Saturday, August 04, 2007

Successful Transitions: College Graduate to Working Professional

Part 2: How to Create A Professional Persona

The Radio Show Recap...

The skills needed to succeed in the workplace are very different from the skills needed for success at school. In order to help young adults survive and thrive in the workplace we created a three-part series of radio shows focused on making a successful transition from student to professional.

In this segment of “The Working Life,” O’Keyla Smith and I discussed the importance of developing an effective professional image. How does one shed the image of a college student and adopt the image of a young successful professional? We explored some of the key elements of presenting oneself with professionalism and confidence.

O’Keyla’s Question: So lets start by defining what we mean by a “professional persona”? What goes into creating a professional persona? Is it more than just clothes?

My Thoughts: Yes, a professional persona, or image, is more than just clothing—although attire is a large part of it. A professional persona is made up of these key elements:
  • Attire & clothing: How you look
  • Body Language: How you hold and present your physical self
  • Attitude & behavior: How you think and act
  • Conversation & language: How you communicate and engage others
Young people entering the workplace need to ensure all of these elements are working together to present a professional image. The more all these elements are in alignment with the image you are trying to create, the more people will see you as a competent and talented professional.

O’Keyla’s Question: Why is a professional persona so important? We’ve all been taught not to judge a book by its cover—so isn’t talent more important?

My Thoughts: A professional persona is important because it helps create opportunity. When you are new to the workforce—nobody knows you! Nobody knows your talents. Nobody knows your skills. So in order to get opportunity--you’ve got to build trust first! In fact, your biggest goal during your first year in a new job is to develop trust so that people will give you opportunities to showcase your talents.

A large part of building trust is looking the part—looking like you are a competent professional. Until people get to know you for your accomplishments, all they have to go on is how you present yourself. Remember business is a financial venture and a social venture. This means that your co-workers success is dependent on some degree to your ability to get the job done—and vice versa. People are more likely to trust someone who looks trustworthy. And the person who looks like they belong in the game has an upper hand.

Don’t forget—opportunities are lurking behind every corner—so it is more than just proving your talents to your immediate supervisor. A strong professional persona will also help you develop a positive reputation throughout the entire company.

O’Keyla’s Question: So this goes into first impressions—how long does someone have to create a positive impression and how do they ensure that they make one?

My Thoughts: People form first impressions in three seconds! That’s right. In 3 seconds, people make up their mind about you and once that impression is formed, it is very difficult to change. A lot happens in those three seconds. They are forming judgments about your competence, your personality, and your values. They are also forming judgments on your “status.” In a business setting, they are deciding if you are potentially on the same business status, a higher status, or a lower status than they. If they deem you to be equal or higher status then it will be easier for them to accept you as a colleague and peer and you are on your way to creating a potentially useful business relationship. If you are deemed as “lower,” then they will keep you at arms length—never quite accepting you as a key player.

You decide how you want others to view you. I know, it seems unfair to “judge a book by its cover,” but the sooner you realize that this is reality—it is how people are naturally wired, the sooner you can use this reality to your advantage.

O’Keyla’s Question: What are some of the biggest mistakes you’ve seen people make?

My Thoughts: Where to start? The biggest mistakes I see (and the ones that employers complain about most often) are attitudes. Many young people in the workplace just have misaligned attitudes and expectations.

O’Keyla’s Question: So what kinds of attitudes create positive professional personae?

My Thoughts: Ahhh, great question! Young people need to exhibit attitudes that reflect service and results. In college, young adults are consumers or customers—in the workplace they are service providers, so their attitudes need to reflect that. Positive professional attitudes project a willingness to get results by working effectively with others. Here are 5 essential attitudes that will help young people succeed:
  1. Humility: In the workplace, the world no longer revolves around you. Learn to put other people’s needs ahead of your own.
  2. Respect: You must respect the experience, history, values, and traditions of the organization that you have joined. You must also display respect to your colleagues—so learn about their values and experiences. And remember, respect looks different to different people—so learn how respect is shown in your organization and adapt to those norms.
  3. Confidence (not arrogance): It is good to be confident—which means having faith in your ability to get the job done. It is wrong to be arrogant—which means you think you are better than others or that work is beneath you. Nothing is beneath a confident person. Everything is beneath an arrogant person.
  4. Interest and readiness to learn (from the bottom up): Employers want employees who are eager and ready to learn. Learning in the workplace often takes the form of doing “menial” or “mundane” tasks. Do not cop an attitude when assigned these tasks. They are more than “paying dues,” they are an integral part of work production and they are an opportunity to really learn the business. Take that opportunity!
  5. Gratitude: Learn to say thank you—sincerely and often. The simple act of thanking others will set you apart as a consummate professional. It will also help you quickly build strong professional relationships.

