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Case Studies for Early Career Professisonals

By: Peter Pychtin, Careers and Graduate Recruitment Expert

How to Kick-Start My Career

One of my blog posts, “Graduates From Two Years Ago – Where Are They Now” prompted requests to help those who are finding it hard to get their career started. Over the years, I have had lots of requests on this so it’s definitely worth a blog post. It won’t be relevant to everyone so if that’s the case you might want to share this with someone who needs help.

OK, let’s say you’re two years out from having completed your degree. You have a job but it’s not career-related, it’s simply paying the bills. You’ve applied for all sorts of jobs that match your degree but no success. You’re now getting desperate. What do I do?

My first piece of advice is forget about applying for graduate programs. It’s not going to happen. Apply if you like but be aware the probability of success is very low. A graduate, two years out of university without career-related experience is not going to make it into a program.

You need to look beyond graduate positions. Look for entry-level, non-graduate jobs within your career field. Smaller organisations will be more open to your application. They’re always looking for value in staff, so if they can get a graduate doing a data entry job (at a data entry salary), they’re happy. In contrast big companies will say “this job is beneath you and you’ll probably resign once you get some experience to get a better job elsewhere”.

Second, have a career plan. It’s important you have a plan to progress from this entry-level position to a more advanced position within one or two years. The purpose of the first job is gain some form of experience in your field – however basic that may be. But you don’t want to stay there. Use the experience to apply for a job that takes you up the next career step.

For example an Accounting graduate might take a Bookkeeper job at a small accounting firm. And consider all options - permanent position, temporary or contract. It’s about getting started.

Third, think laterally. I spoke with an Engineering graduate who was struggling to get a graduate position. He was working in a call centre for a building company answering questions from customers. To me, I saw he had gained basic sales skills. I recommended he apply for entry level Technical Sales jobs that would leverage his engineering degree and his experience dealing with customers. He had never considered that.

Now I can hear you saying, yes, but I need an employer to give me a break. Here is what employers are looking for. More than anything employers are looking for initiative. Staff who get things done, do the right thing and often without being told.

Here is an example. An overseas student doing his Masters in Finance was working at a 7-Eleven to support himself while studying. He couldn’t apply for a graduate program because he didn’t have local working rights. During quieter times at the store he began to analyse stock turnover performance and saw opportunities where the store could make more money. During the next visit from the company’s Area Manager, he presented his ideas. The Manager liked it and agreed to test it in the store. A month later that was a success and the Manager presented the results to Head Office management. They then hired the Masters student on a three month contract to expand the idea nationally. And eventually he was hired as a permanent employee once his permanent residency came through.  

So now you know it can be done and you know where to focus your job hunt. The next step is the application process. That’s a different topic but if I leave you with one thought, it’s to make sure you communicate your high levels of initiative.

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Roadblocked by Other Employees

Have you been a situation yet, where as a young professional aspiring to make a positive impact in the organization, you’ve run into a roadblock from another employee? Typically that person doesn’t share the same career aspirations. They’re more likely what I call a “continuity employee”. They’ve been in the organization for long enough and they know they’re not going any further. It could be someone who reached a low level manager position and has then stalled. Or it could be an administrative person who likes to wield a bit of power within their domain.
Then they look at you. You’re talented, working hard to do a great job, looking to innovate and questioning why we do it this way. And along the way you find you need their help.

You may have a great idea to improve the efficiency of a process. You enthusiastically present the idea, showing how it will make their job easier, deliver better business outcomes and of course benefit you too. It’s a no brainer, right? Wrong! The answer is “We’ve always done it this way. The current process works just fine and that’s how it’s going to stay.”

The roadblock could be your manager. You’re already up-to-speed on all of your job responsibilities. And you see that you can be doing even more. You know you’re ready to step up and take on a key project and you’ll do it on top of everything else. And it’s something that might get you noticed by senior management. But the roadblock says “Don’t worry, I’ll look after that. You just concentrate on your work. We all had to crawl before we could walk.” And you’re muttering under your breath – “yeah, but I’m not like you.”

So how do you manage these roadblocks?

Over the years I found that administrative people (Personal Assistant, Accounts Payable Clerk etc) are looking for professional respect from young professionals. They know you’ve been hired to be developed into senior management ranks. And in the rush to get there, they have seen other young professionals treat them dismissively as if their jobs are trivial. So they want to make sure you understand they’re real people and just as important.

