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What I Wish I Would Have Been Told At My College Commencement

Be open, own your work and ask for what you want, find what works for you, watch the assumptions you make, and get some sleep.

What I Wish I Would Have Been Told At My College Commencement
[Photo: Flickr user Nazareth College]

As graduation season kicks into high gear, I’m thinking back to my own college graduation, and the commencement speeches have become the haziest memories of my final week on campus.

However, that commencement address is a powerful charge to the next generation; a charge packed with well wishes—and advice based on real, honest life and work experience. So, if I could go back and do it again, here are the top five things I would need to hear in my commencement address before I drove off campus the last time to enter the real world and launch my career.

Your Organization And Time Management Skills Are Not Static

When I started my career, office life looked a lot different: I rarely had more than two meetings a day, companies had just started to use email to communicate, and interoffice memos arrived on my desk in large manila envelopes. Today, I celebrate days with only two meetings, my inbox is one of many tools I use to communicate, and paper rarely crosses my desk.

The organizational and time management systems that enabled me to complete my work efficiently and effectively at the start of my career are inadequate today. With each promotion, expansion of responsibilities, and addition of team members, your organizational and time management skills must be reexamined and retooled to fit the realities of your current position.

The paper task list that you used to track your projects will probably not fully support you in managing the projects of a team of 20 people. Don’t overlook your evolving productivity needs. Be open to new methods, strategies, and tools—they just might be what gives you that professional edge.

Don’t Let Your Work Just Speak For Itself

Early in my career, I believed that if I just put my head down and did really good work that my work would speak for itself and my career would advance. However, I was completely surprised when another colleague was selected for the cross-functional strategic HR planning team. I had completed all of the background research and outlined our team’s perspective.

But what I did not do was let my manager know that I was interested in being on this project team, nor had I communicated why I would be the best representative from our team. Lesson learned. Exceptional work is only one part of the equation. Thoughtfully articulating your skills, accomplishments, and unique perspective is essential. And, if you don't ask for something, the answer is always no. Ask, and you have a 50% chance of a yes.

One-Size-Fits-All Productivity Solutions Do Not Fit All

Within weeks of starting my first job out of college, I was sent to the in-house time management training program. I dutifully attended the class and used the planner as instructed. But as the weeks went by, I noticed that my productivity hadn’t improved. And I wasn’t the only one. I noticed that many of my colleagues were really struggling with the system.

The reason is simple: There is no one-size-fits-all approach to productivity. Time management programs focus almost entirely on how to plan and exercise control over the minutes, hours, and days you spend on specific tasks or activities. That might work for some people, in some jobs. But for others, who think, learn and communicate, and execute differently, and deal with multifaceted and dynamic responsibilities, it probably won’t.

Instead, you need to personalize productivity—to employ work strategies that align with your own cognitive style and to plan and allocate effort in a way that suits your strengths and preferences. The latest app, prioritization tip, or email management strategy will not work if it is not personalized for you, aligned with the way you think and process information. Find what works for you.

Watch Out For Assumptions When Communicating

When my first manager asked me if I knew how to spell assume, I knew I had made a mistake. Then, when he wrote on the whiteboard in his office ASS U ME, I knew that I had made a significant mistake. The day before, I had submitted my final draft of the PowerPoint presentation for him to make to the senior leaders in the organization. Now, as we were reviewing it with the word assume on the whiteboard, I knew that I had relied too heavily on acronyms and industry jargon. The presentation was not clear, nor easily understood by people outside of our team.

Check your assumptions when communicating to ensure that you are heard and understood by everyone. To ensure that your message is heard and understood, answer the "what," "how," "who," and "why" in all of your communications. Clearly articulate "what" is the goal or the outcome, "how" you want people to respond, "who" the key stakeholders are, and "why" this message is important in the broader context of the organization.

All-Nighters Do Not Produce Exceptional Work

Like many of you, I pulled my share of all-nighters in college putting the finishing touches on a paper as the sun began to rise or reviewing my notes one more time before the 8 a.m. exam. I received the grades I wanted and quickly bounced back from the lack of sleep.

When I tried to pull a few all-nighters my first few years after college, things did not go as well—there were rampant typos in documents and incomplete thoughts. No longer was it possible for me to recover quickly from the lack of sleep; it would take me days to recover. The short-term gain of completing the project came with a significant price. All-nighters are like borrowing at a very high interest rate. Plan your projects so that all-nighters are not necessary, and go to sleep.

It’s ironic that commencement addresses sometimes resonate best with those of us who aren’t necessarily the current graduate but someone who graduated years ago. Maybe it’s because we’re listening differently, or craving inspiration and fresh insights.

So, wherever you are and whatever good things you’re up to, remember: Be open, own your work and ask for what you want, find what works for you, watch the assumptions you make, and get some sleep.

If you could go back to your college graduation commencement address, what would you need to hear? What do you know now that you wish you knew then?

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