How to develop the right professional image to build your graduate career

You have a professional image. We all do. But if you don’t manage it well, it could develop into a monster and damage your graduate career.

The professional image you project can either open or close doors to your graduate career. Leaving it to chance is like neglecting your personal appearance. Just think, what would you look like if you never washed, cleaned your teeth or brushed your hair every day? Not very nice. Well, your personal image is much the same. It needs to be carefully cultivated if you want to give off the right impression to build your graduate career.

I’m guessing that you’d rather not turn up at an interview looking like an unkempt monster but would prefer to influence the way employers see you for the better, so here’s some advice to help you to project a professional image.

How do you want to be seen?

First off, think about how you want employers to see you. As a creative person, an enthusiastic go-getter, a decisive leader; a person who takes well-calculated risks, is courageous and adventurous? Perhaps as a person who oozes calm, confidence and carefulness? Of course, you will have a hard time trying to project an image that’s totally at odds with your core personality so think about what your natural strengths are, the things that tend to attract people to you – and then enhance and add to these.

Who do you want to emulate?

We often admire qualities in other people and adopt them as our own. Sometimes we do this without realising it. Perhaps you admire Nelson Mandela’s style of leadership, Steve Job’s inventiveness, Lord Alan Sugar’s straightforwardness, Gordon Ramsey’s eccentric creativity or Bill Gates for his philanthropy work. You may even admire a person for a quality without really liking them at all! Sometimes we admire others for quite odd things. Recently I heard a man give a tribute to his late uncle who he admired for not just being a hard-worker and also a left-hander! Think about the qualities you admire in other people and how you can emulate these.

What image do you conjure up as a communicator?

Work on the image you project as a communicator. How do you come across when you speak? Do you stumble over your words or can you explain yourself clearly? Do people see you as a good listener? A great and practical way to help yourself develop a positive communication style is to record yourself speaking naturally. This might be during a presentation, speech or conversation (with the permission of others involved, of course!). Recording yourself will help you judge how you sound – are you loud, do you talk too fast, is your voice boring and monotone, do you have a stuffy nasal tone or high pitch, and is your speech peppered with loads of erm’s, ah’s, um’s and y’knows? You’ll soon know when you listen back!

Is your body language hindering your graduate career?

Body language plays a huge role in the image we give off. In fact, it says so much more than what we say with words. Could your body language be sabotaging your graduate career? Do you stoop and slouch, sit awkwardly or walk with a slow, hesitant gait? Perhaps you have a perpetual look of worry, sadness or anger. These may make you seem lacking in confidence – or make people run as far away from you as possible! Posture says a lot about you without you uttering a word so always stand tall, strong and project an air of confidence. Doesn’t matter if you don’t feel it: practise and you will.

Watch what you post on social media

What you project on social media matters. Gone are the days when our personal and public lives were less visible. Nowadays a potential employer can easily find out things about you that might jeopardise the nice professional image you cultivate at work, and without even trying much either. You may just pop up in his or her feed. So make sure your name is associated with ethical and honest behaviour consistent with what you project at work. Don’t criticise colleagues or even friends or post anything about a person you would not want said about you. The way you treat and interact with other people says a lot about you. If you’re always caught up in the middle of controversy or hear-say then your boss might come to the conclusion that you’re the common dominator! Instead, use your social media to promote your positive image as an ambitious, competent, trustworthy and respectable person.

Quick-wins for building a positive professional image

Finally, here are a few overall good qualities you can work on to help you cultivate the kind of professional image that will help you get far in your graduate career:

1. Friendliness – don’t wait for others to talk to you, say hello first.
2. Smile – not Cheshire-cat type of grinning, but a warm smile that makes you appear approachable and trustworthy.
3. Eye contact – especially while speaking or listening shows that you’re interested in the other person.
4. Names – use a person’s name when addressing them and they will give you their full attention.
5. Do your homework – on people, especially when going to an interview or meeting a person for the first time.

I hope you will find the advice shared here on how to cultivate a professional image to build your graduate career useful. Start simple, keep working on it and soon you will have a set of admirable qualities that will make others want to be just like you.

The two most important skills for a successful graduate career, and why most lack them

Do you know what two skills are most important for a successful graduate career?

More important than being ambitious, intelligent or technically savvy?

And more important than displays of passion, commitment or the ability to convince an employer that you can do the job?

Okay, let me drop the suspense.

The two skills that will help you most in your graduate career are your social and emotional skills. They are your game-changing career cards.

An overwhelming 92 per cent of HR managers believe this, and a shocking 76 per cent of graduates lack them.

Survey results reported by the Hay Group gathered data from 450 HR managers and 400 graduates in China, India and the US. It also found that 63 per cent of graduates underestimate the significance of emotional and social competence. They erroneously think them unimportant.

Much to the chagrin of UK employers. In recent research by the Association of Graduate Recruiters 49 per cent complained that new graduates lack social and emotional skills like teamwork and problem solving skills.

(That’s why 55 per cent of graduates are underemployed, thinks the skills-profiling service PayScale.)

Why are soft skills so important?

Your emotional and social skills will help you perform the myriad of small but important actions that build your overall skillset. This includes things like the ability to get on well with difficult people, to give, take and apply feedback, to resolve conflicts, manage change, make good decisions, and to keep at a worthwhile task that’s tedious, time consuming, frustrating or fraught with multiple setbacks.

People with well-developed soft skills become top performers, and top performers are 127 more productive than average workers. No wonder employers prefer them. They believe that only one third of the difference between having a successful graduate career, and not, is down to your technical and cognitive skills.

