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Mar 28 10

Be Yourself – Take off your Mask

by Rob Cross

Putting on a Mask

When we first start working after finishing University it’s very easy to feel like we need to be someone we’re not. Looking around our new environment we see many talented people and we experience all sorts of expectations about how we should behave and what we should do…no wonder it’s so hard to find our feet in the new professional world after University!

This week I was asked to have a chat with a young guy, Jack, who’s been really struggling for the last 4 months.

“How are things going?” I asked Jack as we sat down in a cafe.

“Not good,” he responded with a very dejected tone.

“I just don’t seem to be getting ‘this’ right,” Jack continued after a short silence. “I mean I’m trying really hard to do what everyone expects, but it just doesn’t seem to work.”

As Jack paused I could see he was clearly distressed.

“It’s like, everyday as I walk into the office I have to take a deep breath. Then it’s like I put on a mask to be this confident professional who does everything right, when in reality I’m just scared of getting it wrong again,” he concluded with a big sigh.

“We’ll there’s the issue right there,” I said with a smile. “It seems like all we have to do is help you take off that mask and start to be yourself again.”

“How do we do that?” Jack asked as if pleading for the answer.

In the new professional world after University it’s very easy to feel like you need to put on a mask and be someone you’re not. The pressure and expectations are always great, and I’ve met many people over the years who have stayed wearing a mask for their entire lives – mostly for the wrong reasons! The impact of putting on this mask each day is that it creates enormous stress because you stop you being you! 

Be Yourself – Take off the Mask

One of things many Graduates forget is that their success in life up to this point is the result of them being themselves. If you look back over you’re life you’ve achieved some great things, including getting a University degree and landing a job. And all these things are due to you being you!

So with this in mind, why change who you are just because you’ve started your ‘professional’ career?

Achieving success in the professional world is no different from success in any other part of your life – the secret is to be yourself! If you disagree with this, google the topic authentic leadership.  There is a huge amount of research going into this exact topic; people are realising that the greatest leaders are actually authentic individuals – they are not trying to be someone they’re not, they’re being themselves!

What does being yourself mean?

Being yourself means letting your true personality come out. It means relaxing your ego and engaging with the world around you in the way you naturally would. For example, if your boss asks you to do something that you don’t understand. Instead of immediately saying yes out of fear and then worrying about the fact you don’t understand, you ask them some questions until you get it. Or, if you need to get other people to do things for you, rather than just demanding it or sheepishly asking, you first build a relationship with them to get to know them as people before you ask for their help.

Being yourself also means sometimes ‘borrowing’ behaviours for short and specific tasks when you need to. For example, the natural you may be quite shy, but to get things done at work you must build relationships. Therefore to do this you can ‘borrow’ behaviour to help you engage others more confidently. Borrowing behaviours is different from wearing a mask because it’s temporary and hence you are not forcing yourself to continuously try to be someone you’re not.

A Last Thought…

The secret to success in the professional world after university is to be yourself! Too many people get caught in the belief that to be successful in their careers they need to fundamentally change who they are by pretending to be someone they’re not. Whilst this might result in some short term wins, ultimately it causes enormous stress as every day if feels like you’re putting on a mask. 

The key to being yourself simply requires you to be a human being – to be the person who you naturally are! In being this person you should constantly seek to develop and grow as an individual and you can also seek to temporarily borrow behaviours where required. But ultimately, it’s about you being you!

For more tips like this, CLICK HERE to get your copy of Grad Expectations: the essential guide for all graduates entering the work force.

Mar 24 10

Get a Job – be bold!

by Rob Cross

Hitting your Head Against a Brick Wall

I’ve recently read a lot of posts or comments by recent graduates who are looking for jobs. One thing that really surprised me was the number who have submitted over 100 applications to get no interviews - wow, 100 applications and no interview, something’s not working!

Based on the Pareto Principle (80% of your results, come from 20% of your effort) I have a very simple philosophy on life:

Never hit your head against the same brick wall, always take a step back and look for a door!

100+ applications with no response, sounds to me like hitting your head against the same brick wall – it’s time to do something different!

What can you do to be different – you have to be BOLD and stand out!

How can you be BOLD when applying for Jobs?

In my day job I manage a Graduate Programme for a multi-national company, so I get to see many applications and many CVs. In my out of hours life I also coach and help recent college graduates on how to get a job and how to succeed in their careers once they’ve landed that job. From these roles, I can honestly say that the most successful people are those who are bold. And, they are bold for two reasons:

1. Those who don’t ask, don’t get! The most successful Graduates I meet are the ones who aren’t waiting around for someone to hand them the perfect opportunity. They are getting out there, finding who the right people to talk to are and then engaging them proactively (not passively!). This means they are making contact with the right people, finding out as much as they can about the organisation they want to work for, and then doing everything they can to get noticed., is a great platform to help you find those right people!

2. Those who stand out, get noticed! The most successful Graduates I meet also know how to stand out and get noticed. Whether it be through their application, CV, cover letter or approach to contacting people, they know how to make themselves different, and more importantly, more attractive than their counterparts. A couple of examples of this are below:

Example 1: Recently I offered free books to the first 25 people who emailed me. Out of these two subject lines, which jumps out to you?

Subject: I admit, I want a free book!


Subject: Answer to Question

That’s right – the first one really made me want to take notice and read more. The second, was just the standard response to which I replied with a standard email!

Example 2: Recently I advertised a role to support me with marketing my book. Out of these two cover letters, which would you employ?

Dear Mr. Cross,

I am writing in reply to the advertisement on the UCL website for the Marketing and Events manger position.

I think I would be well suited to the position as I’m outgoing and quick-witted, so enjoy being highly involved in the student community and am attuned to its members’ needs and way of thinking. My sister has recently graduated from Bath, meaning I am also connected to the graduate community and sympathetic to their views.

