The Importance of Structure

I remember going to a conference a few years ago where an online university was presenting on a failed experiment with a new pricing structure. The had instituted a program where students could sign up for as many classes as they wanted in a semester for one price and could complete them at their own pace. The university thought it would help speed time to graduation by giving people a financial incentive to complete more courses for the same price. Their experience with the program showed it had the opposite effect. More people completed fewer classes than before.

In their post-mortem on the failed project, they discovered a lack of structure was the main problem. Self-paced learning meant most people procrastinated. They signed up for more than they could handle, put off studying and completing assignments and achieved less. The university decided to pivot. They hired “learning coaches” who called the students weekly to make sure they were staying on task and completing assignments in a timely manner.

Most of us have had a crash course in working remotely over the past few months. For me, the digital medium is new, but the work schedule has remained the same. I get up at the same time. Go to work at the same time. I still have standing meetings at the same time, with the same people about the same topics. Deadlines have also remained the same. It has provided me with the same rhythm to my work that I am accustomed and this structure has kept me on task.

If you are struggling with the switch to digital learning, I would suggest you replicate your past face-to-face experience as much as possible. We have tried to provide you with the same experiences you would have on campus, from class times and office hours, right down to talks in The EXCHANGE. Commit to the same schedule. In many ways, flexibility is the enemy. It detaches you from the college experience, leads to procrastination and reduces the likelihood of success. In a world where so much is out of your control right now, structure and routine around your education is one of the few things you do control. Make it work for you.

Landing a Job in a Post Pandemic World

Today’s guest post is from Alex Groenendyk. Alex is currently the President of The Career Cycle— a set of tools we use in our professional development courses where he is also a frequent speaker. The piece originally appeared on LinkedIn and has gotten a lot of great feedback….

There is no doubt that entry-level jobs will be more difficult to secure for a while. No one knows for how long. Although we all hope the economy will bounce back quickly, it is likely that hiring budgets will remain cautious while the virus is still around. With unemployment now reaching record levels, this means many more people will be chasing fewer jobs.

SO WHAT SHOULD YOU AS A STUDENT DO? 

Stay calm and do not dwell on the negative. Use your time now to adopt a proven strategy that is widely used by businesses all around you. It is very effective and particularly important to have in place during difficult times. Let’s take a look.

Proactive businesses consistently build and nurture strategic relationships in their target customers. They ask these relationships to help define improvements to their products and services to meet the specific needs of those customers. They carefully maintain those relationships and keep them updated on progress. As a result these customers feel involved, a sense of ownership and even pride. They now believe that the products from this company are ‘more uniquely relevant’ to their own requirements than other competitive offerings.

When they are ready to buy, they will do so from the businesses with which they have these relationships. They may even be willing to pay a premium.

How does this apply to you?

Think of yourself as a one-man business offering your services to other businesses, i.e. your employers. To ensure your abilities meet the specific needs of the employer you want to work for – you need to build the exact same type of strategic relationships.

This means engaging and building relationships with people who can:

  • Provide you with information to help you decide on your target market, i.e. your target job, employer & industry.
  • Advise you on how to align your skills to the specific requirements of your target job.
  • Introduce you to other strategic & influential people.
  • Make you aware of internship opportunities and guide you to get the most out of the experience.
  • Make you aware of any job openings before they are posted.
  • Help you understand and guide you through the selection process.
  • Champion your case during the selection process.

The ultimate examples of such relationships are coaches and mentors. If you ask the right questions, listen carefully and act on their advice – they will develop a sense of pride in you. They will look forward to having you on their team.

WHY IS THIS SO IMPORTANT?

This will position you very advantageously for the ‘hidden’ job market. With fewer jobs being posted and high unemployment, the ‘open’ market is going to be very crowded.

Just a quick reminder – the ‘open’ job market is where jobs are publicly posted such as on employer web sites and job boards. Even prior to the pandemic it would not be uncommon to have over a thousand applicants competing for one job post.

The ‘hidden’ job market is where jobs are spread through word of mouth, often prior to being posted publicly in the ‘open’ job market. In the hidden job market it is not uncommon to be competing with less than ten other candidates!

It will be the relationships you build and nurture within your target employers, which will give you access to the ‘hidden’ job market. 

Without these relationships to help you build your specific relevance, you will appear undifferentiated & generic. You will be competing with the masses in the open market with only your resume and an interview to persuade an employer that you can meet their needs.