I found the best approach is to, guess what? Treat them as real people and just as important! By that I mean taking the time to build a personal relationship, understanding their background, how long they’re been with the organization, their personal interests etc. Also to understand their job, its challenges and frustrations.

Basically, put yourself in their shoes.

I remember I had an Accounts Payable lady who had a real grudge with young professionals. Over the years she saw them coming and going. “Oh, you’re another one. How long will you stay?” Getting information from her to complete a project I was working on was frustrating. She refused to do anything until she finished all of her work. When would that be I asked? She replied “I’ll let you know.” The next day I hadn’t heard anything of course. I gave it some thought and changed my approach. I went back to her and asked how her work was going. I didn’t ask “where is my information”. From her answer, I asked more questions to learn what her work involved, taking an interest and starting to build that relationship. I could see the freeze slowly melting. I went back to my office and by the end of the day she called me to say the information was ready.

If it’s your manager who is the roadblock, I found it best to seek allies at your manager’s level. These are your manager’s peers and should be people with whom you have some involvement. It may take time to assess what they think of your manager so you can’t rush this. But if you think they see your boss as a “roadblock character”, you can start to express some frustration to them. That’s not blurting everything out at once. But do it over time. What you want is for them to become your advocate so they approach your boss, saying you should give this guy a bigger project to work on. Your boss is more likely to respond positively to their suggestion.

Managing roadblocks is never easy. You don’t need to convert them to be your biggest supporter. You just need to find a diplomatic way around them!

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My Boss Feels Threatened By Me

I come across this situation fairly regularly. It’s mostly from early career professionals who experience it a few months into a new job. They’re performing well and coming up with ideas and innovations. But instead of the boss embracing potential change, the response is “we don’t do those things here, or we’re tried that before and it doesn’t work”. The professional becomes frustrated and can put their head down and wait until they or the manager gets moved. Or the professional eventually quits. It’s backed up by data which shows that the direct manager is the number one reason employees leave an organisation.

I can also happen to professionals going through the job application process. A sales professional was telling me that he was frustrated that he hadn’t been successful in the jobs he’d been applying for. He told me he routinely reached the final stages. That included an interview with a senior manager, who would be his boss’s boss. In those meetings he was told he would be a great fit and a strong addition to the team. But the final decision would be made by his the manager who would be his future boss. For each role he was rejected.

We talked about it and concluded that his energy and drive was confronting to the direct manager. From what he told me it appeared that the manager was well and truly established in the business and had done all the hard work to get to the position he was in. While the manager probably didn’t want to “coast”, he’d prefer to avoid the angst of dealing with someone who would keep challenging him.

On that basis we agreed it was best that he wasn’t hired. But he still didn’t have a job. What should he do?

He could try to “tone down” his energy in the interview process. But it’s hard to suppress your true personality over a sustained period of time. Or he could apply to organisations where the culture was very driven. Even then, he could run into the same issue. (I’ve heard those stories too). Or he could apply to smaller organisations wanting results above everything else, taking a low base / high incentive remuneration structure. The professional was prepared to do that but it wasn’t his preference.

What’s the solution? It’s finding the opportunity to learn how your current or prospective boss is thinking about their job and what they want out of the balance of their career. That’s not necessarily an easy task. But the more you learn about your boss, you can figure out what’s important to them. Show you can deliver on those elements while working on your “side projects” to make the impact you know you can. 

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How Do I Make A Career Change?


Over the years in recruitment, I’ve had many experienced professionals ask me this question. From engineers with fresh MBA’s, to lawyers realizing after six years in the profession that they hate it, to mid-career professionals who invested in a new university degree and ask “what now?”

Many end up staying in their profession but change employers. But it’s not the solution they’re after.

The dilemma is that from an employer’s perspective, the lowest risk approach to recruitment is to hire someone who is currently performing a similar position with a similar company. If it’s a competitor, even better. So if you apply for the job with transferable skills but from a different sector or background, you won’t match the “cookie cutter”. At best you will only be an outside chance.