I have always been creative and strive to take the initiative to make things happen. During my Young Enterprise course I created a brochure, stall and powerpoint presentation to market and display the services of our company, for which we received a special commendation. My Mother is a copywriter so I have experience of proof-reading written work and am also, through her, well connected with a Bristol-based publishing company. As it is a company my family is closely linked with, I have often been surrounded by talk of book launches and have attended several myself, giving me an inside knowledge of such events and associated marketing strategies. In the past I have selected images for the cover of a Bristol Youth guide which is published annually and sells very well, and have also done research for a Cornwall guidebook.

Attached is my CV, which offers further evidence of my achievements. If offered the job I would consistently work to the absolute best of my ability, with confidence and flair.

All the best,


Dear Sir/Madam

Re: Job as a part-time marketing and events manager

I would like to apply for the job of a part-time marketing and events manager in Central London. Please find attached a copy of my CV.

My previous part time jobs as a sales assistant give me experiences of a basic knowledge on marketing and promotion, as well as skills of dealing with customers. In addition, I have always been the event organizer on lots of things for examples course work meeting, parties, or travelling, and I am also pretty good at promoting ideas on group study and course work. At the same time, I am an enthusiastic worker, and enjoy working in a team. My student visa entitles me to work up to 20 hours per week (or longer during my school holidays), and I could start work immediately.

Hope to hear from you as soon as possible

Yours faithfully

Once again, the first application won as it made me feel like they knew me and what I was trying to achieve. And, they seemed like they were going to be an exciting person to work with.

So…standing out by being BOLD doesn’t mean doing anything eccentric or bizarre, but it does mean that you stand out from just the standard responses that everyone gives. Being BOLD also means that you show some of your personality – after all, that’s who we’re trying to recruit, a real person, the real you!

A Last Word…

As someone who recruits Graduates, I get to meet hundreds of different people and read thousands of different CVs. That’s why for you, if you’re serious about getting a job, don’t continue hitting your head against the same brick wall – focus on how you can make yourself stand out by being BOLD!

Mar 24 10

Experience – what’s good experience?

by Rob Cross

Ticket to the Table – A degree is not enough!

A stark reality for many Graduates leaving University is that your degree, whilst something you should be proud of, is still just a ticket to the table. It is the piece of paper that enables you to have a different conversation with organisations. But on its own however, it will not guarantee you a job!

If you degree is just a ticket to the table, you must therefore seek to differentiate yourself from your peers!

How do you differentiate yourself from your peers?

If all the other applicants have the same (or similar) degree to you, you have to differentiate yourself by getting the ‘Right’ Experience!

What is the ‘Right’ Experience?

For me there are two types of ‘Right’ Experience:

1. The Right Industry:

Some jobs will require a certain type of industry specific experience. If this is the case, this is what you’ll need to get, which I know is easier said than done. However, the right industry experience does not always mean getting that experience in that exact industry. What I mean by this, is that many employers when looking for industry experience are really looking for confidence that you know the industry and more importantly the vocation you’re applying for. For example, you can still prove that you understand and apply your marketing expertise if you’re working in a department store. You can do this by proving that by applying your marketing expertise you’ve helped increase sales and customer satisfaction. This approach is what we call ‘transferable experience’, because your proving that you can transfer your expertise from one area into another.

I should say however, that some technical disciplines will need specific experience. This is really a way of them sifting through the very many applications they get. However, don’t be put off by this. My best advice here is really get creative in how you will get this experience e.g. placements, volunteering, shadowing, research etc…

2. Right Attitude:

The right attitude is something that recruiters always look for, but those looking for a job find it hard prove. For me, as a recruiter of Graduates, the right attitude is as follows:

  1. You prove that you have drive and ambition – you get involved in activities outside of study and working part time. This could be anything from clubs and societies through to volunteering.
  2. You prove that you can achieve real results – it’s one thing to say that you’re involved in different committees etc, but what are you delivering through them? I always look for proof of what people have achieved rather than just their participation. E.g. increased the membership of a club by 500% in 6 months, makes me take notice.
  3. You prove that you fit their team – this is by far the most difficult thing to prove, but what all employers are looking for is someone who fits their team. What runs through my head is; Would I like to work with this person? They way you prove this is through the description of who you are, your achievements and your interests. Whilst all of the other experience is great, if we see you as someone that we wouldn’t want on our team – you’ve got no chance!!

A Last Word…

The key to getting the right experience is to be creative and strategic. You have to be thinking like an employer – that is, what are they really looking for in their future employees? By doing this you can then start to be more creative in the full range of things you activities you get involved in, and you can be more strategic in making sure that those activities give you the ‘Right’ Experience!

Mar 24 10

Be Successful at Work – 3 Tips on How

by Rob Cross

Making a (positive) Impact

You’ve passed the recruitment process and now you’re working – your career has started!

But now that you’ve got one, just having a job isn’t enough – you want to stand out – you want to be successful.

Being successful at work comes from doing one thing and one thing only; you’ve got to make a positive impact!

Making a positive impact means you’re having a positive impact on your organisation by delivering exceptional results; and, your having a positive impact on those around you by being someone they trust and can rely on.

3 Tips on Making a Positive Impact

There are 3 simple things you can do to achieve success at work by making a positive impact:

  1. Prove your Competence – always deliver what you say.
  2. Show your Confidence – be prepared to have a go.
  3. Get Noticed – subtly blow your own trumpet.

Through applying these simple things effectively you can not only make a positive impact, but you can prove to people that you are the type of person they want to work with.

1. Prove your Competence

Proving your Competence means that you always deliver what you say you will. There’s nothing worse than working with someone who doesn’t do what they promise, and once you don’t trust someone who you avoid working with in the future; you don’t want to be seen as one of these types of people!

