Advice for New Graduates

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It’s graduation time, and thousands of new college graduates will enter the market looking for their first serious job. The local market is certainly better than when they entered college four (or more) years ago; the unemployment rate has dropped from 11 percent in 2010 to around six percent today. Graduates will have a diploma in hand, but it may take more to make them competitive.

Don Capener is dean of Jacksonville University’s Davis College of Business. He’s a successful entrepreneur who joined JU in 2012. He speaks to business owners and employers every day about what they want to see in new graduates. The answer is consistent: bring us graduates who know how to solve problems. In business school, students learn to balance the risk and rewards and estimate financial returns over time. The challenge is making the transition from solving problems as an academic exercise to applying knowledge in the real world. It’s the working equivalent of moving from counting steps (1-2-3, 1-2-3) to dancing.

There are very real barriers to making the transition from academics to real-world problems. In class, you’re often certain that there is a right answer – in fact, just one right answer, and it’s your job to find it. In the real world, there may be more than one right answer, or only a choice between two equally bad options. Glenn Llopis, writing for Forbes Magazine, says: “Great leaders use broadened observation; circular vision. They see around, beneath and beyond the problem itself. They see well-beyond the obvious.” Learning to be patient with a problem, to look for what others have missed, is a skill worth developing.

In fact, persistence is one of the key indicators of future success.  Students who see problems as distractions and setbacks will spend as much time griping about the problem as they will trying to solve it. Future leaders realize that the problem is what they’re hired for; problems should be intriguing, not discouraging. Don Capener tells students: “Applying knowledge is a skill; it takes time and practice to develop. Most of us fear failure, even though it is by failure that we learn the most meaningful lessons.”

Students who see grades as the result of their work won’t be as successful as those who see the learning as the goal.  There are some who think that achieving an “A” grade justifies almost any shortcut to success. But the A won’t help you when you’re sitting in your office alone, struggling with identifying and solving problems – only the learning will.

Young graduates also make the mistake of trying to understand all the variables before making a decision. In the real world, you have to move on imperfect data. Andy Grove, author and one of the founders of Intel, talks about the idea of moving forward with decisions that make sense based on the information that is there, rather than the information that isn’t. Waiting for more information may make for a better decision, but only if customers or market opportunities wait around for you to decide.

Capener says, “Try and take responsibility and calculated risks… The initiative you show to ‘handle things yourself’ will set you apart from other millennials.” In fact, Capener says, the most important skill he gained over time was “asking the right questions.” What does that look like in practice? Martin Cooper, a young engineer at Motorola, was tasked with developing a car phone in the 1970s. He asked the question that revolutionized the world: “Why, when we make a phone call, do we have to call a place?” That’s what the right question looks like.


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