However, according to 82 per cent of employers who took part in the Hay Group research, it’s easier to find graduates with the right technical than soft skills. Graduates with good social and emotional skills are so rare employers scramble over each other to employ and retain them.

Why do graduate lack emotional and social competence?

Graduates either cannot be bothered to develop them or they just don’t realise how important they are. Most graduates fail to realise that you don’t walk into a job and develop these skills overnight. Employers say they start off okay. A young person enters the workplace full of ideas and ideals and want to perform well from day one but often underestimate the time it takes to develop the skills employers most need.

Rather than focus on building these skills in the first few years of work, new graduates tend to focus on their technical skills and so find it hard to fit in, build team relationships or to deal with stress. They often feel unappreciated or that their ideas aren’t valued.

The only way to develop your social and emotional competencies is to practice them on the job. You need to train yourself to acquire the right behaviours through reflection on what you’re learning and by receiving and applying ongoing feedback. You stand little chance of becoming a high performer without doing this.

Soft skills make the difference. They’ll help you stay ahead of competition, align your skills along the direction of organisational change, perform on the job and achieve the commercial impact needed to advance in your career.

If you want a successful graduate career this is where your focus needs to be, and as early as is possible. Start with internships, work experience, voluntary work and other real-life work environments. Concentrate on building these two skills and you stand a better chance of landing that top job you want.

The Way to a Top Graduate Job is Hidden in Your Heart

You may not realise it but your motivation to find a graduate job is not money. It’s something else, and here’s the way to make it work for you.

In May 1972 holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl told the roomful of students attending his Toronto conference that only 16 per cent of American students have “to make a lot of money” as their main goal in life. The majority, 78 per cent, are concerned with finding meaning and purpose.

We cannot talk about meaning and purpose without engaging what we feel. Our emotions hold the clue to what motivates us to achieve our goals. Without meaning and purpose, Dr Frankl said a person becomes dull and frustrated. It’s another way of saying bored and demotivated. We need goals anchored to our emotional needs.

In his much-loved TEDTalk on starting with why, Simon Sinek said most individuals and companies don’t know why they do what they do. Profit and salary are only the result of, not the reason why. The answer is closer to what we feel and value.

Are your emotions an under-utilised ally in your job search?

Our emotions are so powerful they can by-pass our logic. You may know you ought to develop your problem-solving skills to get that top job, and you may want to, but if you move by logic alone you can often kiss that top job good-bye.

This is not bad news, but good. If you’re a graduate searching for a graduate level job understanding and making use of your emotions in your job search can really help you. Graduate recruitment is highly competitive and so you need all the help you can get to ward off temptations to give up.

Take Simon Sinek again. He’s a successful author but did you know that up until the age of 18 he hated reading? Never read a book unless he had to for an assignment. What changed for him was his mentors asking, “Do you want your girlfriend to be attracted to you or to create powerful relationships with other people rather than being ignored? Then you must read books!”

For Simon, the difference between those who inspired him to read (successful people he wanted to emulate) and those who turned him off (teachers), was that his mentors began with the why you must read while his teachers were all about the what you must read.

How to generate the energy to compete for a top job

If you haven’t a clue why you want that job then your brain will do a really smart thing: it will protect you from exerting the energy to get it. You will experience this as boredom, distraction or a feeling that you just can’t be bothered.

This is especially so when it comes to competing for a top graduate job – all those hours of trawling through job listings, tailoring and uploading CVs, reading and digesting details of the person spec and then writing covering letters to fit. Then you’ve got to prepare for the interview. Done properly, this means researching the company, looking up the interviewers, polishing your technique for asking and answering interview questions, and working up the confidence you’ll need to pull it off. It all takes energy and your brain knows that. Worse still, if, as is likely the case, you’ve had a few failed interviews in the recent past, your brain will latch on to that information to help it predict what may happen in the future.

If you don’t have a strong enough why then you may find yourself tripped up by your brain’s advice “not to bother”. It may say “this is hard work”. It may direct you to something more “fun”, like finding out what your friends are up to on social media instead of doing the research your good sense is telling you to do.

Whatever you want, then, you must place desire at the heart of it. Know why you want it and your brain will give you the energy you need to complete for that top job.

How to find your “why” to a top graduate job

So, to get the graduate job you really want, get your emotions on your side. Attach a desire to your goal to get that dream position, promotion or other career advancing goal you want.

Here are some steps you can take to generate some emotional power behind your career goals. I’ve adapted the following questions from learning consultant Tom Barwood:

Ask yourself…

  1. What is it that you want?
  2. How much do you want it?
  3. What will life look like when you get it – what will you be able to do?
  4. What would be the consequence of failing?
  5. What are you prepared to do to get it?

You need a why that’s bigger than any obstacle in your way. If your why is big enough the how will fall into place.

One example Tom uses to illustrate this is how many of us will study the Highway Code, which isn’t exactly a fun read, simply because of how much we want to be able to drive. The obstacles to achieving what you want disappear in the face of a strong enough desire for what lies beyond. Lack of money, talent, time or the fear of failure can’t keep you back.

So, find what’s in it for you and you’re half way there. The reward is unlikely to be money itself, but the things money will allow you to have, such as freedom and choice, status and influence. Whatever it is, your brain will give you the energy you need to achieve it. It will tell you that the risk and effort are worth it. If you fail, you can only learn from it. Don’t you think that’s far better than never ever getting the graduate job you dream of?