To prove your competence you first have to Know what you must Deliver. The most successful people I’ve ever seen do this through following one simple process:

  1. Define your Problem/Opportunity – before you launch into any task first always define what the true problem or opportunity is. This means seeking to really understand the root cause that’s creating the problem or opportunity. E.g. you could be asked by your boss to fix a failing project – this first requires you to do some analysis to find out exactly why the project is failing by getting beyond the symptoms and to the cause.
  2. Define your Desired Outcome – once you know what the root cause of the problem or opportunity is, you must define as specifically as possible, what success looks like. That is, if you fix this what will be the result and when will it be achieved? E.g. for the failing project it could be that the specific product is delivered on XXXX date within the budget of $XXXX. Being as specific as possible means that you know what success must be.
  3. List your Options - now you know what success needs to look like against your problem or opportunity, you need to brainstorm all the options available to achieve it. This means considering all the possible solutions. Once you’ve brainstormed all possibilities you need to then assess them against your outcome to select the best option. It’s important to note, that by brainstorming first and then picking the best option, if your first option fails, then you have some back up plans.
  4. Take Planned Action – with your best option(s) identified you now need to develop a plan to take action. This means planning who will do what and by when. With this plan you can then just follow it to deliver your desired outcome. However, as you follow your plan, make sure constantly review your progress against your desired outcome as this will help you keep on track to deliver what you say you will.

This process helps you go slow, to go fast. Too often when we’re trying to impress we leap straight into action before really knowing what problem we’re trying to solve. So whenever you’re given a new task, take your time and work through the process above – this is where your success will come from by proving your competence. When you’ve developed your plan, its also worth running it past your boss which will reinforce their confidence that you know what you’re doing.

2. Show your Confidence

Showing your Confidence is easier for some people than others. The world of work after university can sometimes be tricky – it’s not always obvious what’s acceptable and what’s not. This means that when you’re trying to show your confidence its hard to know what the right level is; showing too much confidence could result in you being seen as arrogant, and showing too little could result in you being seen as shy which means you’re often ignored.

What’s the right level of confidence to show?

The right level of confidence to show is directly related to proving your competence. That is, the level of confidence you show must align to what you can actually deliver. For example, I’ve met many people who spend all their time telling people how great they are and who over commit themselves. When they fail to deliver it makes the fall even bigger for them! I’ve also met some amazing people who are capable of achieving some great things, but who work too far within their comfort zone because they’re scared of failing.

By following the process above for every task you’re given you can make sure that you are confident in yourself that you can deliver. You can also recognise when you are going to ’stretch yourself’ out of your comfort zone by trying something new. Therefore, when you follow this process you can talk to the people involved about what you’re going to deliver and how you’re going to go about it. This will help them (especially your boss) build their confidence in you. And once you’ve delivered what you say, their confidence in you will only grow further.

The final part of showing the right level of confidence is to make sure you are prepared to have a go at something new. It is often too easy to keep in your comfort zone and not push yourself – but that’s not how you get noticed! So make sure you’re prepared to get out and trying something new. And, when you do, be sure to plan it out to build your confidence and you’re guaranteed to suprise yourself!

3. Get Noticed

Getting noticed at work relies heavily on what you deliver and the confidence you show. Central to getting noticed is your ability to ’subtly’ blow your own trumpet. No one likes over confident people who spend their day telling the world how great they are. And, no one notices those under-confident people who don’t make their achievements known. So, you must find the middle ground through subtly blowing your own trumpet.

How do you subtly blow your own trumpet?

Subtly blowing your own trumpet is both a science and an art. The key to doing it is to focus on what you’ve delivered, not on how great you are. That is, by focusing on what you’ve delivered you can draw people’s attention to the impact you’ve had and the value you’ve delivered, rather than who you are as a person. And, by focus on your impact rather than yourself, people will naturally recognise the link and be even more impressed by you.

To subtly blow your own trumpet use the following:

  1. Recognise and define what you’ve achieved – what have you really delivered and why is this valuable for your company?
  2. Identify who needs to know about this – who are the specific people that need to know about what you’ve delivered – it won’t be the whole world but there will be some critical people who should know.
  3. Plan how you will let them know – what will you tell them, and how and when will you do this – letting people know what you’ve delivered doesn’t require you to scream it from the roof tops or put it on the front page of the news paper. You could simply provide a project update or share in a 1-2-1 meeting. If what you’ve delivered is valuable, they’ll notice!

Using these three steps and by focusing on what you’ve delivered rather than who you are as a person is the key to getting noticed at work.

A last word…

As a last word, your reputation and success at work will come from what you deliver and how you go about this. The best managers will always want the best people on their team, and the best people are those who deliver what they say, who are prepared to stretch themselves and also who make their achievements known.

So if you want to achieve success at work by making a positive impact be sure to:

  1. Prove your Competence – always deliver what you say.
  2. Show your Confidence – be prepared to have a go.
  3. Get Noticed – subtly blow your own trumpet.

For more tips like this, CLICK HERE to get your copy of Grad Expectations: the essential guide for all graduates entering the work force

Mar 24 10

Why are you Here?

by Rob Cross

What do you want to be remembered for?

Scrolling through the news yesterday I stumbled upon a quote in an article about someone who recently died:

“I want us to remember and celebrate a unique man, someone so full of character heaven’s gate will have to be widened to get him in.”

Although I’m not religious, when I read this quote I instantly thought; ‘what an amazing thing to say about a person!’ I then thought; ‘I wonder what people will say about me when I die?’

Whilst a little morbid, this simple question of what do you want people to say about you at your funeral, is a powerful one. Why? Because whether you’re a seasoned professional or at the start of your career, it helps you consider what you are going to do with your time on earth – yes, this may get a little deep!

