefining the Presenter/Audience Dynamic. One of the key take-aways was the fact that your presentation should never end when you leave. You should always have a book or blog post that your audience can read more on. This post is the first that the students at UTD can take away from the talk.

There is a recession going on. Not the kind you’re used to that you learned about in your Principles of Economics class – this recession is a permanent result of what Seth Godin calls “The Networked Revolution.”

Your parents promised that if you just went to college and got a degree you’d be set and ready for a job. Unfortunately, those days are long gone.

Seth Godin explains it in his article, The Forever Recession:

The networked revolution is creating huge profits, significant opportunities and a lot of change. What it’s not doing is providing millions of brain-dead, corner office, follow-the-manual middle class jobs. And it’s not going to.

Fast, smart and flexible are embraced by the network. Linchpin behavior. People and companies we can’t live without (because if I can live without you, I’m sure going to try if the alternative is to save money).

I graduated from UT Dallas a year and a half ago, in December of 2009. I made many mistakes in my time there (more on that in a bit), but some hard work and a bit of luck landed me in an amazing job I love today at Sabre Holdings1. What I hope is to share some of my experiences and knowledge gained along the way in my young career.

The key as Seth Godin puts it, is that you have to be a person no company can live without. As I see it, there are three steps:

  1. Know Who You Are.
  2. Be Authentic.
  3. Make something great.

Know Who You Are.

Here’s a question most people go an entire career without asking themselves: What do you love to do?

I’m sure you ask what the hot fields are or what makes the most money. I know I’ve stood in a career fair for hours and asked hundreds of MBAs this same question. It’s amazing that no one can answer that.

What do you do in your free time? What is it that you would do if you had all the money in the world?

Merlin Mann is a really smart guy and a great speaker. As he put it on his Back to Work podcast with Dan Benjamin (paraphrased):

So many people today derive their meaning from their jobs. Your job should be a reflection of who you are.

It’s really not always as simple as stopping and and asking yourself that question. Maybe you already know what you want to do. Maybe you think you know, and 10 years after starting your career you’ll realize you had it all wrong and hate your job.

I have a little bit of experience with a thing called Career Counseling. You know, the thing where you lay on the couch and someone asks you “So, how does that make you feel?”

Kidding! My wife is actually a Counselor, not a career-focused one, but during her Masters degree she had to take a class on how to be one. Of course, I was the subject of all her experiments at night. Luckily enough, I had just started my internship at Sabre, and all these tests did was solidify my excitement for the job I’m incredibly passionate about today. It’s also helped me look forward where I want to go with my career. The thing is, these tests don’t give you an answer, but they give you insight into yourself.

Understanding yourself is the first step in getting into a successful career that you’re passionate about.

The first test is the Meyers-Briggs. You’ve probably heard of it. During my freshman “intro to college” class, I even took one of these tests. In case you haven’t heard of it, it has four preferences that you can read more about on Wikipedia.

You can take a free version of the test here.

The Meyers-Briggs will help you better understand yourself and how you approach problems.

For example – I am an INTJ, or Introverted Intuition Thinking Judging. A simple thing I’ve learned about being introverted is that I need time on my own to recharge2. Being in conversation with others all day is exhausting for me.

Because of that, I will probably forego the advice that many people give me that “You have to have a stint in a sales job to move into management!” Being in sales would be exhausting for me! It also tells my wife that when I get home from a long day at work, I need 10-15min to recharge to give her my all.

Knowing your type can help in work/career choices as well as your personal life.

The second test is the Strong Interest Inventory. This is a test that helps you evaluate what you are truly interested in. It has nothing to do with money or ability to perform a job.

When my wife gave me this test, I generally found that I had picked a pretty strong career in Business and Marketing. However, I was overwhelmingly strong in teaching jobs. Because I know that, I take time to find opportunities to speak publicly, especially at UT Dallas, my alma mater, where I come back to speak a few times each semester. It recharges and invigorates me.

Be Authentic.

