How to Find a Great Career

by Chris Mikolay, National Interstate, VP of National Accounts, ’99

Chris Mikolay, Vice President National Accounts

If you were graduating from Miami University 20 years ago, and you could fog a mirror, you probably had at least 3 job offers in hand. Back then the economy was on fire, the early dot com era was just beginning to change the world, and it was a good time to be a graduating senior looking for a job.

Luckily for me, I happened to graduate from Miami in 1999, and since I conveniently had a pulse, I had several job offers to choose from.  Now, two decades later, the economy is again humming along and the pace of technological change is faster than ever.  Given today’s historic level of low unemployment and strong demand for top talent, you can and should be discerning in your job search.

As someone who’s been in the “real world” for a generation, and who has worked for a start-up, a mid-sized publicly traded company, and a multi-billion dollar global corporation, I’ve learned a few things about what it takes to find and build a great career.  And so I humbly submit a few thoughts on how you should approach your job hunt. Consider these pro tips from a guy who has sometimes learned the hard way:

Take a risk

You’re what, 21, maybe 22 years old?  Now is the time to do something daring.  What’s the worst that can happen? You go home and live in your parents basement for a while if the risk you took doesn’t pan out? That’s not so bad. Hey, at least you tried. And even better, if you do fail, at least you don’t have kids, a mortgage and a dog to feed. Now is the time to take a risk, when you have nothing to lose.

My recommendation, when you search for a job, is to widen your net. Don’t limit yourself to geography, industry, or how “stable” you believe your future job will be. If you widen your horizons, if you take the bolder choice, you will almost certainly look back someday and find, no matter how things work out, that getting out of your comfort zone was one of the best decisions you ever made.

Go with growth

My senior year at Miami I took a marketing class with Dr. David Rosenthal, who was known to be tough.  He was demanding and direct, but I found him to be challenging and I learned a great deal (which, not coincidentally, is exactly what you want in a boss). I took away numerous lessons from Dr. Rosenthal, one of which is “go with growth”.

You want to be with a company that is growing, that takes calculated risk, that has a history of innovation. There are plenty of slow moving companies in stagnant industries that have jobs available. Don’t work for them. Find the company that is making headlines, that is winning awards for revenue and profit growth (shameless plug: my employer, National Interstate, happens to be one of them!). These kinds of companies are not only more fun, but they’ll have job openings and need good people in any economy. Your career trajectory will mirror the company’s growth.  So pick the company that is growing like a weed.

Choose your boss

If it doesn’t happen to you, you will certainly have a friend who ends up working for the devil incarnate.  Remember this: people don’t leave companies, they leave their managers. You have more power to choose your boss than you realize. And so you should take great care when searching for a job, when interviewing, and after receiving a job offer, to make certain that you know who you’ll be working for.

Do your homework, find out what your future manager’s style is like, ask specifically how he or she will mentor you. And just like you don’t want to work for a tyrant, you don’t want to work for someone who is your best friend either; the ideal boss will challenge you, provide honest feedback, look out for your career and help you grow professionally. Choose your boss wisely: a great manager will be like rocket fuel for your career, and a poor manager will stunt your growth and directly correlate with how much you hate your job.

Know how to ace an interview

I’ve interviewed countless people, many fresh out of college. It astounds me how often people screw up the interview. And, seriously, it is honestly not that hard to ace an interview: First, do your homework. No, I mean, really do your homework. Learn everything you can about the company you will be interviewing with. Then formulate questions. Really good questions. Because it’s a two way street; great companies need great people, and if you happen to be smart, ambitious and willing to roll up your sleeves, that company should be selling themselves on you. During the interview, if you are inquisitive about the company, if you ask great questions that show you are prepared, and if you follow-up promptly, you’ve done more than 90% of the people you are competing against for the job.

When I graduated from Miami, I moved to Denver to work for a true start-up company. It was a risk I’ll never regret taking, and I grew in many ways both personally and professionally. Unfortunately, after several years our growing company hired a new CEO who turned out to be a bully and a tyrant, and that’s when I learned it’s important to choose who you work for. I left and spent a short period at a large multi-national company, and while the pay and job stability were nice, I found I didn’t like feeling like a cog in a wheel. For nearly a decade now I have been with National Interstate Insurance Company, a mid-sized company that is now a subsidiary of Great American Insurance Company. My company growing (go with growth!), I have a tough but ultimately very fair boss who makes me better (choose your boss!), and the work I do is interesting and meaningful. Our offices are filled with great people who share a “work hard, play hard” mentality.

I’ve been fortunate to find a great company where I feel like I can make a difference and where, when it comes to managing my career, the sky is the limit.

Your senior year at Miami should be one of the best years of your life. Don’t let the stress of finding a job after graduation ruin it. Just get the process started earlier than later, network with everyone you can, and keep in mind the thoughts I’ve outlined above and there’s a good chance upon graduation that you’ll end up at a company you love with a great career trajectory.