Gaining Alignment

For many people in the professional world it’s easy to be drawn into the mindset of either:

  • Working to Live – work for you is just something that pays the bills, or,
  • Living to Work – work consumes the majority of your waking hours.

The problem for us when adopting either of the mindsets above is that we artificially separate out working and living. In doing this, we forget that we are actually one person who does both things! The other problem with creating this separation is that we miss the potential for gaining alignment where what we do, both in and out of work, helps us to fulfill our purpose.

When starting out in your career, this concept of purpose and alignment, might seem a bit far off as you invest all your energy in just trying to secure any job! However, I would encourage you regardless of what stage you’re at to ask yourself that one question:

What do I want people to say about me at my funeral?

And by asking that question, and then acting on the answer that emerges, you can start to bring greater meaning to your life beyond simply working to live or living to work!

Mar 24 10

Shall I stay or shall I go?

by Rob Cross

The Next Big Decision

As someone who manages a Graduate Programme for a large company, my day yesterday consisted of what seemed like the same conversation over and over again. These conversations were with many different Graduates who’ve now been in the company now for a few years. Their initial question to me was simple:

“Shall I stay? Or, Shall I go?”

Whenever I’m asked this question, my answer is always the same;

“It depends…”

For most of the people yesterday, their situation was very similar; over the last few years they’ve gained some great experience, but they were hit by pay and bonus freezes. Now, they see that the their experience marketable and the outside job opportunities are improving – hence their question of whether to stay or go!

How to Decide

For me, the decision on whether to stay or go is a simple. However, in making that decision there are two key factors to consider:

  1. What am I really trying to achieve from my life and career – my purpose?
  2. Against my purpose, what are the pro’s and con’s of moving?

1. What am I really trying to achieve – My Purpose

As always with my blog responses – this idea of purpose and what you’re really trying to achieve must be central to any decision you make. Without considering this before making a decision, means you end up being like Alice in Wonderland; if you don’t know where you’re going it doesn’t matter what path you take! So before making any rash decisions about staying or going, I encourage you to at least in some way consider what you’re really trying to achieve in the longer term. This is done by asking a few questions like:

  • What do you want to be remembered for?
  • What do you want your contribution to the world to be?
  • What things about life and your career are most important to you?

Beyond these questions of purpose, I would also encourage you to establish some essential and desirable criteria to support your decision. For example, this means identifying some things such as minimum salary and working conditions, that are a must for you to be comfortable and secure.

2. Weighing Up the Pro’s and Con’s

With a definition of what you want to achieve evolving, and with your essential and desirable criteria defined, I would then start looking around. This means considering all the potential options available to you. These options should include everything from staying where you are, staying in the same company and changing roles, starting your own business, or getting a new job…etc…

With your options defined, then I would simply review the pro’s and con’s of each against your purpose and criteria. This will ultimately give you your answer…yes it’s as simple as that!

A Last Thought…

When considering whether to stay or leave any organisation, it’s always easier to stay and complain that the organisation is not giving you what you need – e.g. “they need to pay me what I’m worth!” And, whilst I’m sure this statement might be true, unless you can actually influence this, you need to take charge of your life and make a decision. For many of us, despite psychological contracts changing between employers and employees over the last 10-20 years, our belief that organisations should and will do what’s right by ‘us’ still exists. Hence, it’s often easier when caught in the comfort of an organisation to remain waiting for the organisation to ‘do the right thing’. But, if you’re waiting too long, my question is whether you just shying away from making some tough decisions about your life…and if you are, it’s important to note that by deciding to stay in comfort, YOU’RE still making a decision. So if you’re making a decision anyway…you may as well make sure it’s a good one!!

Mar 24 10

Portfolio Life: A different approach to careers and life

by Rob Cross

There’s a different way to 9-5

In my travels this week I came across a few articles that made me question the nature of careers and work. The first was titled ‘Young Generations Face Wealth Deficit’ - “wow, that doesn’t sound too positive!?!” I thought on first glance. The second group of articles focused on ‘Graduates Starting their own Business,’ (Google this topic to find more).

My conclusion from these articles was that our classic 9-5 (or really 8-6 for most people) definitions of careers and work will no longer be relevant for society as we go forward.

Why are they no longer relevant?

Well, firstly it’s my belief that they’re economically unsustainable, and secondly, for most people the 9-5 job format is a simple distraction from living a more full and happy life – if you’ve ever been on the subway in morning peak hour you’ll know what I mean!

To get out of the rut of 9-5, we each need to realise that there is another option – the portfolio life.

Portfolio Life

A portfolio life is much like an investment portfolio, a property portfolio or even an artistic portfolio. It’s a collection of activities that enable you to live whilst fulfilling what you believe to be your purpose in life. The reason so few people have ever considered this, is because whether driven by our parents, university or society, we have very fixed pre-conceptions about what work is – 9-5!

Often when we try to break free of these preconceptions we are dragged right back into the belief by those who themselves hold a deep fear of the risks of breaking free. That is, for many people the fear of not doing the norm blinds them to any other opportunities – don’t be one of these types of people!

Creating a Portfolio Life

So how do you create a Portfolio Life?

The answer to this is what I call tough, but simple. It’s simple because the steps are really straight forward, but it’s tough because it requires you to take a different perspective. For me there are 3 steps to creating a portfolio life:

  1. Define your purpose and what you love doing.
  2. Consider your options on how to fulfil your purpose by doing what you love doing.
  3. Set some targets and take the first steps on your journey.

1. Define your Purpose and What you Love Doing

This is by far the most difficult step, as your purpose rarely comes to you in a blinding flash. However, by asking a few simple questions below you can start to figure it out:

  • What do you want to be remembered for?
  • What impact do you want to have in the world?
  • What in life is most important to you?

Through these questions you can gain begin to get a sense of what is most important to you, albeit, your answers to these questions will evolve over time.

