Little Things that Will Make a Big Difference for Young Professionals Entering the Workforce

by Frank L. Williams

On October 27, 2022, I had the privilege of serving as the keynote speaker at N.C. State University’s annual PR Day event, which is organized by the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA). I was particularly honored to speak at this event given that I was a PRSSA member and attended PR Day many moons ago when I was a student.

As I contemplated what topics my speech would cover, I knew I wanted it to be substantive, practical, and useful. I reflected on my own career trajectory and professional growth, as well as my experience working with numerous interns and two younger team members. I contemplated mistakes I’ve made and outlined things I wished I had known at the outset of my career. I listed things I’ve observed from job applicants, interns, and employees.

The speech evolved into a list of little things that will make a big difference for young professionals entering the workforce. While some of the items on the list are specific to public relations and communication professionals, most of them apply to nearly any field. 

Before we dive into the list, let’s define the term “personal brand.” Your personal brand is whatever pops into someone’s head when they see or hear your name. The items on this list aren’t rocket science, but they are practical, and they can make a big difference in shaping your personal brand.

The first portion of this list is largely dedicated to the job-search process.

Writing is Paramount. While technology has changed many things in the world of public relations and communication, writing is still the absolute most important skill for anyone entering the profession. Communicators are storytellers, and aspiring communication professionals must develop the ability to effectively utilize the written word to tell a story that resonates with their intended audiences. Sadly, it is increasingly hard to find strong writers. If you want to excel as a professional communicator, make it a priority to become a great writer. If you’re interviewing for a public relations position with me, you can rest assured that I will test your writing skills during the application process.

First Impressions Matter. You only have one opportunity to make a strong first impression, and research shows that most people develop a first impression of another person within seven seconds. When you walk into a job interview, you create an impression on a potential employer. When you show up for your first day of work at a new job, you create an impression that shapes how your new employer views you. There are a myriad of details that affect the first impression you make: how you are dressed and groomed; your handshake; your facial expression and demeanor; whether you are on time or show up late; the appearance of your resume; this list could go on and on. The important thing is to be mindful of the first impression you make and intentional about making one that is strong and positive.

Bring Your Resumé. The low percentage of job applicants who bring a printed copy of their resumé to interviews surprises me. While the interviewer should have your resumé handy, don’t assume they do. Bring printed copies on nice resumé paper to the interview. Speaking of your resumé, make sure it is free of typos!

Showcase Your Work. Seeing is believing, and as a potential employer I want to see what kind of work you’re capable of producing. Develop a portfolio of your best work, including writing, design, communication planning, and so on. You can bring a hard copy of your portfolio to an interview as well as make it available on a personal website; I recommend doing both.

Your Online Presence Matters. Aspiring young professionals should understand that potential employers are extremely likely to look them up online before an interview. For better or worse, the content on and presentation of your personal social media profiles can affect the first impression a potential employer develops of you. A strong, polished LinkedIn profile will leave a positive first impression. Be mindful of what you post, and be intentional about developing an online presence that strengthens your personal brand.

Show Up. It’s sad that I even have to state this one, because it should be obvious: if you schedule an interview, SHOW UP for it. If you accept a job, SHOW UP for it! Demonstrate respect for the fact that employers invest a lot of time and energy in the hiring and onboarding process. Show up early for your interview, but not TOO early. Ten minutes early is ideal, but don’t show up in the prospective employer’s lobby an hour ahead of time. 

Be Yourself. Be authentic and real in job interviews. While it’s important to be polished and professional, it’s equally important that you don’t try to put on a scripted show.

Mind Your (Virtual) Surroundings: Virtual interviews are becoming increasingly common. If you’re interviewing via videoconference, be mindful of your appearance and surroundings. Dress like you are interviewing in person. Remove anything that could be offensive, controversial, or taken out of context from your background. Find a place that eliminates or minimizes distractions. If you live on campus, try to find a quiet room where you can conduct the video interview. If you can’t find a suitable place, explain that to the interviewer at the outset. I once had an applicant do the virtual interview from their car because they lived on campus and were unable to find a better place. It wasn’t ideal, but they explained it up front, so it didn’t torpedo their chances.

