In this series, I interview specialists in various fields and try to uncover different strategies, perspectives and anecdotes about the job-hunting and interview process. Everyone’s job-hunting story is unique, but there’s a ton of ways we can up our game by learning from each others’ experiences.
The following is an interview with Jamie O’Regan, who works at the New York University Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. Jamie is an absolute powerhouse at overseeing very large and complex events with dozens of moving parts from public lectures to students orientation to our favorite: graduation! She’s the queen of organizing and designing events that please many different types of audiences, even when they’re all in the same room! Jamie raises many important points in this interview, including one that affects almost all recent college graduates: ageism and the curse of being talented but overqualified. We’re super fortunate to have Jamie on the blog today, so let’s get started…
Tell us a little bit about what you do and how do you define success?
I’m Assistant Director of Student Activities at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. I am responsible for oversight of our student activities including our government association, 25+ student organizations, and large school-wide events such as orientation and graduation. In addition, with the help of a colleague, I oversee and execute our Wagner Leadership Academy which helps provide professional development opportunities and personal growth to our graduate students.
Success is such a tricky thing to define. Of course if you achieve the goals you set forth for yourself you are by all measurable terms successful, but in my experiences I have found you are not defined by those successes, it is more from the adversities in life and how you have overcome them that are the true means of a person’s accomplishments. I always tell my students, colleagues, and friends that you learn way more from getting an “F” then you do an “A”. Counterintuitive I know, but it’s important to understand that true success and true innovation can really only come from seeing how bleak the other side can be. Just ask Bill Gates or Oprah Winfrey! Most wildly successful people have gotten that way because it takes the strength a person can only learn in the downtrodden times to rise to the top.
[NOTE FROM CHRIS: As the saying goes, “smooth seas do not make skillful sailors.” When you’re in an interview, you’ll have a killer advantage if you learn to speak openly about your failures and point out the ways in which you grew and learned from those experiences. The ability to say “I failed at X, learned Y and now I’m a stronger, wiser person because of Z.” is super important.]
What skills, characteristics or personality traits are required to succeed/excel in your company today?
Higher education is a unique business in that you are dealing with a ton of different stakeholders, many times all at once. We work directly with students, faculty, staff, and a ton of external patrons who come for our many public events. Each of these folks has a different investment in the organization. Because of this, a willingness to provide excellent customer service is the most critical.
Working in a customer service industry there is nothing is too big or too small to appease our audiences. Once you embrace that mentality, it makes work a lot easier. People understand you are going to do everything to make their personal experience worthwhile. Go above and beyond, take initiative, and give clients the service you would appreciate from a company. It goes a long way and will not only reflect positively your organization, but also on you.
When possible we have a “Not a problem” mantra, but being a school within a large decentralized University-system, there are times that policies and decisions inhibit our ability to give people exactly what they want. Providing information and context can go a long way. I have to be open and transparent about how or why decisions have been made by the administration even if it is not what people want to hear. The most important tool is providing this service is listening so you hear the real issue and provide alternatives get people what they ultimately want.
Think back to when YOU were interviewing for jobs as a recent college graduate. What was the worst job interview experience you had and what did you learn from that experience?
Interviewing at a company that turned out to be a scam has to be up there! Luckily I realized soon as I got in the interview. Do your homework on an organization before you go to an interview and make sure if it’s a company you do not know, to exhaust every option to find out things about them and ensure they are legitimate.
[NOTE FROM CHRIS: Search the Better Business Bureau for scammy companies before your first interview. Scammy companies are more common than you think, especially in large cities like New York City where waves of young, naive professionals come to the city each year.]
Now think about the BEST job candidate you ever interviewed. What made them so memorable?
I remember a student who I was interviewing for building manager position. After a few weeks we had narrowed it down and had all but extended offers for the seven available positions. A student who had been let go as a residence life assistant applied, and as a professional courtesy to a colleague who had recommended him, I agreed to meet with the student even though my decision had been made.
