When I began my business career, I reinvented a lot – from being a journalist to a political spokesperson to a nonprofit director. Finally, nearly a decade after I graduated from college, I started my own business and began the career I have today, speaking and consulting for organizations like Google, Yale University, and the World Bank.
Early on, most of my business education came through trial and error. As a result, I’ve spent a lot of time researching how young professionals can set themselves up the right way for a successful business career. When the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management – now part of Cornell SC Johnson College of Business – asked me to share these strategies, I was all in. Here are the five steps I’d recommend to any professional who wants to set themselves apart from the competition.
Master public speaking. Research by the Center for Talent Innovation shows that one of the most important elements of “executive presence” – i.e., whether others see you as a leader – is your ability to communicate and present effectively. When I was in college, the single most professionally valuable activity I did wasn’t a class: it was joining an improv troupe. Whether you sign up for improv classes or practice public speaking through an organization like Toastmasters, investing in your communication skills has a massive payback.
Take on leadership roles. As I describe in my book Reinventing You, there’s a disproportionate branding and networking advantage to taking on leadership roles in an organization. Sure, it’s more work to be the Membership Secretary (for instance) than it is to be a regular member. But in taking on the additional responsibility, you’re perceived as a leader by your peers, and have greatly expanded opportunities for networking (if you’re a board member or committee chair, it’s your job to connect with other members, so no one bats an eye if you reach out to colleagues, even prominent ones, that you’ve been wanting to meet). Most people miss this opportunity, so the positions often aren’t even difficult to land. This is a competitive advantage for you.
Build your network. In my book Stand Out, I talk about how to build a movement around your ideas. The first step? Building a trusted network of people who can help challenge you when you need it, hone and improve your ideas, and – when the time comes – serve as ambassadors to help you spread your message. Where can you find people like this? Sometimes you run across them organically, through friends of friends, or past work relationships. Sometimes they’re people you grew up with. But very often, they’re part of your alumni network, because going to college or graduate school with someone creates a strong bond because of your shared experience. Especially if you attended a top MBA program together, the folks you meet are likely to be smart, highly motivated, and interested in similar professional goals.
Cultivate social proof. “Social proof” is a term from psychology that refers to your level of perceived credibility. Are you attached to brands or institutions that others already perceive as excellent? If so, that affiliation encourages others to perceive you as high quality, also. If you went to an Ivy League MBA program like Cornell’s, for instance, that’s a clear form of social proof. Others might include blogging for name-brand publications, or winning awards, or cultivating influential mentors. If you invest in developing social proof, people are likely to view you as “pre-vetted” and will be predisposed to listen to you.
Develop original content. One of the principles I teach in my Recognized Expert course is a simple but powerful one: if you don’t share your ideas, no one will know if they’re any good. If you want to make an impact beyond the handful of people you work with most closely, you’ll have to start writing and speaking about the ideas that animate you, and that you believe are worth spreading. Whether it’s blogging, podcasting, or sharing thoughts on your company’s internal social network, there are a variety of ways to get the conversation started and ensure your voice is heard.
These days, it seems harder than ever to break through and get noticed. But when it comes to building a foundation for your business career, the steps listed above are both critical and timeless. By following this playbook, I hope you’ll be able to reach your goals even faster.
This post is graciously sponsored by Cornell University’s Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, Cornell SC Johnson College of Business.