Labor day career tip: Be a sponge

Soft skills can yield hard results if you play your cards right, says Pitch strategist Lexi Whelan

It’s September, and the projected two million college graduates in the U.S. are enjoying the best job market in years. Great news as we approach Labor Day, a day dubbed "a day of the people," a day to celebrate the contributions workers have made year after year. Companies have welcomed this new young talent into the work force with open arms, hiring about 5% more graduates from the class of 2016 than last year. But most of these new employees probably feel like they have no idea what they’re doing. Many of us, myself included, can sympathize with the anxiety that comes with being a newbie. 

When I landed my first job in advertising at Pitch in 2014 as a junior strategist, I had absolutely no clue what I was doing. We’re often driven to believe that you’re hired and will be prepared because of your "hard skills." I was hired because of my strongest "soft skill," my sponginess.

The woman who hired me is extremely intelligent, so I was filled with equal parts joy and shock when she hired me. After all, I had no industry experience and a degree in psychology and anthropology which aren’t exactly direct routes to advertising. I’d like to think I wowed her with my unique internships and quick wit, but I know she ultimately gave me the opportunity because I was genuinely eager to learn. Two years into my job where I am now a strategist, I can attest that this quality is more relevant and important than ever. In a recent 2016 CareerBuilder study, the top attribute hiring managers looked for in college recruits was "learning agility"— the ability to learn from experiences and apply those learnings going forward. 

When I first started in my junior role, I knew I had to deliver on being a super sponge. I set out to be the most porous new hire the agency had ever seen, to soak up every experience and drink up every learning opportunity I could. I firmly believed that if I could learn by osmosis, eventually I would deliver. 

I was right.

The things I learned in the first few months on the job have repeatedly proven invaluable. Now that I select and train new hires, I’m realizing that you can’t teach the all-important soft skills, like enthusiasm and willingness to learn. But people who possess those key qualities can easily be taught and conquer the "hard skills.

So, as we get ready to celebrate the 122nd Labor Day, here are my top five tips on how to be a sponge.

Check Your Ego
In an entry-level position this is especially important. It can be counter intuitive to come to work and be vulnerable. But the power of vulnerability means that you don’t have to pretend. You shouldn’t "fake it till you make it" in this situation! You are new. No one expects you to know everything right out the gate, so don’t act like you do. Appreciate the fact that you are there to learn, to work hard, and to grow. Accept that at first you may feel confused and in over your head. It’s okay. Even the CEOs of all Fortune 500 companies once had their very first jobs and felt the same way. 

Ask Questions, but Package Them
If you don’t understand something, ask. Asking questions is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of strength. But you should fight the urge to go directly to your manager for all your questions (even though they’ll tell you that you can). Challenge yourself to find the answers on your own. Abide by the "can I Google this" test. Ask your peers for help on general office basics. Go to your manager prepared with questions you’ve already put through the ringer and truly need their help with. This shows you respect their time, their knowledge, and expertise by asking them about topics they’re trained to teach you and you’re interested in learning.

Read What They’re Reading
Find out what your manager is reading. Find out what your company executives and clients are reading. You can do this in a fairly unobtrusive way. (Hint: check out their bookshelves). Ask for book recommendations. Challenge yourself to read what people who are more experienced than you are reading. It may be tough. You may get sleepy. But you will gain an elevated knowledge base. It could also help spark an interesting conversation with people more senior than you by providing some key talking points. 

Embrace Your Fresh Perspective 
You were hired for a reason. As a fresh mind and new generation, you should absolutely volunteer original thinking. Come to meetings with suggestions, and speak up if it’s appropriate. You will have ideas that may seem crazy or surprising. Appreciate that you may be wrong at times, but continue to bring those ideas. The best leaders know that great thinking can come from anywhere, especially employees who bring a new perspective. 

Be an Active Sponge
Seek out opportunities of all kinds. Offer to take notes in a meeting (be sure they are detailed and organized). Ask if you can sit in on calls to simply listen. Join local groups that are relevant to your industry. Participate in free trainings or webinars that are interesting and will give you an edge. Pick up a new skill outside your existing arsenal, especially if that something is currently difficult for you. If you have free time, ask others if you can help them. It’s not only about the hours you put in but the value you add. People will notice and want you on their team for future projects.

Good luck. And, don’t worry. You’ll be great. 

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