Many people ask me how did I break into the public relations profession, and started working with sports and entertainment professionals. We all have to start at the bottom. I started my career very early while in high school. At that time, I volunteered and intern at several seminars, conferences, and networking events. In addition, I freelance my craft to gain additional experience and to build credentials and clientele. It took years before anyone took me seriously or even thought to compensate and retain me for my services. However, with passion, determination, perseverance, and persistence, I worked my way up to becoming a well-known as a top-tier publicist.
“The Permission Paradox” – You can’t get the job without the experience but you can’t get the experience without the job – is one of the great career Catch-22s. This challenge will confront you over the lifetime of your career, whether you’re trying to break into the work force or you’re to become a CEO for the first time. While the phenomenon can be frustrating no matter what your level, the Permission Paradox is especially challenging for today’s aspiring young professional and recent graduates.
Overcoming this conundrum is fundamental both to launching your career successfully and thriving over the long term. You are confident in your abilities if only you’re given the chance. The hard part is getting the shot to show what you can do.
The Permission Paradox can be a paralyzing obstacle and can often be a self-fulfilling prophecy. A distinguishing characteristic of the most successful professionals – at every stage – is that they find ways to gain access to attractive opportunities. And when they do, they deliver and make good on that leap of faith that someone took on them. One of the keys to overcoming the Permission Paradox is recognizing that when you apply for any job you will be evaluated along two different dimensions: your potential to add value in the future and your track record in the area most central to the job. Depending on the seniority of the position, these two sources of value – your potential and your experience – will be weighted in different proportions, like the scales of justice. As a general rule, the earlier you are in your career, the greater the importance of your potential value.
Your potential value is best demonstrated by your attitude, enthusiasm, work ethic, communications skills, curiosity/quality of your questions, willingness to learn, and your knowledge of the company and role. Beyond showing your potential, however, here are five specific strategies you can deploy to overcome the Permission Paradox in the early days of your career.
Five Permission Strategies
- Get Credentials. One of the most logical ways to gain permission is to obtain relevant credentials. This can be in the form of a specialized degree or targeted training. One of the hottest areas in the economy right now, no surprise, is computer programming. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by 2020, there will be a gigantic demand-supply gap, with one million computer programming jobs going unfilled. Traditional computer science programs will not be able to meet this need. It turns out that many companies seeking programmers actually don’t require degrees in computer science to get a job. At Google, for example, according to The Wall Street Journal, nearly 15 percent of the team members who work in programming don’t have a college degree. With training at places such as Codeacademy, which reportedly has had 24 million people around the world take one or more of its courses, you can develop proficiency in a period of months. With this credential, you’ll have enough experience to break in for a first job and then you’ll be in the same position as other entry-level programmers to perform and thrive. So go ahead, pick your field of interest, whether it be coding, finance, aviation, or the business of art, and find a respected credential-granting school or organization and pursue it. One effective finance program that promises to deliver “knowledge, experience, and opportunity” over the course of a summer, for example, is the Tuck Business Bridge Program at Dartmouth College. If you want to break into a career in art, check out Christie’s Education, which offers degree and non-degree programs in both the business of art and art itself. And if you dream of flying airplanes for a living, take a look at ATP Flight School’s Airline Career Pilot Program, which provides airline-oriented flight training at a fixed cost in the shortest time frame.
- Get Creative. Laura Chambers has run University Programs at eBay where her team of 40 was responsible for setting and hitting aggressive recruitment goals, and ensuring that the interns and new college graduates have high-quality experiences. She therefore, speaks with expertise and practical experience on the topic of breaking into companies after college. Laura’s advice, especially if you don’t have a technical or specialized degree, is to get creative so that you can stand out from the crowd. “Volunteer at a start-up,” she suggests and “get your hands dirty. You will have the opportunity to do a wide variety of activities which will help you find what you love and build some skills at the same time.” This will also enable you to talk about your experience, not just your potential. She also advises to develop a customized approach for companies you target. “If you want to work at eBay, Inc., for example,” she says, “start a small business buying and selling on eBay or using PayPal, and be prepared to talk about the pros and cons of that experience.” It doesn’t cost have to cost too much, other than your time and initiative, to create a few video or blog posts about your experience. Maybe these can get picked up by media. At the very least they will give you something to show to complement your resume.
- Be Willing to Start at the Bottom. If you are a college graduate, you may feel (and frankly be) overqualified for many entry-level jobs. But you have to start somewhere. Or, as Lao Tzu famously said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step”.* Chad Dickerson, CEO of the rapidly growing online marketplace, Etsy.com, suggests that the best positions to “get a foot in the door” are often as a member of a company’s support team. “A number of Etsy support people have learned our business really well and turned into very capable product managers,” he said. Chad also admits to having a special place in his heart for this approach because it worked for him personally. “I took the lowest-paid clerical job at a newspaper in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1993 and it happened to be the first daily newspaper on the web in the United States. I ended up learning how to build websites just by being there!” Whether it’s in the Internet industry, financial services, retail, hospitality, or any other business that touches large numbers of people, starting at the point of customer interface, whether in customer support, behind the cash register, on the sales floor, or at the concierge desk, will give you a valuable opportunity to learn what’s really going on in the market. You’ll be able to use this when you seek to work your way up the ladder internally or interview elsewhere.
- Barter. You may not yet have a job. But if you don’t, by definition you have something else of enormous value, which you may not be fully considering. Time. Treat your time as the precious asset it is. If you are creative and package your time with energy, enthusiasm, and initiative, you can barter your way to opportunity and break the Permission Paradox. Earlier this summer, a new college graduate networked her way into an informational interview with a real estate brokerage firm. She had a degree in history. As she was talking to the executive, who seemed overwhelmingly busy, a light bulb went off. “You seem incredibly stretched right now,” she observed and then asked the $64,000 question. “What would you do to grow your business if you had an extra day in your week?” He paused and said he’d do a market research study for the young urban rental market. She offered to do that for free and was able to communicate quickly how her analysis and writing skills developed for her thesis would give her the ability to execute the project. He took her up on her offer and paid her $10 an hour for her work. After a few weeks, she presented her findings. The real estate executive was blown away by the quality of her report, the clarity of her thinking, and the creativity with which she packaged her analysis. She was offered and has now accepted an entry-level job as a market researcher in the firm.
- Re-imagine Your Experience. You’ve decided the general direction you’d like to take and have built up a target list of companies to research and pursue. You’ve followed your target list rigorously by visiting the career pages for each company to see what jobs are actually available. All good. But, at this point in the process, you may find that you just don’t have the experience sought for a position you’d like to pursue. You can either exit the website then and there and move on to the next company. Or you can try to re-imagine your experience and pursue this very opening. Here’s how one aspiring young professional did just that. For an entry-level position in a food company, it listed “project management” experience as a critical requirement. Initially this put off the energetic, enthusiastic graduate who was otherwise a great fit with the company and who resonated with the mission of providing customers with only the highest-quality organic food. In discussing the dilemma, we walked through this individual’s experiences and were able to find something that fit the bill – when thought of and described in a different way. A geography major who loves travel, he told how he worked with a group of his friends to “project manage” their recent three week trip across Eastern Europe – doing research into itineraries, finding the lowest fares and cheapest hostels, executing the reservations and bookings, collecting the money from his friends, and acting as “treasurer” for the journey. In so doing, he was able to demonstrate the capabilities that the company was looking for – even though he was drawing on a completely non-professional experience. The key lesson is that you may actually have more-relevant experience than you think.