Some candidates will offer to take a backwards step including a lower salary to change industries. But employers are reluctant to accept this as they fear that once the candidate gains their new experience, after 6 to 12 months they will start looking for a new job at the right level. Smaller employers are usually more prepared to take this risk.

The best solution is for to look for a new role that still draws on your current industry experience but is in the direction that you want to head.
If you’re an Engineer with an MBA keen for Marketing, look for jobs where responsibilities are engineering based but combined with some customer responsibilities. That might be a customer support engineer. It gets you started in the right direction.

For a lawyer it might be joining a company that sells products or services to the legal profession.

Here is another example. A candidate had been managing his own landscaping business for a number of years. By the time he turned 30 he decided he wanted to pursue a corporate career and enrolled in a Business Operations degree. When he graduated he asked himself “what do I do now?” and applied for some graduate programs. But he was past that stage.

What he did bring was very strong people management and leadership skills. He had to be a “tough but fair” manager in landscaping, working with casual and contract employees. He also had “street smarts”, while his degree gave him the theoretical knowledge of business planning, operations and systems.

He ended up being hired by a global corporate into a Production Manager position. The key challenges in the position were to manage an unruly team of 40 people and drive operational and process efficiencies. His degree and work experience was the ideal mix.

I do believe it gets harder to make the change the longer you’ve been working. But it’s not impossible. In fact I’m a good example!


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How to Make an Early Impact in a New Position

You’re just about to start work with your new employer. Or, you’ve just been promoted into a new position. You’re keen, excited and ready to learn. And your employer feels the same way. Except they want to see you perform.

Being a new hire or newly promoted there are heightened expectations of your performance. How quickly will you get up to speed? How will you fit in with the new team? Will you cope with the job responsibilities? How will you benchmark against your peers? As in any hiring decision your employer has taken a risk to give you the job. And no-one likes their judgement to be proven wrong.

So the general rule is that an employee has 100 days to prove the hiring decision right.

That’s backed by research which has shown a strong correlation between success and failure in the first 100 days and overall success or failure on the job.

If you question that, take a look at your employment contract. It states your employment is subject to a three month probation clause. That’s where they can look back at a not-so-great performance and say, “You know what? We made a mistake. Let’s just part ways now.” And if you were promoted, you don’t want your manager saying “I think we made the wrong call on this one.”

But it’s not all negative news. In fact, there is enormous career upside if your managers are saying after three months, “Wow. We’ve got a superstar on our team.” It can create a “halo effect” where going forward, managers evaluate you as a potential superstar focusing on the positive aspects of your performance and overlooking minor mishaps.

So back to your new position. You have 100 days to reassure the people who backed your appointment. But more importantly you want to make a positive impact and stand out from the crowd.

What exactly do you have to do? Firstly, you need to get quickly up to speed with your job responsibilities, in doing so building personal credibility. After three months you should be operating with 95%+ job knowledge and performing the job to expectations. That’s good but that’s what is expected from everyone.

So how do you set yourself apart to become a superstar? It calls for action over and above your day-to-day job responsibilities.

There is no exact definition for this. It could be an idea for change or process improvement that you champion with your work group, where others acknowledge it as a great idea and embrace it. It could be an analysis project that you take to a new level, developing insights no-one before you has done. It could be exhibiting leadership in group meetings. The point is just don’t repeat what other have done. Go beyond that.

And it doesn’t have to be complex.

Earlier in my corporate career I had been transferred to the parent company’s US headquarters. I was one of the first international managers assigned to the US in a new management development program.

In my new role, one of my responsibilities was to propose the annual price increase for the Division’s product line. My first step was to review past price increases. They were always justified on internal cost changes. So if costs had risen 3%, prices were increased 3%.

That seemed fairly basic to me so I decided to look at competitor pricing history. I discovered that our prices did not always move in line with competition. For example, in some product lines our prices had consistently risen at a rate below competitors. But this hadn’t translated to volume or share gains. My proposal to the Sales Director was to take higher price increases in these categories, improving profitability while remaining competitive in the marketplace. You could describe it as market-based pricing instead of cost-plus pricing.

At the time, I didn’t think it was particularly sophisticated, more a matter of common business sense. However, it was a new way of looking at the business and within a week, the senior executive who had nominated me into the international development program took me to lunch. He told me that everyone was very impressed by my pricing analysis. Not only did it reaffirm the decision to bring me to the US but I was showcased as an example of the success of the international management development program. I was promoted nine months later.

