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Becoming a Leader On the Job (Search)

Like thousands of young people across the country, I am a little over a month away from graduating from college -- and entering a downright hostile job market. It would be an understatement to say I feel panicked, in spite of having worked hard for years to build an impressive resume for future employers. No one envies the class of 2009.

Although job searching is exhausting, I've realized my search may actually be teaching me some valuable leadership lessons -- perhaps more than any entry-level, "real" job ever could. Read up on the five ways that looking for a job is making me -- and can make you -- a better leader.

1. Venturing out of your comfort zone
Sitting around and waiting won't make jobs come running your way. The past few months have forced me to be more "social" than I've ever been. Once I got over the initial fear of emailing an alum, calling up a potential employer, or sitting down with a supervisor at work, the boundaries of my comfort zone expanded infinitely. Here are 12 different ways of using social networking to land a job.

2. Managing panic and staying positive
One recent evening, I sent out no less than 30 emails to alumni in the journalism industry. "Dear Mr./Ms. _______, I am interested in hearing about your experiences in journalism...." Almost a dozen alumni responded that same night, but to my dismay, almost half of them said they were no longer at their previous jobs. "I'm not in a position to offer any advice to you," one alum wrote to me. "Maybe we can talk again when the financial crisis eases off." It occurred to me that I needed to cut myself some slack: This recession's hitting everyone, no matter how good their resumes. Not everything is under my control.

In her article "High Spirits + Energy = Better Job Search," career coach Diane Costigan advises, "You need patience to play out the waiting game; perseverance in the face of rejection and bad news; persistence to keep moving forward when motivation may wane; and, perhaps most important, a positive perspective to keep your motivation high."

3. Evaluating your next boss
I am beginning to see just how easy it is to get completely consumed by the "Please, hire me!" attitude. This is especially the case now, as times are difficult and being extended even one job offer seems like a bounty of opportunity.

But (as I am being reminded by a few wise adults in my life), a job search is very much a two-way process. Not only are potential employers evaluating you, but you too, must evaluate your next boss. As a Washington Post writer pointed out, "few things have more impact on your happiness at work than the person you answer to every day."

4. A process of self-discovery
Four months ago, I wanted to land a job that would allow me to write about news and politics. When this quickly became much more difficult than I had ever expected, I had no choice but to rethink my strategy. What are the things that I am really good at and how can I put these skills to use? How can I best "sell" my best qualities to employers, without completely compromising the things I care and feel passionate about?

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Claire Bonilla, who took a roundabout path to get to her current job, said: "When I was younger I had an interview question that asked what color I'd choose to describe myself. I chose black because it's made up of the entire spectrum of colors. I believe that every person is made up of different components -- skills, talents and facets. With any job it really comes down to understanding what talents, or colors, you will pull out that align with that job." My goal now is simply to find a job that connects with one aspect of my interest and skills, rather than all of them at once.

5. Helping others, especially when times are difficult
So many people in my life -- from professors, alumni and supervisors at work, to the parents of an adorable two-and-a-half-year-old boy I babysit for -- have blown me away with their willingness to help. Their gestures range from buying me coffee and offering me career advice, to putting me in contact with people in the journalism industry.

I feel inspired to give back in the same way someday. I cannot wait to get that first phone call or email five years down the road, from a soon-to-be-graduate asking me for career advice. And if they are worried at all about the job search, I will reassure them that they will be okay, because after all, I was class of 2009 -- and I survived.

By MJ Lee  |  April 8, 2009; 11:23 AM ET  | Category:  Leadership Training Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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MJ, this is a great article. I especially like your paragraph about self-discovery. I feel like hard economic times such as these really push people to become creative in thinking about the way they approach the job market. Your article is especially great for all prospective graduating students and makes people realize that job searching in hard times like these also requires sacrifice. Although many graduates may be searching for the perfect job, right now may not be the best time to do so. Instead the dream may have to sit on the side-burner for a time while we pursue other less glamorous but potentially just as rewarding jobs. That being said I believe that hard work will always win out in the end and it seems like you really have your head in the right place!