As you answer these questions, you should also consider the parameters for what you really love doing. For example, some of mine are working with other people 1-2-1 or in groups, making a difference with people, writing, reading, and speaking in front of large groups. By defining the parameters of what you really love doing you can more thoroughly assess the options you have available to you.

2. Consider all the options on how to fulfil your purpose

Once you have an understanding of what impact you want to have and you have defined what you love doing, start brainstorming. A great book to help you do this is the 4 Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferris. In his book Tim explains how to break from the 9-5 trap through being more entrepreneurial. Whilst the 4 Hour Work Week describes one extreme of the continuum between 9-5 and entrepreneur, it does help you to redefine some of your assumptions about life.

As you brainstorm, don’t eliminate anything too quickly, even the thought of having some form of day job. And, be sure to consider the various paths that others have taken – there are many great examples of people who life the portfolio life, for example Richard Branson with the Virgin Group is one extreme!

3. Set some Targets and Take some First Steps

In most normal brainstorming I would recommend eliminating options, but in seeking the portfolio life I would say; ‘don’t eliminate anything from your list, keep track of all your ideas’.

Before taking action, to assess which options you’ll start with, identify what your targets for living are – that is, what is the minimum income to sustain the immediate life style you wish to lead. As you do this, be realistic. All people, even Richard Branson, started somewhere and usually with a modest life style. Your targets should be in the form of how much income you need to live per day, per week, per month etc. This will help you really focus on what you need to achieve.

Once you have your targets set, consider which options you want to start with. When considering these focus on the ‘low hanging fruit’ first. These are the options that are easy to implement and which will give you some rapid return or success. Doing this will help you build your confidence and gain momentum toward implementing other options. It’s important to note that as you implement your options, be prepared to fail at a few. A friend of mine who has the ultimate portfolio life, says that he always has at least 3 initiatives on the go at any time. And that he expects two of them to fail! So don’t be worried if failure occurs, but also don’t always put all your effort into one single idea!!

A Last Word…

The key thing that holds us back from breaking free of the 9-5 is fear. Most of us are heavily caught up in our preconceptions of what working life after University should be like – but these are just preconceptions, they’re not real! There are some realities you need to contend with, such as how to feed and cloth yourself etc, but these should be recognised for what they are, as parameters for living, rather than for things which reinforce your fear!

To overcome the fear it’s important to remember that there is a continuum between the 9-5 life, and being an self-sufficient entrepreneur. That is, not all of us will be Richard Branson, but all of us can live the portfolio life, no matter where you live along that continuum.

See Grad Expectations for more on defining and fulfilling your purpose.

Mar 24 10

Get the Most out of Your Placement

by Rob Cross

Sitting in the Corner

On Thursday this week an email arrived in my inbox with a spreadsheet attached. In that spreadsheet was a list of all the Graduates and all the placement students in our company. As a Graduate Programme manager I make sure that I know everyone of these people. However, on Thursday as I scanned through this new list I saw a name that hadn’t been there before.

‘That’s interesting,’ I thought to myself as I checked out who this person was on the directory. Under their name it said that they were a Placement Student. Instantly I picked up the phone to find out more. It turned out that this was true, Mark was a placement student who’d been working in the company for the last 8 months. He’d been brought in through one of the ‘alternate routes’ rather than through the central system, which sometimes happens. And it was only now that the standard reports were showing that he ‘existed’.

“So are you planning to apply for a job with our company once you Graduate?” I asked Mark after he told me his story.

“Probably,” he replied.

“But I haven’t really enjoyed my time here,” he continued. “I don’t really know anyone and all I’ve been doing is sitting in the corner and analysing spreadsheets for the entire time.”

‘Wow,’ I thought, ‘poor guy.’

After setting him up to talk to some other people so he could find something more interesting to do, I wondered why he wasn’t doing more to get the most out of his placement.

Get the most out of your Placement

Generally I see that there are 3 reasons people do a placement:

  1. Their course requires them to
  2. They want to get the experience to build their CV
  3. They want to land a job with that company once they Graduate

Regardless of the reason you’re doing a placement, it is essential that you use the opportunity to the best of your advantage. And, unlike what Mark was doing (i.e. sitting quietly in the corner) this means doing 3 key things:

1. Know what you’re seeking to achieve

Whenever you start any new job or project, always think about what you want to get out of it! This doesn’t mean being purely self motivated, but on a placement you have a great opportunity to develop new skills and new contacts. So if you start with clear goals in mind, you can be more focused on achieving them. For example, if you want to get experience in a specific area of work, then make sure you tell your manager this, as they will usually help you achieve it.

With Mark, he had a goal of trying to get a job after Graduation, but I had to ask him to find that out. If he had made his goal explicit, like other placement students, he would have hunted me down and told me what he was trying to achieve, and then I could help him.

So morale of this part of the story is that if people don’t know specifically what you want to achieve during your placement, they can’t help you – you have to have goals, and you have to make these goals known!

2. Build Your Contacts

One of the things I find is really common in organisations is that most managers are happy to spend time talking to new people. And more importantly, they’re happy to talk about themselves to new people – managers love talking about themselves!

With this in mind, against the goals of what you want to achieve, make sure you build your contacts. This doesn’t mean you have to be a ‘networking freak’ who cold calls every manager in the business, but I would encourage you to pick out certain managers and schedule some time to buy them a coffee. When you do this, make sure you start the conversation asking them about their current role, their experience and then, any tips they have for being successful. Then talk about yourself and what you’re trying to achieve. Every manager I know (including me!!) loves this because it makes them feel important as they impart their worldy wisdom to help someone, which gives you the perfect opportunity to build your contacts.

As with my statement above, after they’ve talked about themselves, make sure you tell them what you’re trying to achieve. If they don’t know this, they can’t help you!