If you are competing for a job against an individual who has been coached on how to build their relevance for that job during a long-term relationship with that employer – you will lose.

HOW DO YOU BUILD THESE RELATIONSHIPS?

It takes time and effort. Contacting a stranger for help when you urgently need a job will not work. Why would someone who does not know anything about you, help you or introduce you to someone else?

You have to cross the ‘like & trust’ threshold with someone before they will even consider helping you.

Many students find the idea of building professional relationships quite daunting. So how you do this – especially in a virus phobic environment where face-to-face meetings are now discouraged?

The diagram below is a very simple summary of how to do it.

The horizontal axis represents your interpersonal activities over time. These activities are listed next to the blue diagonal line. This line shows the other persons ‘like & trust’ toward you increasing as you progress from a stranger, to becoming a connection, and finally crossing the ‘like & trust’ threshold into the beginnings of a relationship. 

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LinkedIn is an ideal platform to support the above process of connecting and starting relationships. It is what it was designed for.

In line with the old saying ‘Birds of a feather stick together’ – people are more inclined to like & trust you – if they perceive you to be similar to them.

Liking, commenting thoughtfully with an expansion or a clarification, and sharing other people’s content are great ways to get someone’s initial attention. This also makes you appear similar to them in terms of how you think. People tend to trust people who they believe ‘think like they do’ – and everyone appreciates having his or her posts liked.

Take note however: The above interaction has to be genuine. Any fake or insincere comments will put people off. Your best approach is to position your self honestly – as a student who is trying to make connections they can learn from. Good questions are therefor your best tools. Most people will want to help you succeed.

But before you ask for anything – put some ‘goodwill’ in their tank by offering to help them first.

SUMMARY & CALL TO ACTION

The purpose of this article is to encourage you to build strategic relationships that will help you drive your destiny through the three critical stages of targeting a job, preparing your relevance, and winning the selection process. You can not do this over night – it takes time and dedication. Start by reaching out to as many people as possible to get information on a diverse range of jobs before you select your target. Then focus on people within your target and deepen those relationships. 

Do this well enough and your relationships will be waiting for you when you graduate. What better way for them to build their teams than with people who they coached to have the ideal skills and team fit?

So get started on building your LinkedIn profile. Be aware many recruiters and employers now pay more attention to what you put on your LinkedIn profile than your resume. Learn how to search for strategic people, i.e. individuals who have jobs you are interested in, their managers, H.R. executives, alumni, recruiters and so on. Then start building relationships beginning with crossing their ‘like & trust’ threshold.

So what should you do if you graduated recently without building any relationships while you were a student? 

Start now! You will be at a disadvantage against students who have their network in place, however:

It is better to start a relationship-based career strategy late – than never. This approach is still more likely to help you land a good career job, faster, with higher pay, than applying for jobs in the open market with a generic profile.

Obviously the earlier you start while still a student the better. For those of you in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida, this is what the Professionalism Series of classes are designed to encourage you to do.

Good luck! If any of you have a story of how your relationships helped you land a job please share them in the comments for others to benefit from.

Alex Groenendyk

President – The Career Cycle

Getting Stuff Done

Last week I did Zoom calls with some of our most notable alumni and donors.  I had three goals: (1) to update them on what was going on at UCF, (2) to have Sean Snaith share his most recent forecast for the economy, and (3) to get a sense from everyone on how the pandemic is impacting their business and industry.  It led to incredibly interesting conversations.  I kept thinking, “I wish my students could listen in on this.”

A few key takeaways I won’t dwell on here:  Even in a massive voluntary shutdown there is opportunity.  Some industries are doing very well (e.g., grocery stores, pizza delivery, supplies for do-it-at-home construction projects).  That said, the downturn is historic, and it will take us until the third quarter of 2021 to get back to where we were before things started to close.  This assumes no massive second wave of the virus that provokes a shutdown like we are experiencing now.

But I thought the most interesting conversation was around how the urgency created by the virus swiped bureaucratic processes aside and allowed people at the bottom of the organization to just figure out how to get stuff done.  Corporations and universities were no different in this regard. Two cases illustrate this point.

