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OPINION: Three keys to success in the business world

May is the month for graduation speeches, in which noted persons pass along sage advice and hoped-for inspiration to graduates who yearn for brevity. Sometimes political speeches creep in. I did not give any commencement speeches, but I did tell my students in the management class that I teach as adjunct instructor that in my humble opinion, the three most critical factors in their career success will be competence, communication and connections. As you might imagine, my advice elicited plenty of classroom discussion.

Before discussing “The Three C’s ,” I will mention that my favorite graduation speeches were Steve Jobs’ speech to Stanford University’s Class of 2005 and J.K. Rowlings’ 2008 Harvard University commencement speech. Each is special in its own way, but what both have in common are speakers who made a journey from humble beginnings to fame and fortune. Both are inspiring. You can find Jobs’ speech on the YouTube Web site by searching for “Steve Jobs Stanford Commencement Speech 2005.” Rowling’s is on the Harvard Magazine website.

This year’s graduates may find themselves concerned, even confused, about the job market when they read the newspapers and online media. One article in a Mississippi newspaper mentions the current economic forecast and “bleak outlook in several areas of the job market,” while USA Today reports, “New college graduates this spring can count on a welcoming job market as employers seek to replace a baby boom generation reaching retirement age.” JobWeb.com, which provides job hunting assistance and advice, states that, “…job prospects for the graduating class of 2009 are flat and possibly shrinking.” Sorry USA Today, but a quick search of articles on this subject reveals that most predictions are for the worst job market for college graduates in 25 years.

Meanwhile, graduates who do land a job should consider The Three C’s. Although I believe these nuggets of advice apply to any career endeavor, I believe they are especially relevant to graduates who embark on a career in the business world.

Competence is the first of The Three C’s. Without it, no one lasts very long in any vocation. Incompetence gets exposed early on in any job. Hardly anyone argues with this concept, but the disconnect occurs when students get the idea that they are only being taught something because it is required for a degree and never to be used in “the real world.” I felt that way about regression analysis when I was in business school. I thought that I would never use that concept in the day-to-day work world. Later I opened my own real estate appraisal and consulting company. You guessed it. To predict real estate values properly, one must use regression analysis. Eventually, I worked for a corporation that purchased a certain product that would not be sold until months later during the high-demand season. And how does one predict demand? Using historical data, expert predictions and – you guessed it again – regression analysis. Unfortunately, students are sometimes told only that they must be good at what they do to succeed. But they must be told that and more. Many competent workers are disillusioned when they see co-workers whom they believe are less competent get promoted over them. They wonder how that happens. They only need look at the next characteristic.

The second “C” stands for communication. Employees who can stand in front of a group and deliver a message with confidence and authority has a decided advantage because that employee will be exposed to more people in the management of the organization. Effective communication also demonstrates competence. Good communicators in organizations get recognized faster than other employees in the organization and are often called on to represent the organization to customers, suppliers and the general public. There is a caveat about communication that every graduate and employee should be aware of, and it is this: The message that is sent is never the message that is received. That is because there are internal and external barriers to communication. Today’s graduates are so-called Generation Y workers. Their supervisors, who may be of another generation, may have no idea what “OMG” means. Consequently, communication is becoming more difficult in today’s work environment.

The third “C” refers to connections. This is the one that causes the most consternation for students. They believe that competence will prevail and that in the end an employee’s good works will be the source of rising up the ladder in the organization. It is easy to understand why they feel that way. Students who are good at networking and making connections in school, e.g. are popular, but lack competence, are exposed when it comes to taking exams. In school, making good test scores is the primary measure of success. It separates the competent from the incompetent. In the business world, doing well on the tests, so to speak, is only the beginning of job success. When I bring up this subject of connections I often hear the phrase, “So it’s not what you know, it’s who you know?” My reply is that it is what you know and who you know. Sometimes students misinterpret that statement and conclude that they must engage in currying favor or behaving obsequiously. Far from it. Much of the idea of having connections is about connections outside the organization. That is why networking is so important.

Obviously, these are not the only keys to success in the business world. Nevertheless, they are critically important and can be the basis for those who excel versus those who look back later in life and wonder why they never rose any higher in their careers.

Phil Hardwick is coordinator of capacity development at the John C. Stennis Institute of Government. Contact him at phil@philhardwick.com.

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