Even 30minutes of some-one’s time can open up a range of opportunities for you, if you’re prepared to ask. So do not sit in the corner, get out and make the time to talk to people. This is how you’ll get known and how you’ll find out about new opportunities.

3. Use your Initiative to Get Involved

When you start your first professional job, knowing where the boundaries are can sometimes be tough. For many Students and Graduates, the fear of getting it wrong too often prevents them from really showing what they’re capable of. This to me is a flawed approach. With any Student or Graduate, what I want to see is them using their initiative and getting involved in things. If you just sit there doing only what you’ve been asked (as with Mark and his data analysis), you’re not really adding a huge amount of value to your boss or your company. So…seek to get involved.

How do you get involved?

One way is to use your initiative to look for simple things that aren’t working and fix them – I call this positive dissatisfaction and positive impact! Over my years of working I’m yet to see an organisation where every-thing’s perfect. This therefore gives you plenty of opportunity to do other value adding things to show what you’re capable of. And, a good place to start with this is to find out what’s keeping your boss awake at night.

As you look for things to get involved with or to fix, be sure to start small and build up. I’ve seen too many people take on too much too quickly and fail to deliver. So be sure to start with ‘quick wins’, or ‘low hanging fruit’ as they say, and build up to bigger things from there.

It’s amazing how often fixing the simple things will help you get noticed…so don’t ever be afraid to show your initiative and get involved!

A Last Thought…

Regardless of the reason you’re doing a placement, it is essential that you make the most of your opportunity. However, to do this you have to drive it – you have to make it happen. Within every organisation I’ve seen there are always people or managers who will help you, but as the saying goes – you have to help yourself! If you sit there in the corner like Mark waiting form someone to find and help you, it’s unlikely to happen. But…if you know what you want to achieve, if you get out and make contacts, and, if you show people what you’re capable of, then you will get the most out of your placement!

Mar 24 10

Assessment Centres: How to Shine

by Rob Cross

An opportunity to shine…

So you’ve managed to get through the selection process and have been invited to an Assessment Centre – fantastic, well done! This is a really great achievement, considering that you’ve probably been chosen above hundreds of other applicants so far. Also, getting invited to an Assessment Centre (or AC for short) shows that you have something employers are looking for – they want to know more about you!

An AC therefore gives you the perfect opportunity to prove to them what you’re truly capable of – it’s your opportunity to shine!

What is an Assessment Centre?

An AC is a very commonly used recruiting approach that seeks to assess candidates using a range of techniques including interviews, presentations, group exercise, role plays, and written case studies. The use of such a broad range of techniques in a single centre ensures that candidates are given the best opportunity to shine; after all some people will be better at some approaches than others.

How to SHINE at an AC?

Standing out and ’shining’ at an AC is actually more straightforward than many people realise. Most of all to stand out requires that you relax and just be yourself. It’s important to realise that the reason you’ve been successful up to this point in the selection process (and also in life) is by being yourself, so why change now?

Be Prepared

To help you remain relaxed and be yourself on the day of the AC however, I would also highly recommend taking some time to prepare. For some ACs this is easier said than done depending on the amount of information provided before hand. Regardless of this, the more prepared you are, the more confident you will feel, and the more relaxed you’ll be.

To prepare for an AC, as a mimimum I would recommend the following:

  • Do your Research – Before any interview or AC always make sure you do your research. There is nothing more frustrating for an employer to have a candidate turn up who knows nothing about the organisation, industry or role they’re applying for. In doing your research, the essentials to focus on the following:
    • Review their website to understand the organisation’s purpose, strategy and values – you must be able to tell a story about the organisation.
    • Broaden your research to understand key challenges and priorities for the organisation – i.e. when have they been in the press lately and for what?
    • Seek to understand the key trends in their industry including who their major competitors are and what their strategies are.
    • Seek to fully understand the role you are applying for, especially in terms of the types of tasks and activities you would be doing day to day, and also how this role fits into the broader strategy of the organisation.
  • Prepare your Responses- For any interview or AC, always prepare answers for the ’standard’ type questions that employers ask, for example; When have you worked in a team? When have you lead a team? etc. There are many sites on the internet that give lists of these questions, and whilst you may not be asked those specific questions, preparing and then practicing your responses will help you feel more confident about anything you could potentially be asked. In seeking to prepare and practice it is always worth getting the help from those you around you, especially in practicing your answers out loud.
  • Remind yourself of your CV – Before you turn up to an AC, make sure you review and remind yourself of the story you’ve told in your CV. There is nothing more embarrassing than being asked a question about your CV and you having forgotten what you had written.
  • Know the Content and Format- Never turn up to an AC without knowing the types of activities you’ll have to undertake. Most employers will provide you with an outline of the AC, but if they don’t be sure to ask and also scour the internet to see if any information exists on that organisation’s particular assessment process (e.g. has some great information for major UK organisations). By knowing the content and format you can be a little more comfortable that you know what you’re walking into.

By doing these minimum things you can make sure that you are as prepared as you can be for what you’re going to encounter on the day – as they say Perfect Preparation Prevents Poor Performance!

The Specifics – Tips and Tricks

Beyond the essential preparation mentioned above, there are some tips and tricks that are important to know for an AC. These relate to the specific activities you will encounter.


As mentioned above, it is essential that you consider the types of questions you will be asked at an interview. There are many sites on the internet which give guidance on this by just searching for ‘common interview questions’. In thinking about what types of questions you will be asked, it is worth focusing both on the generic (e.g. when have you lead a team?) and also the industry, organisation and role specific questions topics. When preparing the answers to potential questions, be sure to use the S.T.A.R. approach:

  • Situation and Task: Describe the situation that you were confronted with or the task that needed to be accomplished – this sets the context for your response.
  • Action: This is the most important section of the STAR approach as it is where you will need to demonstrate and highlight the skills and personal attributes that the question is testing. Be sure to focus on what YOU did, how YOU did it, and also why YOU did it.
  • Results: Explain what you achieved and also use the opportunity to describe what you accomplished and what you learnt in the situation.