Say Thank You. Always say thank you after a job interview. ALWAYS. I recommend sending a thank-you email the day of the interview, then following it up with a hand-written note. The email demonstrates timeliness, while the hand-written note is a lost art that will set you apart from the crowd in an age where almost no one sends them.

Consider Growth Potential. Money is important, but it’s not everything. Your first job may set the trajectory for your entire career. Find somewhere you can gain experience and grow yourself professionally. Look for a mentor, not just a boss. When you’re in the interview, ask your potential employer what kind of training, professional development and mentorship opportunities they offer.

Developing your personal brand doesn’t end once you receive a job offer. The remainder of this list is dedicated to little things that will make a big difference once you start your first job.

Understand What Your Employer Has at Stake. The quality of your work and the tone of your interactions with customers affect your employer’s reputation. Your employer invested time, energy, and money in recruiting and hiring you. If you found a good employer, they are investing time, energy, and emotional capital into training you. Understand and respect that they have skin in the game.

Be Reliable. Do what you say you’ll do, when you say you’ll do it. Be where you say you’ll be, when you say you’ll be there. Produce consistently good work. If you want to set yourself apart, be someone your employer can count on.

Strive for Excellence. Don’t be average. Don’t settle for doing work that is merely “good enough” – do your best work on every task, every day. The consistency and quality of your work reflect on you as a professional. As my friend and client, Fred Smith, often says, “The difference between good and great is a little extra effort.”

Details Matter. If you want to be reliable and produce excellent work, you must get the little details right. Proofread your work. Don’t skip steps in your employer’s processes and procedures. Anticipate and handle issues that could negatively affect your work. As Benjamin Franklin said, “A small leak will sink a great ship.”

Ask Questions. As a supervisor, I’d rather my team members ask a question than make a costly mistake. As a mentor, I view questions as teaching opportunities. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Don’t ask the same questions over and over. If I’m treating questions as teaching moments, I expect you to treat them as learning opportunities.

Learn from Mistakes. We all make mistakes. When you make one, be honest about it, accept responsibility for it, and learn from it. Don’t make the same mistake over and over.

Think Critically. Grow beyond simply following instructions and checking off items on your daily to-do list. Learn to analyze situations, diagnose issues and problems, and develop solutions.

Believe in Yourself. Don’t expect to be an experienced professional on day one – that’s simply not realistic. Believe in your ability, and work hard to realize your potential.

Get the Big Picture. Your role and the tasks you perform are pieces in a larger puzzle; take the time to study and understand that puzzle and how you fit into the big picture. Learn how the business or organization works, how it makes money, and how it defines success. If you work in a business, understand that no business can sustain itself without customers. Learn what your organization’s clients need and want. Consider the philosophy espoused by my longtime client, Kieran Shanahan of Shanahan Law Group: “We work for the client, not the firm.”

Grow Yourself. Your education doesn’t end when you receive your college degree – it’s only just beginning. Be intentional about growing yourself personally and professionally. Attend conferences, watch webinars, listen to podcasts, and read industry publications and professional development books. If you interview for a position with me, you can expect to be asked about your approach to professional development.

Relationships Matter. Nearly every job I’ve ever held was the result of a networking connection, and the vast majority of my clients have come from my personal network. Networking isn’t just something you do, it’s a mindset and way of life. My definition of networking is making friends before you need them. Have a strategy for networking. Know who you’d like to connect with and how you’ll do so. Be intentional about building personal and professional relationships. Leverage LinkedIn and other electronic networking tools, but don’t underestimate or ignore the most effective means of relationship-building: face-to-face communication.

The items on this list are not rocket science. They’re not earth-shattering or complex. They are extremely simple and fundamental. These are little things that will make a big difference in your professional life.

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Frank L. Williams

Frank is the founder and president of Pioneer Strategies.