Again, I didn’t think I had done anything special. But the managers who had “risked” appointing me, had their judgement vindicated. If I hadn’t come up with the market-based pricing idea, I’d probably be rated as a middle-of-the-road performer.

Everyone has 100 days into a new position to make a mark. Go beyond what’s expected and management will be thinking this young professional is a superstar and you’ll be on the shortlist of up and coming managers.

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Emotional and Logical Thinkers in Business: That’s Why we Never Agree!

Have you ever wondered why when you’ve put together a strong, rational business case it can still be dismissed? Or a passionate argument with all the reasons why it’s the right thing to do, can receive a stony-faced response?

In organizations, it often comes down to the way people think. Logical thinkers are by nature very analytical and assess decisions based on fact. You typically see accountants, engineers and IT professionals in this group. Conversely, emotional thinkers draw more heavily on beliefs, ideas and relationships and often find these people in Marketing, HR and Sales.

So if you find you’re a strong fit with one of these profiles and the colleague you need to convince is at the opposite spectrum, you need to have a plan. Otherwise, the two of you risk going through a frustrating process of not reaching any agreement. I’ll share an example with you.

As a former Finance guy I know my natural thinking style is logical. I was Financial Planning Manager in a business where just a few months into the new year, sales were already behind budget. It was agreed with the CEO and CFO that to protect the profit objective, we needed to implement spending cuts. My job was to gain agreement from the functional heads.

All went well until the meeting I had with the Head of Sales. With sales down, we needed to reduce promotional spending with customers. The Sales VP acknowledged the situation but said to reduce customer spending was impossible. I was a bit frustrated and said that without those savings, the business wouldn’t achieve its profit numbers. His reply was “You have to understand my position. I have made commitments to our customers and they have developed plans with us to help build our business. I can’t go back to them now and say we now need to walk away from those agreements”. We went back and forth but were getting nowhere. In hindsight, I was using a logical argument and his was emotional.

Faced with a stalemate, I offered to go back to my office and relook at the numbers. In truth, I wanted to buy some time to figure out how resolve this dilemma. After playing back the meeting to myself, I realised that we were approaching the problem with different mindsets. If I was going to win his agreement, I needed to come up with an emotional argument that he could relate to.

The next day I went back to the Sales VP and told him there was no room in the numbers. And then I switched to an emotive argument. “I realise it will be very hard to tell our customers that we have to change our promotional plan. If I was a customer, I wouldn’t be impressed. But what about me? What do you think will happen if I go back to the CEO and say we can’t deliver our profit number? He will flip! And he will come down hard on you and me!”

Suddenly the issue had changed for the Sales VP. It was no longer a trade-off between his relationship with customers and the company’s bottom line. He now saw it as balancing external and internal relationships, the CEO and me. That caused him to reconsider and he agreed to the spending cuts.

Through my career I’ve experienced many examples of the conflict between logical and emotional thinkers. The challenge is to be aware of what’s happening. If you have a meeting coming up and you know the other person’s thinking style, you can pre-plan an argument using their preferred style. I’ve done it and have had some easy wins, where the meeting was ended up short and I could tell the other guy was asking himself, “What just happened then?”

You should try it!


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Rejected Because I Wasn’t a Good Cultural Fit


The past couple of days I had conversations with young professionals going for jobs who had been rejected by different employers because of “cultural fit”. They found it a vague reason and wanted to know more. What does cultural fit really mean?

Through my recruitment work I come across that explanation plenty of times. And it is usually a valid reason. All organizations have a specific culture. And even within an organization there may be work groups where the culture is a little different again.

Organization culture can be influenced by many things. Examples include management leadership style, customers, the business environment, market position and financial performance.

I have been involved with companies where

• Management style required employees to be assertive when making internal recommendations and push back if they were turned down. The rationale was that they had to compete for limited internal resources. If a candidate didn’t have the resilience and confidence to “push back” they wouldn’t be hired.

• Employees were expected to just get on and deal with everyday ambiguity. While this company tried to do the “right thing” following a strategy and course of action, often business circumstances over-rode previous decisions. They needed employees who wouldn’t be frustrated by that – just get on and deal with it!