O’Keyla’s Question: How can body language create a professional persona? Does this mean I have to walk around acting uptight?

My Thoughts: Not unless you work for a bank! Okay, I’m kidding (kind of). Creating a professional persona through body language means: Carrying yourself confidently. Making eye contact when speaking with colleagues. Always giving a firm handshake. Making sure you sit and stand up straight. Squaring your body directly toward others when engaging—as opposed to using closed off/turned away body language. Remember, your body language has to inspire trust (business is a financial venture) and approachability (business is conducted through social networks). And don’t forget little things like smiling and saying hello to people go a long way in establishing trust and goodwill with colleagues!

O’Keyla’s Question: Lets talk about how young adults can converse and engage people more professionally. Is there a particular communication style that we should adopt? Or is it just a matter of losing the slang?

My Thoughts: To a large part it is about losing the slang. You have to stop talking and acting like a college student and start talking like a professional. This means lose words like “dude” and “like” when in the workplace. Your goal is to get others to see you as a professional—so the more that you speak like a student, the longer they will think of you as inexperienced. Even if your 40-something boss uses the word “dude,” resist the urge to do it yourself. It will come across as (at best) ironic when your boss uses it (or more likely pathetic) but when you use it, it will come across simply as immature.

Another part of conversing and engaging like a professional is learning proper workplace etiquette around phone skills and conversation skills. Learn what is appropriate conversation and what isn’t for your workplace. Understand that every time you open your mouth—you are either adding or detracting from your professional persona.

O’Keyla’s Question: We’ve all heard about “dress for success,” but I’m curious how that really works in today’s world. How should young people dress in today’s workplace?

My Thoughts: First and foremost: if you are a young person, dress better than you have to. The old adage still rings true: “Dress for the job you want not the job you have!” Exactly what you should wear depends largely on your profession and/or industry. You will want to dress appropriately for the culture of your organization and your profession. Bankers, for example, tend to be much more conservative than advertising professionals. So look around your organization—who is really successful? Who do you admire? How do they dress? What do their clothes say about them? What do you want your clothes to say about you?

A key element that young folk often forget is that you have to make it easy for other people to picture you in a better position! The more professional you dress, the easier it will be for others to imagine you in a better, more respected position—which means the easier it is for them to offer you opportunities.

O’Keyla’s Question: Any other tips for young adults just entering the workforce? What other habits or behaviors do you see that detract from a young person’s professionalism?

My Thoughts: Of course I have more tips! Here are a few more things that I think will help create a positive professional image:
  • Clean up your E-Life. Beware what you put on your blogs, social networking sites, etc. Although, your employer doesn’t “own” your personal time, you don’t want to sabotage your well-crafted professional image by displaying drunk pictures of your “walks of shame.”
  • Have virtual integrity: Your employer does actually “own” your time at work and your computer. Be careful of work time email, Internet surfing, etc. Your employer may be watching your virtual work life. Also be careful what you say about your organization on company email…
  • Learn to write—too much texting has ruined many a young person’s ability to correspond professionally.
  • Pay attention in meetings: Just because your boss checks his Blackberry during meetings doesn’t mean you can text your friends—he will come across as rude—but with some sort of legitimacy—you’ll just come across as spoiled and unprofessional.
  • Understand the Art of Being New: It takes time to build trust and acceptance. Make sure your professional image works to help get you accepted!

To Listen to an archive of this show:


Norma said...

Excellent Q&A! We often work with college students and hope they are "getting it" when we share this type of information. I'd like to hear from you and your you find most students receptive or do they think we're out of touch with this kind of advice?

Mary Abbajay said...

Hi Norma,
It really depends so much on "how" the message is delivered and who is delivering it. It helps to deliver the information in an interactive method.