Preparing for the workforce: 3 tips to make the most out of your practical experiences
Moving in the workforce, it’s clear that practical experience is not just a bonus to the resume, but a necessity to help you thrive.
But with so many opportunities out there, the biggest question becomes: How do I make sure I’m choosing the right experiences and making the most out of it?
In my own four years at university, I’ve been lucky enough to have explored quite a bit. Volunteering, working part-time, interning, tutoring, being involved in clubs & societies, going on 3(!) separate echange programs, attending numerous conferences and travelling in between it all to 9 other countries.
So here are my top three tips to ensure the experiences you choose are valuable to both your professional and personal development.
1) Be solution-oriented
Sometimes, what you expectations you have of what your experience will be like might not actually match up to what you get. The key here is to be focused on solving for growth.
At times, your work might be harder than you expected - that’s great. Don’t be scared to ask for mentorship, seek advice and use a bit of resourcefulness and initiative to figure it out. Showing that you’re eager to learn is far better than pretending you know everything already.
On the other hand, sometimes your tasks might seem incredibly tedious and menial. Here are some great questions to think of in those times:
- Is this task important to the overall business? Why? If it’s not clear, how can it be?
- Is this task something that could be relevant to your learning and skills? Why? If it’s not clear, how can it be?
- Are you the best at doing this? If not, how can you be? (This is where Google.com can be handy. Learn from the experts!)
I was once doing an internship where my daily tasks were about writing blog posts. At first I felt confused - Is this what years of studying Commerce qualified me to do? Then I thought back to the purpose of these blogs - building the company brand, increasing audience engagement and attracting new leads (and profits). The ability to write effectively is an underrated but extremely important business skill - and I knew I was not the best by far. So instead of being stuck feeling restless, I chose to use this as an opportunity to hone my communication skills, and became much more motivated to improve.
2) Understand context to add more value
Whether you studied business or not, understanding how organisations make their decisions and prioritise is essential.
Regardless of whether it’s a not-for-profit, start-up, SME or MNC, these insights provide you with the context of the strategies and tasks to help you innovate - imagine the difference between being asked to ’find cheaper office supplies’ vs. ‘analyse and recommend strategies to cut project costs’.
The best way to uncover this is through observing the behaviours and conversations you have at work.
What are the thought processes and logic your managers run through when presenting a project, providing feedback or during meetings? How do they talk about what the organisation strives for? How do they respond to your questions or suggestions?
The great thing about working in different environments means you can see first hand the differences in culture, vision and operations. Some aspects might be more effective in certain situations over others. Figuring out how an organisation runs helps you prioritise better, and discover how you work best.
Learning more about the organisational priorities also clarifies what gaps might exist, while knowing your own capabilities can encourage you to stretch your skills to apply them more meaningfully. This way, it’s more possible to find growth opportunities outside of what you expected, while showcasing what an asset you are to the company.
For example, while I was working at a startup, I realised my skills could be translated from providing social media audits to providing marketing guidelines for the company to continue using after my placement finished. This meant that my work wasn’t just a ’time-filler’ but actually something that would help create a platform for the company to continue building upon to grow sustainably from. Similarly, while working in a well-established enterprise, sharing my fresh perspective made it possible for the team to improve our project together.
Your experiences shouldn’t just benefit only you - otherwise, you don’t learn anything about how to be useful to others.
3) Develop your intelligence beyond IQ
The world is made up of various types of people, and no doubt you will need to learn how to work with diverse personalities. Diversity is actually fantastic in helping you innovate and think differently. People from different backgrounds have different ways of approaching and viewing the same thing. The only thing is it also requires that you develop other sets of intelligence - emotional and cultural.
We often hear a lot about emotional intelligence - how to control and express your emotions, empathise and develop interpersonal skills to collaborate and work in teams effectively. Learning how to play well with others is a vital and huge learning point that deserves its own article.
Cultural intelligence however is the less widely discussed aspect that is equally important to note for future workplaces as well.
Just imagine: with 1 in 4 Australians born overseas (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2011) and the many more second and third generation migrant Australians, there is no doubt a mix in the workplace of upbringing, lifestyles, customs, and ways of thinking.
Developing your cultural intelligence, or your ability to handle situations of cultural diversity, will help you become more open-minded and a better team player.
Working in India, I was confused by simple things like needing to turn on mobile roaming when moving interstate*. Forcing myself to apply the skills and experiences I had to a completely different market tested me to think more strategically because I had to challenge assumptions about how people engage and relate with ideas and with each other.
When dealing with my Indian boss, I would always make sure to focus on building our personal relationship and talking about the shared vision of the company before making suggestions for ways to improve. On the other hand, I was also able to bring some flat-organisational Aussie culture into the workplace by facilitating a collaborative brainstorming session with everyone from the boss to the interns, adding in my own diverse flavour and value into the company.
Working in different people might not always be comfortable or convenient, but it will encourage you to review why people might think and act they way they do, and challenge you to find other ways to connect.
So in between your experiences, don’t forget the value of working in diverse environments. It will help widen your perspectives, collaborate more effectively, think more innovatively, and stand out as a business leader.
Regardless of what experiences you choose, make sure you make the most of it. As Michael Korda say - “One way to keep momentum going is to have constantly greater goals.”
Aim high and good luck.
*Fun fact: India’s population is 1.23 billion - about fifty times bigger than Australia. Coordinating their networks on a national level would be much more challenging for them.