• The customer group of this company were tradespeople and blue-collar workers. Sales and customer support employees needed to be able to communicate at that level. That included building rapport, talking about day-to-day things that interested the customers, getting your hands dirty etc. The company looked for candidates with a local accent and down-to-earth way of speaking. That meant that there a lot of candidates who could do the job were not considered a good cultural fit.

• This company was generally a market leader. Employees identified with this and believed they were the best. They followed a cookie cutter model in hiring. If you didn’t tick all the boxes, you didn’t get in.

• This company was an underdog and employees had to use their wits to outsmart its competitor. So they looked for people who thrived on challenge, were resourceful and who could rely on streets-smarts. So candidates who were used to working in a well-resourced organization where everyone had a well-defined role, were considered unlikely to fit in.

There are countless other examples but you start to see why employers might say you’re not a cultural fit.

It made me reflect on my corporate days (seems like 100 years ago now) when I interviewed for a CFO role with a major construction company. I had spent most of my career in consumer goods companies so there was a big cultural gap between the two.
I met with the CEO of the construction company and we got on well in the interview. At the end, he said to me “Peter, you’re a very talented CFO but I don’t think it’s going to work out here.” I was a bit disappointed but that was probably more my ego because I knew I could do the job.

He then said to me “Show me your hands.” I was kind of surprised but then he said to me “See, you have all of your fingers and thumbs. In our industry it’s not uncommon to see people with the tip of a finger missing.” I laughed! He was exaggerating but I got his point. Construction was a “rough” industry in contrast to the “process and data driven” consumer goods industry. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do the job. He was drawing on his years of experience to conclude that the change in organization culture would be too much. If I had joined, the risk was that I may not stay.

And that’s the point when you’re on the receiving end of “you’re not a cultural fit”.

Like the candidates I spoke with, they had the skills to do the job well. But the employer judged that they wouldn’t thrive in their organization and risked underperforming or resigning. As a young professional it’s hard to see why you’re not a cultural fit. But that’s where you have to go on the employer’s judgement call.


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Should I Tell My Boss I’m Considering Quitting? Go Ahead, Make My Day!

If you’re at the point where you’re asking yourself should I tell my manager I’m thinking about quitting, you already have one foot out the door. And if you go ahead and have that conversation with your boss, you need to be prepared to act on it.

As a manager, it happened to me a few times. In one case I was doing a performance review with a Senior Analyst. Let’s call her Jane. Jane was good but not strong. The company recruited high calibre graduates every year so there was a pipeline of up and coming talent to fill positions that became vacant. Compared to other employees, I believed her career growth with the company would be limited. And that meant it would be only a matter of time before she would leave. That was OK by me.

In the meeting we went through the usual process discussing her performance, strengths, development areas and likely career progression. The discussion summed up that she wasn’t going to get promoted on the timeframe she had hoped for. I said I recognised that wasn’t what she wanted to hear but we would together on her development areas.

It might have been what she was half expecting to hear.  Jane was disappointed and told me she felt she had performed a lot better than I said. And then she said something that was music to me ears. She told me she had been interviewing with another company. In fact, she was at the final stage where she expected to be made a job offer.

Now to be fair to Jane, she wasn’t using it as a threat. She was just being open with me. But for me, it was an opportunity to bring forward a decision which was going to be made within the next 12 months or so.      

What I did was to completely empathise with her. I said I fully understood her position. It made sense to look at other career options if she felt things here weren’t going to plan here.  I agreed that other employers would see her as a strong candidate and she would be in demand. And then I took it to the next level. “Based on what you’ve told me, I think it’s 100% the right thing to do to take that job. You will go further there than you will with us.”

I could see that Jane was taken aback. She was blushing and a little bewildered. This wasn’t what she expected to hear from me. Quite the reverse. Here we were having a conversation which in essence was the subordinate saying I’ve been offered another job and the manager saying take it.

The meeting was amicable but she left realising there was now only one course of action.

Fortunately, Jane was offered and accepted the position and resigned from our company. As the manager, I was happy. Jane went to a good company and job. And I had “moved out” an OK performer and backfilled by promoting a strong up-and-comer.

My advice to professionals is to never tell your boss you’re thinking about resigning. The risk is your boss just might say “go ahead, make my day.”

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