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Life 2.0: 4 Things College Doesn’t Teach You About the Professional World

June 7, 2011

After speaking to an incredible group of young women at Brown University, I was recently asked to write a piece for The InquireHer, the new Brown University Women in Business seasonal newsletter.  It’s geared towards young women entering the workforce post-college, but I decided to share it with you as I think we could all use a little inspiration now and then.  I’d love your thoughts!

In college, I spent a great deal of time thinking about my career – where I would work, where I would live and what life would be like as an independent young woman climbing someone’s creative but corporate ladder.  What I didn’t think about were the unspoken (and often unshared) rules of post-college professional life.

1.  You Can Look Young AND Professional

Looking professional doesn’t suddenly mean raiding your mom’s closet or running for the nearest Talbot’s. Ten years ago, I graduated from college and headed straight for Ann Taylor the moment I got to Corporate America. “Women’s Contemporary” didn’t really exist as a fashion concept, and I was surrounded by women who didn’t take many creative liberties when it came to wardrobe.

Today, there are so many fantastic options for young women entering the workforce (J.Crew, Club Monaco and Nanette Lepore are great places to start). But first, you must understand the codes for how to dress at work. For most companies, Business Casual means slacks or skirt and a blouse or button-front shirt.  Business Attire generally means a suit, although it does vary by industry.  In beauty, for example, I can wear a dress or a blazer and skirt (not a suit) to a function that requires Business Attire. And if you have to ask, “Is this too (short, tight, low-cut – you fill in the blank)?” The answer is probably “Yes.” So don’t wear it.

2.  Perception is Reality

You know the old saying about how you only get one chance to make a good first impression?  Well the impression you leave is your legacy.  And whether someone’s perception of you varies drastically from how you see yourself, their perception of you is what will influence hiring decisions, their willingness to recommend you for a job, and whether you’re worthy of a promotion or raise.

As you go about the business of conducting your life, people will make judgments about your character, your intelligence, your appearance and your abilities.  Your personal brand is only as good as your reputation, and in many cases, your online persona.  Not only do many employers conduct credit and background checks, but they also look at your Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn profiles, as well as your blog if you have one. Make sure the face you put forward is the face you want people to remember.

3.  Your Boss is Not Your Friend

In a post-modern world where we have casual Friday and we call our bosses by their first names instead of Mr. or Ms., it’s easy to adopt an overall more casual tone at work.  But there remain certain social boundaries and with them come the (often unspoken) rules of engagement.  To that end, you should never feel comfortable dragging yourself into work and complaining that you’re hung over, asking your boss intimate questions about his or her personal life (or sharing yours for that matter), or requesting your boss’ friendship on Facebook.  If you and your boss do become friends, let him or her take the lead on establishing said friendship.  You don’t want to put your boss in an awkward position of having to accept your friend request, and you don’t want to come across as presumptuous.

4.  Be Your Own Mentor

I hope that as you start your careers and build your networks, you’re fortunate enough to encounter women you can call mentors.  They may be very senior in their careers or perhaps they’re just a few years older than you. And it’s likely that you will have more than one! But your career is yours to manage.  You have to know what’s right for you and have a professional gut instinct you can trust.

In business school, I took a course called Women in Business Leadership by the accomplished, empowering and incredibly endearing Sheila Wellington.  One of the biggest lessons she taught me was that in order to succeed in business, I had to know how to navigate what continues to be a male-dominated world.  Yes, even in beauty.  This kind of empowerment has allowed me to create or seek out opportunities that would allow me to gain meaningful work experience, negotiate my salary and manage my long-term career strategy.

The bottom line is – be smart. Certainly, you’ll stumble on the road to professional maturity.  Don’t dwell on your mistakes.  Learn from them and then get over it.  And by no means do these insights suggest you should be someone else.  If your professional self and your personal self are at odds with each other, you’re probably not in the right place. Because no matter what you’re doing, if you’re happy, you’re doing the right thing.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    June 7, 2011 1:47 pm

    Great advice. Thank you for sharing!

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