When I was in college, everyone was running around talking about how social media was terrible because it would come back to bite you in the butt. Your employers would find all your college drinking pictures on Facebook and never hire you. All I heard was “Be careful, you are putting something bad on the internet”.

I’d like to present a second idea though. It’s on a continuum.

What you put on the internet is your choice. You can give people something bad. You can disappear and have nothing (which by the way, is incredibly difficult!), or you could choose to put something overwhelmingly good.

What I’ve learned is that not only do you need to put something good out there, but as Gary Vaynerchuk put it in his outstanding book, Crush It:

Mark my words, if you want to stay relevant and competitive in the coming years – I don’t care if you’re in sales, tech, finance, publishing, journalism, event planning, business development, retail, service, you name it – you will still need to start develop and grow your personal brand. Everyone – EVERYONE – needs to start thinking of themselves as a brand. it is no longer an option.

This idea of a personal brand is relatively new. It’s the idea that you put out onto the internet a body of materials that shows who you are as a person. Just like Coca-Cola hires hundreds of people and probably spends millions of dollars each year marketing their brands, we as individuals can do that now.

Let’s give employers something good.

The primary way of doing this is through social networking.

LinkedIn

LinkedIn is the new rolodex and resume. It’s your body of professional contacts as well as allowing you to step outside 3 bullet points and one page for a resume. You can talk about what you’ve done. You can convey your skills.

And employers are looking. Any company with a half-modernized HR department today will actively search LinkedIn for certain keywords to find potential employees.

Additionally, when you are searching for a job, you can find out which of your professional contacts work or know people that work at other companies.

Twitter

Just the outlet for some crazy Charlie Sheen rants, and telling people what you ate for breakfast, right?

Wrong.

Twitter is one of the most powerful communication mediums since the cell phone. For the first time ever, you have the opportunity to connect with anyone and start a conversation. It’s a complete change in paradigm!

Twitter is also a tool for finding interesting content that’s relevant to what you do. When you find interesting people, they will inevitably share fascinating things that they find. This is normal on Twitter.

Finally, Twitter allows you to broadcast your own content. For the first time you have a platform that lets you connect with people and share content. Just don’t be a jerk – more on that in a bit.

Blog

The last step is cementing yourself as an expert. Your blog should be your personal hub on the internet. You should be proud to put it down on a resume. It allows you to express yourself to potential employers.

Your blog should be written about industry news or whatever it is that you’re passionate about.

I love business strategy. This site, Behind Companies, was started one morning when I was reading some articles in Instapaper and realized a trend – they were all about the stories on how companies work. Some Tumblr themes and a few hours later, I had the site up and running.

The site has opened up dozens of opportunities, even the chance to speak at UTD, when a former professor stumbled upon it because I liked to a post I had written on the site on our online discussion board. I’ve also had the chance to meet many interesting friends online.

However, there are 3 rules to building your personal brand:

  1. Be Authentic – it will take time to find your voice online. I’m constantly refining mine. But be yourself. There is something that makes you special, so let that shine.

  2. Write great content – I generally write in what’s called the “Linked List format,” pioneered by bloggers such as Kottke and John Gruber. You find something interesting that you read, and comment on it. A few times a month when I feel inspired, I’ll write a longer form piece for the site. The Linked List + Article format keeps great content flowing at an easier pace than forcing you to write a 1000 word essay each time you post.

  3. 10 helps for every ask – Chris Brogan spoke in Dallas last year, and talked about this concept that you should be helping people 10 times for each time you ask them for something. You won’t build relationships if you’re asking for things from people. People will come to appreciate you if you give them something for nothing.

So once you understand those 3 rules, there are 6 steps to getting your personal brand up.

