Thinking Ahead: Alum101

Transformation of student to professional

I remember clearly a moment about three months after leaving the RPI campus, after all the congratulations for my degree and the genuine excitement people shared with me for my new job. One evening after a long commute from the office, I stood in the doorway of my very small studio apartment where I could see every single one of my worldly belongings in a glance and with a stack of mail in my hand addressed to “The Resident of …” I had this sinking feeling: Really? Is this it? I thought I’d make a difference. I have heard this kind of experience referred to as the “after-school blues.”

I talked with my older sister, who, in her infinite wisdom, said “Shush … you have a good job.” Yet, as fortunate as I was, there remained a meaningful gap that I could not quite step over. Now, 15-plus years later, in a career that I am passionate about, I see that day in the doorway as a defining moment in my professional life. Many people talk about the transition from being a student to becoming a professional. I prefer to think of it as a transformation. It’s the opportunity to start living into the promise you have spent your entire undergraduate experience preparing to deliver. It is a chance to fundamentally challenge your own operating models and define again, for yourself, what it means to generate results.

I have spent a good deal of time recruiting, training, mentoring, and promoting new employees coming out of school over the years. I would like to share my observations about some key attributes demonstrated by those I’ve seen be highly successful in transforming from student life to professional life. (Note: professionals are life-long learners.) In my effort to express the commonalities I have observed, please consider the following equation:

Transformation = (E+CM+RA)2TI

Defining the variables

E: There is no substitute for excellence. Excellence is not to be confused with instances of perfection. It’s a trait of your individual work style. It’s exercised daily with the commitment to delivering accurately and consistently in the present, keeping an eye on the future and maintaining a quest for new/innovative ways of working. Work to develop strong skills in both problem solving and opportunity identification. The status quo is most aggressively challenged by those who can identify and articulate opportunities for new approaches, processes and products.

CM: CM represents communication, not communications. It is essential to know the difference. The latter, communications, is about technology and different methods for exchanging messages. Our BlackBerrys and iPhones have communications. (They send and receive messages over a cellular network.) Communication is about the exchange of information between people. The “s” makes a world of difference. Effective communication is dependent on understanding your audience. The additional complication today is that part of understanding your audience means knowing the tools they prefer to use. And now, we get to go old school. Don’t skip the chance to meet face to face with people or the chance to present your ideas and thoughts in person. Prepare as well as possible because these opportunities are becoming increasingly rare.

RA: Relentless & Relevant Action. What relentless relevant action can look like: requesting to go to conferences, signing up for training, attending lectures, writing whitepapers, searching for speaking opportunities, participating in local industry chapters, reading industry journals, learning about customers, requesting a mentor, learning about industry leaders, and asking questions about the company strategy and how it relates to your projects and assignments. Learn and live the code of ethics for your profession. Measure the results you are able to create while being in action. Results always trump intensions and provide greater learning value.

T: Teaming skills act as an amplifier. Teaming is about more than doing your work in a group setting. It includes negotiating capabilities, and the ability to support both the strengths and weaknesses of members. It is based on respect and being able to define the rules of engagement in a fair and equitable manner. It includes creating an atmosphere where people can speak freely about their perspectives and thoughts. Interaction is inclusive by design, not default. As a team member, regardless of your particular role, you will need to lead at times and follow at times. Learn to make that distinction based your team’s needs and balance that with personal agendas.

I: In this equation “I” represents influence. Understanding that, as a professional, success is not only about what you personally “do” or personally “produce,” but it is also about the manner in which you influence and inspire others. Influence is developed over time and is not only about being “right.” Being recognized as someone with a positive “can do” or “let’s explore that” attitude goes a long way in your ability to influence others. In many cases, a positive attitude often generates more career opportunities than aptitude.

Let the transformation begin! Do the math. Show your work. Become a professional. If that path should ever seem overly complicated or if you ever find yourself with the “after school blues”; consider contacting one of the 95,000 RPI alumni. We’re partners in changing the world.

Columnist’s Note: Allison Woodford ’93 ’96 G is an Executive Management Consultant at ABeam Consulting, driving the Human Capital Practice in Financial Services. She received her bachelor’s degree in communication and master’s degree in Technical Communication from Rensselaer. Woodford currently serves on the Rensselaer Alumni Association Board of Trustees, the Rensselaer Annual Giving Leadership Council, and as the vice president of communication for the Dallas/Fort.Worth Chapter. You can contact her at