The employer says, “You have no experience, how can I hire you?” You say, “How can I get experience if no one will hire me?” This chicken-and-egg dilemma makes landing your first job one of life’s toughest challenges.
Here’s my story of landing that first job.
I’m a career changer. Seriously overeducated after advanced degrees in two fields, I started out teaching college in Houston. Before long, it became obvious to me that I needed a lot more action and adrenaline than the classroom could provide.
The how-to-get-a-job classic, What Color Is Your Parachute?, pointed me to public relations as the best field for me. Boy, was I lucky! Almost 40 years later, I can tell you that it’s been absolutely the right career for me — challenging, endlessly fascinating and richly rewarding in every way.
But I didn’t know that in 1973. I was living alone in Houston, unemployed and searching for that first PR job. Faithful to Parachute’s counsel, I was networking like crazy. Late one afternoon, working out of the Main Reading Room of the Houston Public Library, I returned a phone call to a networking contact.
“Standco wants to interview you at 9 tomorrow morning. They want a corporate communications person. Can you be there? “
Be there? You betcha!
I at once jumped into doing what I knew best – fast, down-and-dirty research, a side-benefit of all those burn-the midnight-oil term papers. My best credential for landing this job was labeled “Being a Versatile Writer,” but I had no work samples to show, beyond academic stuff.
Trying to turn that weakness into a strength, I set out to cobble together a profile article on Standco Industries, some proof that would show I could write. There were hurdles. I knew next to nothing about the industry, oilfield manufacturing. I had never heard of the company. It was privately owned, which meant that information on the company would be scarce. No Google in those days, remember. And no personal computers yet. The only computers in that era were a few monster-size mainframes at big companies.
I dug and dug, all manually — Houston Post, Chronicle and Business Journal, Hoover’s Directory, Thomas Register, trade journals, following every lead and taking notes feverishly until closing time at 9 p.m.
Next, a drive on dark streets to Standco’s main plant produced only an uncooperative nightwatchman. I had wasted a precious hour. It was after 10 when I reached my $125-a-month single-room apartment and started putting words onto paper on my clunky Smith-Corona typewriter. By 3 a.m., I had a 750-words article and called it a night.
Promptly at 9:00 the next morning, in my best plaid polyester suit, I was ushered in to see the Senior VP of HR. He read my article first thing, then stood up and abruptly left the room. My heart was pounding. Finally returning, he asked me to join him in the CEO’s office. That proved to be the first of back-to-back-to-back interviews with a string of Standco executives, that whole day. Before I left at nightfall, I had a job offer.
Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to work for five top agencies (RuderFinn, Bozell, GolinHarris, Vollmer and now Edelman) and one truly great corporation (Northwestern Mutual). I especially loved being part of the crew that built Bozell PR into what is today the backbone of WeberShandwick. Over those 15 years, I served in Bozell offices in six cities, moving eventually to New York and becoming CEO of Bozell PR Worldwide. It was a great run with wonderful, talented colleagues who remain friends to this day.
Even more I treasured 15 years (1990-2005) as chief communications officer for one of America’s most respected companies, Northwestern Mutual. It was a privilege to be part of that extraordinary institution.
And the saga continues. I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to give something back to the profession through the Institute for Public Relations, the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications and a couple other industry-leadership groups.
And just weeks ago, I started a grand new adventure as Chief Strategy Officer for Edelman’s Southwest region. What a ride it continues to be!
A career is always changing, and you never know what is around the corner. I could retire, but when it’s this much fun, why stop now?
What to make of all this?
1. The first job can be really tough to land. How can you make your uniqueness stand out?
2. Simply showing up for the interview is not enough. Merely talking about your strengths may not be enough. It may take research, listening, digging, doing — not just talking. The challenge is to figure a way to demonstrate – concretely — your unique assets. A good portfolio helps, but it has the drawback of being about you. You want something about them.
3. As my article did, focus attention on the potential employer. Relate your strengths to their challenges. Your edge may be in the questions you ask, intelligent questions that show your research on the company. Sometimes an internship is the way to demonstrate what you bring to the table. Sometimes it’s a freelance project or assignment. Sometimes it’s pro bono or political work. Think “what can I do for them?” and not just “what can I say to them?”
I see this field, not as public relations, but as “public relationships.” As Arthur Page taught us, any organization or business exists based on the public’s trust and the public’s permission. From that first day in Houston till today, creating public relationships, public engagement, has been immensely satisfying for me. I find in my work a sense of purpose, a feeling that I’m helping make our economy and our society function better. I hope you land that first job soon, and find this field every bit as stimulating and rewarding as I have. Good luck to you.
As the Chief Strategy Officer of Edelman Southwest, Ward White counsels clients and agency executives regarding organizational direction, priorities, corporate culture and strategic account planning.