Beyond the Basics

University of Washington Department of Communication Professor and Associate Chair Nancy Rivenburgh, PhD, shares Advanced Skills for Career Success

The Basics…

How do you position yourself for a successful career?  You have all heard The Basics.  You want to graduate with significant knowledge in your major field of study.  You need to know how to investigate, think critically about, and problem-solve challenges.  You need excellent communication skills: writing, speaking, and listening.  Further, you need to know how to work effectively in multicultural teams, as a leader and member in real or virtual environments.  You need facility in a range of technology platforms.  Finally, if you have not started already, you should be diligently building a list of professional contacts and personal mentors. Those are the Basics.

Going Beyond…

You certainly cannot skip The Basics, but to excel in our rapidly shifting marketplace you need to prepare yourself by moving Beyond the Basics.  What follows is a series of ten tips for professional success in the marketplace you will find upon graduation:

  1. Design Your Career: Today’s workplace is far from “traditional;” defined by change and the need to adapt to shifting conditions. For your generation, multiple paths will weave together to create career satisfaction. You should embrace that reality and conceptualize your career as custom-built.  You want to strategically select and navigate your way through diverse jobs – each chosen for the new and different tools they will contribute to your rewarding, custom career toolbox. Bottom line? Never apply for a job because you already know how to do everything required. Challenge yourself. Grow.
  1. Build Combinatorial Success: True innovation occurs when ideas from multiple fields combine in creative ways. The most successful innovators – from Benjamin Franklin to Einstein to Bill Gates – were polymaths: naturally curious people with varied interests. Harnessing the power of combining ideas from diverse arenas – as Steve Jobs famously combined his love of calligraphy with computer design to create Apple – will enable you to go Beyond. Double major in art and computer science, or informatics and linguistics, journalism and engineering. Make time for diverse hobbies.  Read about things totally unrelated to your field of interest. Create your own combinatorial success.
  1. Scan the Environment: University may be a time in our lives that is intellectually expansive, but it also can be a time when we have blinders on regarding the rest of the world. One of the most useful (and profitable) skills to develop is the habit of scanning the environment.  What should you watch for? First, pay attention to changes and trends in the economy and in your industry of interest.  Second, it is important to pay attention to emerging trends in arenas unrelated to your major focus, as well as beyond your home country.  Why?  Eventually those trends will spill over and influence the areas where you want to succeed.  Third (and a little more challenging) is to look for how everything connects. When you scan your environment carefully, you will begin to see how it works as a dynamic ecology, where changes in one area affect (eventually) other areas.  The ability to look beyond your immediate world, in a more holistic, and future-oriented way, will give you an edge professionally.
  1. Experiment: As we get older, we tend to become less willing to make mistakes, fail, or look “silly” in front of others. We become less willing to stumble with foreign languages, talk about our crazy business ideas, start a fashion trend, or take up a new sport.  Career success is like a science lab.  One must test ideas, build prototypes, readjust, try a new approach, test again, rinse and repeat.  A willingness to experiment is a key ingredient to career success.  When we actually build and test our ideas, we learn so much more in the process.
  1. Ask, “How Can I Improve That?” Single. Day. Ask ‘How can I improve that?’ in response to something you see or experience.  The Basics teaches you to ask, “How do I do that?” in pursuit of job success. Going Beyond means training your brain to thrive in a perpetual state of creative problem solving.  Look at the world as full of creative challenges to tackle – large and small.  How could I better design this bus stop?  Is there a way my grandmother’s doctor could monitor her blood pressure from afar? What else? How can I improve that? Then think about how you would do it.
  1. It is All about Stories: The latest buzzword is “storytelling.”  This refers to the power of narrative to connect to others in deeper ways.  Developing your storytelling abilities starts with creating your 2-minute “elevator” speech to secure an interview. Then, once in a job, it refers to crafting the story of an organization so that they are better able to reach customers.  Without question, the ability to tell an effective story is a critical skill for success.  However, the ability to listen to stories is perhaps even more important.  We also need to seek out the stories of our colleagues, customers, or community members.  By listening to the stories of others, you will receive keen insights into how to solve most any problem. Learning to tell authentic stories: important. Learning to listen to authentic stories: career changing.
  1. Challenge the Categories: Many of the job-related categories we know today will not be the categories we experience tomorrow. Do not get hung up on whether to go into the marketing or operations sides of business; to focus on products or services; to work in real or virtual worlds; to pursue your passion for technology or nature. Categories tend to be time- or situation-based (e.g., competitors might one day be collaborators).  Therefore, do not feel restricted by the constraints of categories. In fact, you might consider offering up some new ones.
  1. Be an Intrapraneur: Not all of us launch business startups in college, putting our careers in fast-forward mode before we know it. However, you can embrace the mindset of an entrepreneur now, in whatever job you may have. Be an intrapraneur.  Intrapraneurs are people who seek to innovate within their current jobs—whether you are a barista or non-profit volunteer or marketing intern.  Suggest a new way of doing something.  The good news is that an intrapraneur does not need startup funds, but the benefits are there.  The creative problem-solving skills (and reputation for innovation) you will develop as an intrapreneur will put you on the path to success.
  1. Participate in Idea Networks: The Basics tell us to “network.” Go Beyond by becoming an active participant in Idea Networks.  Idea Networks embody four key elements.  First, they are communication rich. This means that a variety of types of communication occurs in the places or spaces where members meet; one can get advice, exchange ideas, observe and listen, and more.  Idea Networks tend to be more informal so everyone is comfortable sharing.  Participation in Idea Networks is both fluid (that is, changing all the time) and diverse (people from all occupations and viewpoints).  Where are Idea Networks?  They might be in Hackerspaces, at social events surrounding talks or conferences, campus clubs, or better yet, in new places that you help create.
  1. Build Your Reputation: Okay, this is a Basic. At the end of the day, your reputation is the most precious career asset you possess.  What is Beyond the Basics is to identify NOW the values you want to embody in your professional life – and never let them go.  What adjectives do you want future colleagues to associate with you, no matter what job you hold? Integrity?  Hard worker?  Open-minded?  Fair?  Generous?  Authentic?  Creative?  Meticulous?  Identify a set of qualities that “fit” what you believe in and who you want to be.  Start today and NEVER waver from your true North.