That actress who arrives soaking wet and flustered after losing her script may turn out to be Julia Roberts. That skinny Panamanian pitcher throwing in the backyard could be the next Mariano Rivera. In such fields, raw promise is enough to help you start finding work, with the hope that breakthroughs might lie ahead.
In the mainstream corporate job market, winning jobs on potential alone is trickier – but it isn’t impossible. The key: figuring out how to be seen as a quick learner.
Top management may be fascinated by your potential. Your immediate boss, however, is likely to be frazzled, demanding, and more worried about your Day One level of productivity. Line managers don’t enjoy the luxury of imagining how good everything could be in five years. Their world is all about getting something into production, shipped and sold. For them, this week’s challenges overwhelm any ability to think about the long run.
So, turn this predicament to your advantage. Re-frame the conversation so you can meet the manager’s anxieties while redirecting attention to your true strengths.
Here are four tips to excelling as a “quick learner” in the workplace:
Tip 1: Find the Right Fit
Look for progressive organizations that believe in the saying, “Hire for attitude; train for skill.” Companies such as Southwest Airlines and Doubletree Hotels cherish quick learners, even if these recruits have limited experience related to their new jobs. Fast Company is a great resource for seeking out such companies; scour the monthly magazine or its website for updates on such fast-charging, rule-breaking companies.
Tip 2: Make the Case for You
Find stories from your own life that resonate with the organization you want to join. Expect your interviewers to be willing to stretch a little to see how your story relates – but not to draw giant inductive leaps. If you want to work for a top California winery, explain how you got an A in your chemistry lab; not how quickly you got certified for scuba. Sharing irrelevant triumphs won’t improve your candidacy. In fact, such mismatches may signal that you’re pursuing a career that isn’t right for you.
Tip 3: Seek out Small, Ambitious Outfits
When J.K. Rowling was trying to get her first Harry Potter novel published in England, Britain’s largest publishing houses turned her down.
Only a much smaller outfit, Bloomsbury Press, said yes. True, your friends who join giant enterprises will let you know about their expense accounts, free gym memberships and lots of other perks that you lack. Don’t think you’re getting the short straw, though; smaller organizations will provide you with a lot more room to run. Instead of sitting in meetings all day, you will be on the front lines of change. Even the most famous companies were tiny and unknown once. Choose well, and you could be swept upward by success.
Tip 4: Take Trial Assignments
“The old paradigm of a job for life with a single employer has faded into history,” the McKinsey Global Institute declared last year, in a report on the future of work.
Employers want a more flexible workforce, bringing people on and off the payroll as projects appear and evolve. Older workers may regard this trend as menacing, but for anyone getting started in the workforce, flexibility can be a tremendous asset. Within a two-year span, there are far more opportunities to try out different careers, cities or employers. A six-month engagement on one project can turn into a stepping stone that leads to a bigger role on a related engagement immediately afterward.
Even a short-lived, part-time job can be a way of getting to know an organization and demonstrating rapid learning. Build up some industry contacts along the way, and you will be well placed to hear about interesting next jobs before they ever are posted to the outside world.
Change the conversation. Deliberately step into an organization where you’ll excel. Focus on improvement and growth. And learn from each experience, quickly.
Your career will thank you for the extra effort.
About the Author: George Anders is a contributing writer at Forbes and the author of five business books, covering topics that range from careers to Wall Street, health care and high tech. His latest e-book, Becoming a Rare Find shows how recent college graduates can overcome obstacles in today’s job market and embark on exciting careers. A former feature writer for The Wall Street Journal, he is a co-recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. Follow George on Twitter!