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Centaur Stage Season 2 Ep.9- Hiring Fresh Grads: the Secret to Success? with Saima Siddiqui

Centaur Stage is a weekly video series produced by Cosmic Centaurs, and this second season is all about the magic of teams. Each Thursday afternoon, on LinkedIn Live, at 3:30 PM UAE-time, Marilyn Zakhour, CEO & Founder of Cosmic Centaurs, is joined by incredible guests who share insights, opinions, and perspectives about what makes teams cohesive, high-performing, and happy.

This second season of Centaur Stage is divided into four chapters, and this episode is the fourth of the second chapter about building teams. Marilyn hosted Saima Siddiqui, the CEO and Co-Founder of gradGREENHOUSE. In their discussion, Marilyn and Saima spoke about how we can integrate fresh grads into teams, how to find the right fresh grads to join the right teams, and how to create the best opportunities for them.

Watch the full episode here.

About Saima Siddiqui

Saima is the CEO and Co-Founder of gradGREENHOUSE, a market innovator for virtual recruitment, admissions and engagement. An experienced higher education leader, Saima is passionate about building the bridge from college to career, leveling the recruiting playing field and connecting students with top employers.

For over twenty years, Saima has advised college and university leadership on preparing students for career success and guided employers on talent recruitment.

Most recently, Saima served as Vice President of Development, Alumni and University Relations at The Washington Center (TWC). Saima managed the College and University Relations team at TWC, strengthening and expanding partnerships with 400+ colleges and universities, facilitating internship and professional development opportunities for their students and equipping students to translate classroom learning into workplace skills.

Before joining TWC, Saima led Career Services at the National University of Singapore Business School (NUS). She built a world-class Career Services department and is credited with raising the profile of the Business School with employers and establishing strategic partnerships with companies - including Microsoft, Goldman Sachs, MetLife and Yamato Transport - that transformed NUS MBA recruiting.

About the Topic

Since learning can help in acquiring many different skills, in recruitment, it’s important to consider both the applicant’s skills, and their attitude and eagerness to learn. Fresh grads are often very motivated to learn, and to acquire new skills and experiences, and can make great team members by their drive, energy, and quality of work. This is a topic that is especially relevant today, in the face of the great resignation and companies facing difficulties in keeping their workforce engaged.

Saima’s work with gradGREENHOUSE

Marilyn started off the session by asking Saima about her work at gradGREENHOUSE, and how she helps fresh grads land their dream jobs.

Saima answered that she had the idea from her experience working in higher education, where she repeatedly witnessed prestigious companies only recruiting people from prestigious universities, or considering only high GPAs in professional instances where grades do not correlate with success, or their own Alma Mater. Many college grads struggle to find jobs, and she co-founded gradGREENHOUSE to bring tools to universities that would enable them to properly position their students more effectively for a range of internships and jobs.

Saima elaborated, “Our platform allows networking, real-time coaching, and informal chatting. Companies can attend, they can customize their booths and share resources, and students are free to walk around the virtual event and ask for a five minute chat, through text or video. It’s a beautiful way to enable this human connection and open doors (virtually).”

This resonated with Marilyn, who shared that her undergrad education as an architect did not match her career. “The fact that I've been able to come as far as I have in my career and be trusted by big and small names, and eventually join one of the top MBA schools, was really just a testament to people's open-mindedness and their willingness to look past these invisible aspects of myself”, Marilyn said. She then asked Saima about how fresh grads can sell those, and market their energy and passion.

Saima mentioned that because students often have very limited time, when they are holding virtual events at gradGREENHOUSE, they make sure to pack all the learning they can into the event. They have employers beforehand setting up customized booths with their own representatives from various departments to have chats.There are also coaches on site who help students put their best foot forward. The coaches support students in creating a pitch value, and so the students go to employers booths having better framed their story capturing their drive and motivation. Saima also said that on the gradGREENHOUSE platform, they have an e-learning portal with many resources on how to do well in interviews for students.

The benefits of hiring fresh grads

Curious about the pros for employers, Marilyn asked Saima about what she tells companies are the biggest benefits of hiring fresh grads.

Saima said that the first thing she usually mentions is how we’re going through changing times, and this generation is very comfortable with ambiguity. ”Young people tend to be adaptable and they have a lot of skill sets”, she said. The second thing Saima brought up is that despite the great resignation and many people feeling disconnected from their jobs nowadays, this generation is a lot more comfortable with working remotely since they attended school that way.