Before the pandemic, there would be endless debates on developing policies for people to work at home.  Both corporations and universities would develop task forces on the subject, argue about appropriate policies, worry about oversight, etc., etc., etc.  By the time someone put something concrete together, attention would wane or leadership would change. Proposals would get shelved and the process would probably wait several years before getting restarted again.  During the pandemic, we figured it out in a matter of weeks.  People got on Zoom, Skype and similar video platforms.  They figured out how to do meetings from home, do paperwork from home, call on clients from home, teach classes from home, create whole new university budget models from  home, etc., etc., etc.  Not all of this will stick after the pandemic ends.  Some things are just hard to do in the digital environment—strategy sessions for one, managing culture for another. But it is unquestionably true that several things will stick, and the world will be changed as a result (e.g., more people will work from home more often, commercial real estate will have to adjust, business travel is also likely to decline).

Another example is in product/service innovation.  One of my alums noted that before the pandemic a move toward “no contact delivery” would have been debated for months and taken a year to roll out across all their stores.  In the pandemic world, they did this in a week.  She marveled about the speed with which this got done. New program proposals on campus offer a similar story.  Usually new programs go through a long process that takes a couple of years from conception to execution and requires sign off from many committees representing different layers of the organization.  Today on campuses everywhere, you can get a new certificate or program proposal through in a couple of months by making a sensible argument.  Rather than higher ups obsessing about the accuracy of demand estimates, budget projections, quality or turf, people are being trusted to do the right thing and put excess capacity to work for the benefit of the student and university.  Will all such programs succeed?  Nope.  Not sure “no contact delivery” will be a thing a year from now either, but again several innovations will survive, and the world will change must faster than it would pre-pandemic.

It’s hard for people at the top to just trust the people at the bottom to do the right thing. They see quality control, compliance and planning as critical to sustained success. There is, of course, some truth in this. But it would be my hope, a positive impact of the urgency provoked by the pandemic restores some balance to this equation, and more people at the point of production get freed to experiment and just get stuff done. The success of many organizations, including universities, over the next couple of years in this era of great uncertainty, may depend on it.

Lessons from a Pandemic

If you want to get a sense of how our faculty are using the pandemic as a teachable moment, I give you a recent email from Cameron Ford to his entrepreneurship students..

If you’ve been watching the news (how can you avoid it!), you’ve likely heard the debates about when we should “open” the economy, and whether states or the federal government has authority over these decisions.

Based on what you should have learned in this class, you should recognize that THIS IS THE WRONG DEBATE. Perhaps the most important thing you should take away from this class is that IT’S NOT ABOUT (or up to) YOU.  IT’S ABOUT MAKING THINGS BETTER FOR OTHERS. 

The discussion should be around how to redesign experiences so people can consume products/services they want AND stay safe until the crisis is resolved (most likely by large scale vaccinations). Based on poll results released this week,  it’s unlikely that people will forgo social distancing and rush out to salons, bars, and stadiums just because they are available.  Consumer frustrations are different now than they were in January, and legitimate concerns about getting or spreading COVID-19 are likely to influence preferences and behavior for a long time. POLITICAL LEADERS CAN’T “OPEN” THE ECONOMY – ONLY CONSUMERS CAN “OPEN” THE ECONOMY.

Changing preferences will require new experiences and value propositions. There will probably be a wave of obsolescence and innovation after this crisis passes in a year or two, similar to the innovation and prosperity that followed WWI and WWII (the 1920’s and 1950’s).

Entrepreneurial problems solvers are doing this already all around us. Examples include distance learning, no-contact deliveries, one-way aisles in grocery stores, tele-medicine, drive-through only services, Plexiglas barriers, remote workouts and music lessons, etc. Could hair stylists coach people through virtual haircuts? Could bars create outdoor venues serving cocktails in untouched glasses with bouncers to maintain social distancing (this was in the BIG IDEA competition)? Could some sports be conducted with appropriate social distancing for TV audiences (e.g., golf? tennis? track & field? figure skating? bowling? etc.). Who knows? But designing or redesigning customer experiences using currently available resources, creative thinking, and critical thinking  should be at the forefront of our collective efforts to survive and thrive.

One of the first things I told you this semester is that entrepreneurship is a social responsibility. Entrepreneurs introduce innovations to society that make things better. Political processes can’t do this, but YOU can and YOU will if you find a problem that compels you and go on a quest to make things better. LET THE NEEDS OF OTHERS GUIDE YOU AND YOU’LL ALWAYS BE VALUED.

Good stuff, Cameron.