Posted by: psychedelicsally | April 15, 2009 12:11 AM

MJ, this is a great article. I especially like your paragraph about self-discovery. I feel like hard economic times such as these really push people to become creative in thinking about the way they approach the job market. Your article is especially great for all prospective graduating students and makes people realize that job searching in hard times like these also requires sacrifice. Although many graduates may be searching for the perfect job, right now may not be the best time to do so. Instead the dream may have to sit on the side-burner for a time while we pursue other less glamorous but potentially just as rewarding jobs. That being said I believe that hard work will always win out in the end and it seems like you really have your head in the right place!

Posted by: psychedelicsally | April 15, 2009 12:10 AM

Amazingly relevant and wonderful to hear from the perspective of someone in the thick of things. Such optimism is so needed. thank you!

Posted by: splashy-cat | April 12, 2009 8:14 PM

it is so refreshing to hear about this issues from someone ACTUALLY EXPERIENCING THEM. this offers such a positive spin, I can't wait to share it with my friends, and classmates of 2009. I only wish that there were more editorials taking such a youthful, optimistic perspective. thank you MJ!!

Posted by: splashy-cat | April 12, 2009 8:12 PM

Geez, Harrumph! Maybe I just don’t tune into the same sources you do, but I don't think I've really heard the term 'leadership' be overused, and certainly not misused. The definition of a ‘leader’ isn’t exactly rigid if it depends, by necessity, on having to define another word: ‘follower.’ It’s a word that needs contextualizing, and I think MJ did a good job of that.

MJ’s point is that we are not JUST ‘making progress’ (I assume you mean on an individual level?), although this is certainly what we’re all inevitably going to have to do. The reason MJ indicates these qualities as specifically being leadership qualities is that the economic environment right now is VERY different from anything the world has ever experienced—the Great Depression is a valid reference point, but no more than that—and therefore, how we (class-of-09-ers, and others entering the job market) respond to the situation will mark a precedent for future generations to follow. MJ points out that while it’s easy to feel like we’ve been unjustly thrust in a ‘downright hostile job market,’ it is more important now than ever to be proactive as well as reflexive about the situation. Points 3 (choosing your boss) and 5 (helping others, especially in troubled times) were particularly insightful, I think, precisely because they put our current plight in a larger temporal context and recognize that our decisions now will determine not only our own success but also that of others… especially if we actively set a good example.

Good point about the black/white mistake Claire Bonilla made, though.

Posted by: elenavator | April 11, 2009 5:37 PM

"Sell" yourself? It's not a seller's market. So how about doing something else? I survived on temporary blue-collar and white-collar jobs for years without 'compromising' myself, although you may of course have higher ethical and spiritual standards. My advice, free and thus valueless, is that you should not set as your goal the fantasy of some college senior in five years looking up at you and asking for career advice.

Posted by: dane1 | April 11, 2009 10:31 AM

Good Luck. Assume whatever job you do get will get sent overseas to someone cheaper living in a repressive political regime, an environment of extreme poverty, or both.

Posted by: timscanlon | April 11, 2009 4:48 AM

MJ - awesome post.
harrumph1, the adversity faced by young students, graduating from universities does prepare them as leaders for leadership positions. I also agree with you that it is a part of maturing. It may be easy to blame the economy for the lack of job prospects, sit at home and be a useless menace. However, those who create career contacts, practice conversing professionally, and experience the hardships of life from a young age will be equipped with the skills necessary to face and conquer future challenges.

Posted by: happie1004 | April 10, 2009 11:22 PM

Why does this make you a "leader" rather than just someone with experience who is making progress? "Leader" and "leadership" are amongst the most misused terms in our society.

Posted by: harrumph1 | April 10, 2009 9:21 PM

Black is the absence of any reflected color - white is the sum of all colors.

Posted by: harrumph1 | April 10, 2009 9:19 PM

This article is SO relevant-as a current member of the class of '09, I really needed this! I love your perspective and positive attitude-and it doesn't hurt to remember that we are entering one of the worst job markets, not recently, not in the past few years, but EVER. we will survive!

Posted by: shelstahoya | April 10, 2009 5:06 PM

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