  1. Register www.yourname.com or some variant of it. You won’t regret it. Godaddy.com is a great place to do it, and you can Google around for promo codes to get a .com for less than $8. That’s two Starbucks.
  2. Sign up for social networking services using a professional user name. I generally use ‘marcelosomers’ or ‘msomers’.
  3. Register your blog. I highly recommend Tumblr, WordPress.com, or Posterous. Each one has it’s benefits.
  4. Update your profile on each service to link to one another. Most likely your blog will serve as your home page.
  5. Get reading and writing! Read every news sources you can come across and start posting some commentary on it. It doesn’t have to be breaking news, it can be anything!
  6. Keep it business – if you’re going to post your party photos, be careful. You still don’t want that stuff out there, and you can find it. Don’t post about what you ate for breakfast. Always ask yourself “why would someone want to read this sentence?”

So why do all this? Will it really help. Let’s think like a recruiter. Given the choice, which of these would you rather hire?

  • Person A who has a fantastic resume and great references on paper, but nothing else notable.

  • Person B who has all that, but also has a blog and has gathered a crowd of a few hundred subscribers and several thousand visitors per month (or more) writing intelligently and poignantly on the industry they are involved in.

It is pretty clear between these two who has true passion for what they do and would make real difference in bringing an organization forward.

The biggest benefit though is SEO, or Search Engine Optimization. You should absolutely dominate a Google Search for your name. Social networking (and some hard work) is the key to achieve that. You want an employer to find a wealth of insightful writing and thinking when they Google your name, because they really do it.

Here’s the thing. Seth Godin puts it perfectly, in Pick Yourself:

It’s a cultural instinct to wait to get picked. To seek out the permission and authority that comes from a publisher or talk show host or even a blogger saying, “I pick you.” Once you reject that impulse and realize that no one is going to select you–that Prince Charming has chosen another house–then you can actually get to work.

If you’re hoping that the HR people you sent your resume to are about to pick you, it’s going to be a long wait. Once you understand that there are problems just waiting to be solved, once you realize that you have all the tools and all the permission you need, then opportunities to contribute abound.

No one is going to pick you. Pick yourself.

Make Something Great

I hope you saw The Social Network. It was a great movie, but there is a huge lesson learned.

Mark Zuckerburg was successful because he shipped. He didn’t have an idea, ideas are cheap. He’s worth billions today because he made something.

Talk is cheap, and if all you do is talk about yourself, you’ll quickly go nowhere.

Earlier I said you have to be someone your company has to have. Once you have a job, how do you become that?

Seth Godin (he’s an insightful guy!) asks the question, “Are You Doing a Good Job?”

You might very well be doing a good job. But that doesn’t mean you’re a linchpin, the one we’ll miss. For that, you have to stop thinking about the job and start thinking about your platform, your point of view and your mission.

It’s entirely possible you work somewhere that gives you no option but to merely do a job. If that’s actually true, I wonder why someone with your potential would stay…

In the post-industrial revolution, the very nature of a job is outmoded. Doing a good job is no guarantee of security, advancement or delight.

We go full circle – all your college degree is, is proof that you can start something and finish it. It’s the ticket to play, but no guarantee of landing a great job that you love.

When you start working, take pride in the fact you’re young. Older people may or may not support that. Your company may have an experience rewarded culture, or they may encourage big thinkers. In either situation you can make the excuse “but I’m young, I have decades left to be great!”

The thing is, being older means you may know too much. Companies don’t always realize it, but young people are valuable because they don’t know things can’t be done,

Knowing that “it can’t be done” because you can recount each of the failed attempts in the last 20 years to solve the problem can be a boat anchor on insight and imagination. This not only effects individuals, but happens to companies as they age.

Embrace your youth in a company. Become a thought leader. Bring new ideas to the table. Don’t fit into the mold. Be respectful, but go on record that you see differently. Be willing to test boundaries.

To become a linchpin in today’s business environment, it’s also a basic requirement that you be able to step outside of your business card. Saying “that’s not my job” or “that’s a waste of time” is simply passing up an opportunity to shine.