Using the S.T.A.R. approach will help you to not only describe the situation, but also what you did and the results you achieved.

Whilst you can never anticipate what exactly you’ll be asked, you can be prepared and then adapt your prepared answers where appropriate. You can also ensure that you feed into the interview the things you especially want the employer to know, such as key achievements etc.

The final tip for interviews is to keep your responses sharp and to the point, don’t waffle and be sure to answer the question being asked.


If an employer is going to use presentations in a AC, they will generally do one of two things; (1) Ask you to prepare before hand, or (2) Ask you to prepare on the day. Either way, much like using the S.T.A.R. technique above, there is a approach to creating a winning presentation. In applying this approach, it’s important to realise that your presentation will be seeking to propose a solution(s) to a particular problem or situation. Your role in the presentation is therefore to tell a compelling story that you know how to approach it. A winning presentation, whether 3, 5, 10 or 20min always includes:

  1. Introduction – Always introduce yourself and your topic at the start of your presentation.
  2. Agenda – Very briefly cover the key points you are going to talk about in your presentation (i.e. tell them what you’re going to tell them about).
  3. Situation/Problem- Describe the situation or problem that is creating the need for a solution (e.g. the organisation is suffering from increased competition, which is resulting declining revenue and market share, and is ultimately threatening the future of the business).
  4. Governing Thought – Against the situation describe your high level proposal and your 3 solutions (e.g. to ensure the future success of the business we must increase market share through (1) investing in R&D to develop new products, (2) increase market penetration of existing products, and (3) explore new markets to sell our products into).
  5. Solution 1 – Describe solution 1, how to implement it and the results that will be achieved.
  6. Solution 2 – Describe solution 2, how to implement it and the results that will be achieved.
  7. Solution 3 – Describe solution 3, how to implement it and the results that will be achieved.
  8. Summary – Briefly summarise the situation, governing thought and 3 key solutions (i.e. tell them what you’ve told them).
  9. Questions – Finish your presentation and ask if there are any questions.

Regardless of the duration of your presentation, applying this approach shows you have a clear structure, you understand the problem being faced and you have a concise plan of attack to deal with it.

Group Exercise

The group exercise is always one of the toughest of the activities at a AC. This is because it is the activity where you are dependent on the behaviour of others. In most group exercises you are given some problem to solve as a group. This could be anything from planning and event, to deciding on a marketing strategy etc. Regardless of the activity however, there are a couple of things to be conscious of:

  • Be assertive not dominant- Too many people believe that in the group exercise you have to be dominant to stand out. This is not the case. Employers dislike overly dominant people as they remind them of the most frustrating people they have to work with day to day (you don’t want to be seen to be one of these people). What they do like however is people who assertively get their point across. Therefore, if you have an opinion or idea at any stage of the task, be sure to speak up. Don’t just sit there waiting your turn, as it may never come around. If you’re shy, speaking up is always difficult, that is where you can use your physical presence a bit more, such as, when you want to say something, lean forward in your chair and make a gesture with your hand (don’t put your hand up like you’re in school). Doing this will help you get noticed and give you the opportunity to say your piece.
  • Keep focused – Deciding on the structure for how to tackle the task and keeping to the time allocated are always key areas where groups go wrong. Therefore, being the person that introduces this structure by challenging the group on what it must achieve and how it will do this, and then by keeping the group on track with timing is always a good way to get noticed.
  • Support others – When you’re a part of any team or group it’s always essential to support those around you. This means agreeing with people when they’ve made a good point, ensuring shy people are included in the conversation, and congratulating people when they come up with good ideas. When you feel like you’re competing with others at an AC, this sometimes feels difficult to do, but it is something that employers look for because they want to see you as someone they would like to work with.
  • Be original – A key mistake many people make in group exercises is to avoid coming up with anything original, hence they either just agree with others, or state the obvious. Never be afraid to be creative or think outside the box. Often employers will be looking for people who bring something new, after all, that is one of the reasons they recruit new talent.

The group exercise is therefore really focused on your ability to work effectively as a part of a team – how well you can work with others! However, because it is one of the few AC activities where you have to work with those you might be competing against, it often feels like you need to be on guard and be fiercely competitive. This is not the case. Yes, be competitive and show you have drive and ambition, but not at the expense of proving you area team player – employers focus mostly on whether they would like to work with you!

Role Plays

Role plays can take a variety of forms, however they generally focus on needing to act out some form of activity that you might encounter in the job you’re applying for. It could also be that you have to work with an actor who is posing as an employee or senior manager.

The most critical piece of advice for any role play is to BE YOURSELF!

A role play is really just seeking to see how you might handle a particular situation especially in terms of how you relate and build relationships with others. Therefore, the best approach is just to be yourself and seek to relate to people as you naturally would in any job or professional situation; always be courteous and respectful, whilst also being focused on what you need to achieve. Often what employers are looking for is how you build rapport and relationships with others, whilst balancing the need to drive to get tasks done.

Written Case Studies

The written case study is generally focused on your analytical ability. This means your ability to review a situation, understand the problem, draw out the key points and then propose solutions. Due to this, and much like any University assignment, it is essential to focus first and foremost on what is the question being asked. Whilst this sounds simple, too many people get writing and forget all about what is being asked and hence end up completely off track!

In seeking to answer the questions it is also essential to concisely structure your thinking before you begin to write. This means that before you put pen to paper, you first work out how you are going to structure your responses. Doing this will help you draw out your key ideas and will allow those reading your case study to see what you’re really thinking without having to work to hard. Also make sure that if you are writing, make it legible so it’s easy to read.