His ability to know his strengths and be forthcoming about his weaknesses was coupled with a healthy balance of quiet confidence and self-assurance. The best part was this wasn’t a contrived tactic to get a job, he was truly someone who believed in himself and wanted to do well by others. As someone who has spent most of their career helping others actualize their potential, it is rare to meet someone so young who already had such a sense of innate leadership. I decided to extend him an offer and created an eighth spot available to include him on our team.
I cannot underscore how important in interviewing it is to be authentic and self-aware. Even if you aren’t the right fit for that role, being yourself may open up doors to things you did not think were possible. Talk about your weaknesses. Were you ever let go from a job? Why? What did you learn? What cause you to fail somewhere else may be what helps you succeed in a different organization.
What’s one common mistake you’ve seen young professionals make during the job search and interview process?
Immediately after I graduated I was asked to stay on for a year as an Assistant Director of Leadership and Operations at my undergraduate institution. I supervised a 29,000 square-foot student center and oversaw 60+ employees. I made policies and procedures, not to mention did all training, hiring, and development.
When I left and ventured out into the workforce I felt like a victim of ageism often. People could not grasp that a 22 year old could be mature, intelligent, and able to have the poise to take on tasks people twice my age struggled with. It was difficult to swallow but I finally came to terms that my resume read like someone who was 4 or 5 years older than me professionally and in order to let me work speak for itself, I had to remove my graduation year and time in school to stop inhibiting the stereotypes people would put upon me.
Do not undersell yourself because other people want to put labels on you. Be confident in the knowledge you have gained from your previous experiences and speak proudly about them when you interview. Remember you do not have to reveal your age until you are getting involved with Human Resources AFTER you have received a job.
What nugget of wisdom would you pass along to a smart, motivated young job-seeker today?
Often the notion is “This is just my first job” is dated. Many people are so eager to just have a job they’re not looking for a quality investment. Why do all this grunt work to turn around and leave after a year? You are investing your time and energy, so make it a worthwhile experience for you for the long haul. To ensure this is the right move for me I ask myself three questions when interviewing for a job:
- Does the mission of this company, and the work/product it produces, appeal to me?
Look for recent articles about the organization. Does the output of this organization match what they promise to deliver on their website and in their marketing? Make sure you are working at a place that you identify with. It’s a lot easier to go to work when you enjoy what you do and believe in it.
- Will I be able to learn and grow within this role?
Ensure this position will help add to your portfolio, provide the groundwork for where you want to be in 5-10 years, and have some room for growth should you decide to stay with them long-term. Look on websites like Vault.com and Glassdoor.com for feedback from current/previous employees or connect with people on LinkedIn to see if they would be willing to do an informational interview about the organization.
- Does the culture of the office and the people who work here appeal to me?
This cannot be overstated. Enjoying the people you work with not only makes everyone more productive, but it makes it not feel like a job. You spend more hours at work than anywhere else so find an organization that makes you feel comfortable. Ask questions about the climate from the people interviewing you. If you are only meeting with a single person or someone high up in the organization, ask if they would be willing to connect you another person in a similar role who can provide context to you about the environment and the job.
Wow, Jamie, thanks for all that great info – truly valuable advice! Here’s a few of my takeaways…
- Understand your strengths and own them. It’s natural for people to form judgements about you from the first time they skim your resume to the day you enter the interview room. Ageism is real and affects folks at many different levels from the young to the old. But never let your preconceived ideas of what interviewers “might think of you” hold you back from stating honestly, boldly and confidently what you have accomplished.
- Speak openly about your failures. Yes, I already noted this above, but it’s worth noting again and again. Failure is a good thing and evidence that you’re moving forward towards a goal. Failure allows us to grow, and, as motivational guru Tony Robbins preaches, “If you don’t grow, you die.” Learn to speak openly about your failures and point out the ways in which you grew from those experiences. Learn to say “I failed at X, learned Y and now I’m a stronger, wiser person because of Z.”
Have you organized large events at work? Do you have tips for interviewing in this industry? Let me know in the comments…