My personal experience stepping outside of my business card has been inspired by people like Sarah Kennedy Ellis and Carrie Mamantov. Sarah started an organization at Sabre called the Young Professionals Council. This council has given me the opportunity to be exposed to our senior executives and even our CEO. I’ve done two videos that have circulated my name around the company. Carrie is in charge of a group called Bring It, which fosters innovation at the company. As a part of that group, I got to host an event called “The Big Pitch” where 22 employees pitched amazing ideas to a group of executive judges who are now sponsoring the best ideas through the company.

I don’t share these things to brag about what I’ve done, but instead want to show how stepping outside my business card has given me the opportunity to meet some truly amazing people and to work on exciting projects that have helped me network across the company. Don’t let your job consume 100% of your time, make time for other projects that help you grow.

My generation, Gen Y or the “Millennials” will be known for job hopping. There are some stats out there that talk about how we’ll have something like 20 different jobs before the age of 40.

That’s great, but I think we should strive for a higher goal. Some very experienced executives who I respect a lot have given me two pieces of advice.

First are the three stages of a job. You should plan to be in any job for at least two years to achieve anything meaningful.

  1. Learn – it will probably take 6-8 months before any new employee is out of the “learning phase” of a new job.
  2. Contribute – give back to your job. You were hired for a reason, now prove it. Generate some revenue, launch some products, build some brand equity.
  3. Grow – take something from the job, grow in your own personal development. It will be different for each job, but you should take something from every job you hold in your life.

Second, you should be opportunistic. I don’t mean the kind of opportunistic that requires you to step on people to claw your way to the top. Opportunistic means producing results in the job you’re in, but making it known to leaders that you want more responsibility. That way when a new project comes up, you will be at the forefront of their mind.

Earlier I said your job shouldn’t consume 100% of your time. You may not believe it if you aren’t in college, but eventually your job will feel overwhelming and like there isn’t enough time in the day to do all your work.

That’s great, it means you are busy and producing, but I can’t stress enough that you should never be so busy you’ll miss the next great idea. Don’t look at something amazing and say you are too busy to give it your attention.

This will require incredible organization, and a willingness to work more than 40 hours a week. I’m all for a work-life balance, so you have to prioritize your life and be willing to say no to certain things.

What I live by is that every one thing you say “yes” to is 1,000 things you say “no” to.

Pick wisely.

I’ve talked about online networking, but I can’t overstate the important of networking and mentors. Networking doesn’t mean schmoozing with your boss’ boss and sucking up. Inauthenticity will be seen through.

Instead, build deep, long-lasting relationships with people. Take them to lunch. Bounce ideas off of them. Create a “personal board of directors” that you can come to with different issues.

If you’re nervous about meeting people or taking a Vice President out to lunch, remember the age old rule from the timeless book How to Win Friends & Influence People: Ask people about themselves. People love to talk about themselves – don’t you? Flatter them, ask them every question about what they do, what they’re passionate about or anything else you’re curious about. You’d be amazed how that will open up any relationship.

As a young employee, these mentors will be invaluable in your personal growth. I have people I absolutely know I can go to at any moment who will drop everything to help me with a major problem. Each person has a different strength, but it’s absolutely crucial in developing yourself.

This has been a lot about helping yourself grow, but to grow, you have to help others shine. The next decade will be about the humanization of business. Gary Vaynerchuk calls it The Thank You Economy. It’s about being authentic and selling yourself by helping others. As you build relationships with your coworkers and network, new job opportunities will arise, not because you talked your way into them, but because you genuinely deserve them.

Know who you are. Be authentic. Make something great.

It’s a seemingly simple formula for any young employee. It’ll be hard to practice and probably will take half a lifetime to mold into something, but there is no doubt that doing these three steps will set you apart from the flood of undergrads and MBAs being flooded into a job market with few opportunities. You’ll be a person any company can’t live without.

  1. Legal: these views are mine alone and do not represent Sabre’s in any way []
  2. Introversion/Extroversion has nothing to do with your social skills – it has to do with how you recharge. []
March 22, 2011