A final note…

Assessment Centres are a very balanced way of looking at any candidate, hence why multiple activities are used. Therefore, if during the day you feel like you haven’t done well in one activity, don’t worry because the employers look at you as a complete picture – and after all we are each better at somethings than others.

So the final three pieces of advice I have if you’ve been invited to an Assessment Centre are:

  1. Be Prepared – proper preparation prevents poor performance.
  2. Be Structured – always consider what you are going to write, say or do before you do it.
  3. Be Relaxed- seek to relax and just be yourself, after all that is the person who’s been successful up to this point.

And finally, if during the day you start to get nervous, take some big deep breaths, focus back on your preparation and structure, and then you’ll start to relax!!



Mar 24 10

Dealing with a Difficult Boss

by Rob Cross

The Difficult Boss

So your career has started, and things seemed to be going well…that is, until you realise you’re working for a difficult boss!

Having to work for a difficult boss is one of those things that you sometimes hear about before you start work, but which you hope you’ll never have to experience. Unfortunately however, at some time in your career it is inevitable that you’ll have to work for someone that you just don’t seem to get along with.

What is a Difficult Boss?

A difficult boss is someone who you just don’t seem to be able to get along with. There’s something (or many things) about them which get on your nerves and which you feel prevents you from achieving your full potential. Examples of things that ‘difficult bosses’ do may include:

  • Micro-managing every little task you have to do
  • Not seeking out or listening to your ideas
  • Appearing to be purely self motivated (i.e. putting themselves above others and the organisation)
  • Taking credit for your achievements
  • Not supporting you when challenged by others

Regardless of what your difficult boss does, generally the impact on you is one of feeling deflated, demotivated and ultimately in despair – you end up just not wanting to go to work!

Therefore, because of the impact a difficult boss can have, it is essential you know how to respond – you must learn how to deal with a difficult boss!

How to deal with a Difficult Boss

In seeking to deal with a difficult boss it is essential to first consider why they are being difficult. Whilst there are usually quite a few reasons, when you get to the heart of thier behaviour it’s usually based one simple concept – it is because they are operating from a place of insecurity and fear – they are worried about something.

That is, it’s more than likely that your boss is behaving as they are because they’re worried about failing – they are worried that they will be seen badly in the organisation. When you realise this, you can start to understand that the behaviour of a difficult boss is less about you, and more about what they are really worried about – i.e. failing as a manager and as a professional!

With this in mind, there are a few key things you can do to deal with a difficult boss:

Step 1: Define exactly what makes them Difficult

If you think you have a difficult boss it is essential to first describe what behaviours you believe they display that make them difficult. Then, you must describe what impact these behaviours have on you. Doing this will help you more dlearly understand what exactly they’re doing, and help you avoid just generalising that everything they are doing is ‘difficult’. It will also help you to understand what might be driving this behaviour and how to respond.

Step 2: Seek to understand what’s driving thier Behaviour

Often we just assume that people’s behaviour is a reflection of what thier true motive is. For example; when someone screams at us, we assume it is because they are angry rather than because they are scared or worried for our safety. So, as we know from our own behaviour, what people say and do, does not always fully reflect what they mean or need. Using this principle, it’s essential that when dealing with a difficult boss we seek to understand what is driving their behaviour. And, a good place to start with this is to look beyond what they are saying and doing and focus on what they are really worried about. For example; a boss could be micro-managing because they are really worried about the project failing which will result in them looking bad and potentially being fired. So rather than seeking to just see the behaviour, we must seek to understand what’s driving that behaviour including understanding all the pressure they are under and what’s keeping them awake at night.

Step 3: Determine how to make them Feel Safe

Like anyone who is feeling scared or worried, the behaviour you see from a difficult boss is their attempt to help them feel safe. Knowing this, you can also begin to work out how to do the same – you to can help them feel safe! Based on your understanding of what might be driving thier behaviour, now consider what you can do to help them feel safe. Examples of how to make them feel same may include:

  • Being very proactive (i.e. daily) in keeping them updated on what they need to know
  • Being very proactive in getting thier support on key decisions
  • Being very proactive in identifying and removing anything that may be causing them unnecessary stress (including what you may be doing to cause them stress)
  • Being very proactive in identifying and implementing improvement ideas

As you can see from this list, the key to making any difficult boss feel safe is to be proactive. This means using your initiative to get on the front foot in your relationship with them – your boss should never be left wondering what you’re doing, and they should always see you as an eliminator of stress rather than a cause of it!

Step 4: Take Action

In seeking to take action, identify some very simple things you can start doing to be proactive with your boss. For example; giving them a very brief daily update of what you’ve achieved and what you plan to do next, and/or, dealing with simple tasks that are causing stress which can be eliminated easily. In taking action, be sure to constantly let your boss know what you’re up to, because as they see you being proactive they will begin to relax more and feel safe. And, as time progresses and thier trust builds they will begin to appreciate you more.

A last thought…

Whislt the 4 steps above is a great way to dealing with a difficult boss, it is rare that you will see a change overnight. Like with any relationship, building trust and helping them to feel safe takes time. You therefore have to be patient and persistent in your approach.

In following the 4 steps above it’s also critical that you avoid apologising for anything you’ve done, unless it is a monumental mistake. Apologising to a difficult boss only ever reinforces thier fear and insecurity, which they project onto you – so avoid apologising! Instead, seek to recognise that something needs to be done about the situation they’re complaining about, and then take it upon yourself to fix what ever needs fixing. This will keep the focus on action rather than emotion!

So…if you have a difficult boss, don’t just react to the behaviour you see. Instead, seek to understand the motive behind that behavior and then explore how you can take action to make your boss feel safe!

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