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What College Grads Could Learn From My Former Intern

June 26, 2017, 3:34 PM UTC
John Brecher

The Leadership Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question, “What advice do you have for college graduates entering the workforce?” is written by Spencer Rascoff, CEO of Zillow Group.

Congratulations, college graduates. Whether you’re a prepared overachiever and already have a job lined up after graduation or a spontaneous adventurer off to chart your own path in the world, indulge me by taking some unsolicited advice: Be like Ajay.

Ajay was a summer intern with Zillow about seven years ago. He supported our business development and social media teams, which meant he spent a decent amount of his time responding to praises or complaints (mostly the latter) from users of the Zillow website and app. For anyone who’s ever tackled customer care as part of your job, you know it’s tough stuff. Ajay did it eagerly and with a smile; he worked incredibly hard and because of that, built a reputation for himself as someone who would pitch in to help with anything you asked and give it his best effort. People liked that.

Ajay was also a serial networker, even all the way up to me, the CEO. He found a way to connect with people across the organization at all different levels, and people would give him the time because he was Ajay, the helpful, hard-working intern. Ajay asked, “What do you do, and how can I help you?” People liked that too.

When Ajay left to finish school and go on to various startups, he continued to build upon his brand and kept in touch—essentially marketing himself through his networks. Because Ajay was deliberate about his brand, people at Zillow Group still remember him—an intern with just six weeks’ experience at our shop seven years ago.

You want to be remembered, whether you’re joining a company of five or 500, because remembered people get opportunities; anonymous ones don’t. But the natural next question is, “How do you effectively brand yourself without being a peacock or a sycophant?” There are two ways: intentionally constructing it and being patient.

Brands encapsulate how companies want to be described among people: “Drink Coke—it’s refreshing and classic and delicious.” The same should be true for you: “Work with Sophia—she has a great attitude, big ideas, and is really hard-working.” Intentionally determine how you want people to describe you; you don’t want people shrugging their shoulders when asked about you. Curate your brand so people know what you stand for.

You must also remember that brands are earned, not granted. Your brand is based on your actions, your results, and others’ experiences with you. Great restaurants garner their reputation because they consistently offer quality food, décor, and service over a long period of time. Very few overnight sensations become lasting brands.

If you don’t know what your brand is yet, don’t panic. Figuring out your brand and positioning takes time. With Zillow, we first established what we wanted to be—a trusted and vibrant home-related marketplace—but we waited for signals from users before determining how to implement those values.

Whatever you decide to pursue as your personal brand, make sure it has a strong purpose behind it. If you do that, the rest is just packaging.