2 Career-Killing Lessons New Grads Need to Unlearn

Last Updated Jun 3, 2011 11:58 AM EDT

Managers in cities across the country have told me that they have two big problems with the new college graduates who come to them for jobs and internships:
  • First, they don't understand that they've moved from being a buyer to being a seller.
  • Second, they don't appreciate what it means to be a part of a team.
College seniors have had at least 16 years as consumers of what school has to offer. Yes, they had to produce assigned work and pass exams, but the focus to that point has always on their needs and their goals. They have also spent their entire lives as a primary target for marketers who recognized in them not only their willingness to spend money on endless electronic gadgets but their role as trend-setters in the digital age.

Too often, they bring that perspective to job interviews. They act as though they are meeting with their college advisor, telling prospective employers what the job will do for them instead of what they will bring to the organization.

Bruce Tulgan of Rainmaker Thinking says, "Playing the customer or consumer role is usually Gen Yers' primary experience in the public sphere prior to arriving for their first day of work as employees. Many have little or no experience on the other side of the marketplace transaction, as vendors." He says employers should deliver the message in terms they can understand:

Employment is a transactional relationship, just like a customer relationship. This is the ultimate source of your employer's authority, plain and simple. This is the source of your obligations at work to everyone: your coworkers, your boss, your subordinates, and actual customers. Trumpet this message to Gen Yers: Every person you deal with is your customer--coworkers, employees, managers, suppliers, service people, and actual customers. What makes you valuable to each customer? Every unmet need is an opportunity to add value. Deliver and go the extra mile; get it done early; add the bells and whistles, and tie a bow on it.
The other complaint I hear the most often is that college promotes individual achievement, not teamwork. Students compete with each other; they have no reason to feel responsible for the success of the group. When they get to the workplace, they wait to be told what to do and don't seem to have an instinctive understanding of basic notions of professionalism like confidentiality and commitment.

Sometimes they have to be reminded that incidents at work and comments about co-workers are not to be put on Facebook or Twitter. And one manager told me that an intern assigned to cover an event at a remote location called at the last minute to say she could not make it and that he -- her boss two layers up -- should cover it for her.

Many of the seniors graduating this spring already know all of this, of course. On the other hand, a couple of the managers I spoke to said they actually received the initial phone calls setting up a job interview from the candidates' mothers, as though they were making a play date. For anyone who thinks that is appropriate, I can't improve on the advice Mae West gave when she was asked for her message to the youth of America: "Grow up."

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  • Nell Minow

    Nell Minow, a member of the board of GovernanceMetrics International and founder of The Corporate Library, writes about corporate governance issues, focusing especially on CEO pay, executive compensation, shareholder rights and best business practices.You can follow her on Twitter at @nminow.