“We're in this great moment of flux where our work models have changed, we have to adapt as leaders, to create environments that continue to lift and engage. Early talent folks can show us a model because they've done it before, and they are the most comfortable moving into this. If you look at the various generations and how they've reacted, you'll see that Generation Z has actually adapted the most quickly,” Saima said.

General vs Specialized Knowledge

Marilyn brought up a concept that David Epstein explored in his book Range. Epstein argues that many of the problems we face nowadays require us to deal with new situations, where we can't rely on past experience to perfect our decisions. “In today's world, with machine learning and AI taking over some of the tasks that are focused on pattern recognition, specialization may become less and less important, and the ability to understand complex themes and be able to connect them to each other is becoming more important”, said Marilyn.

She continued, “One of our guests from Centaur Stage Season 1, James Piecowye, said that as we grow we go from being very creative in how we find solutions, to being very narrow to the fields we specialize in.” She then asked Saima where she positions fresh grads and if she sees emerging talents as generalists or specialists.

Although Saima finds that both are happening, her gut is to say that fresh grads tend to be generalists, because they are often multi-talented, have sharp technical capabilities, and pick up on skills very quickly. She mentioned for example how marketing graduates can have a side TikTok account for makeup with thousands of followers.

Saima said, “While I think they're becoming spiky generalists, meaning they're generalists, but have these very specific skills, and talents in their pockets that they're able to pull out and execute. That's what really makes them exceptionally valuable”.

Marilyn cited a recent study by Pang et al., which found that what recruiters value in fresh graduates the most are their ability and willingness to learn and work hard, how they go around teamwork and cooperation, their self-control, and analytical thinking. She asked Saima, “When one hires a fresh grad, should the decision be based on their technical skills match (the team can then help them build up the rest), or should it be the opposite? Would it be better to hire a fresh grad from any field, as they could have soft skills such as curiosity and openness to learning?”

Saima shared that her default would be to hire generalists, because soft skills such as openness to learn and critical thinking are very valuable in teams. Quoting someone who trains fresh grads on their job search, Saima said that the number one thing they see that correlates to professional success is the ability people have from college to manage groups and to lead teams through problems.

Integrating Fresh Grads into Teams

“Teams are very close to our hearts. We also know that their dynamics can be difficult to jump into, especially if you haven't had enough experience in the ways of collaborating and cooperating in the workplace,” said Marilyn. She then asked Saima about what she tells fresh grads who want to work in teams, since most of the work in university is more of group work, and involves less actual collaboration.

Saima pointed out that communication, and making communication explicit to them, is the most important thing. That is because in school, high performing students get a pat on the back, certificate, or award for excelling and for their performance, and people noticed that without the student having to explicitly reach out to them and explain their accomplishments. But things are different in teams.

Saima elaborated, “You have to reach out to the leaders, and ask if you can have 15 minutes of their time because they are the future that you want. The onus is on asking them, and it is on fresh grads in teams to ask questions, and communicate about projects. If someone doesn’t understand what to do, they could get embarrassed because top performers in their minds do not ask questions. That is actually a weakness. As a fresh grad in a team, you have to keep asking questions, because the leadership or the more senior folks in the team have limited time. They know what they're doing, they don't have to proactively think about reaching out to the intern or the new hire and see how they're doing, or if they understand how their role fits into the bigger picture.”

Saima then shared that the number one advice she gives to fresh grads is to be proactive. “Communicate. Never think that you're bothering people. You are really showing that you are invested, that you want this project to succeed, and that you want to grow with this company. Reach out to leadership, ask for timeI think that's the number one behavioral change that requires some training, and some encouragement among early talent, because it goes against their DNA.”

This resonated with Marilyn, who’s had similar conversations with all the fresh grads she had hired on her team. She makes it a point early in their integration to the team that they should ask her a lot of questions, and even if she might reply late, they should still do it.

Fresh Grads and Remote Work

Marilyn then pointed out that asking questions can be extra difficult in remote settings, where one has to over communicate. “Similar to a long-distance relationship, in a remote job, you have to constantly share what you are up to”, explained Marilyn. She then asked Saima about how fresh grads who have started their first job entirely remotely can make the best of the situation; whether it’s about building their networks or learning from others. “It's a lot easier to learn when you're co-located, because you can just watch how other people are working, and take part and learn, maybe without even noticing it”, observed Marilyn.

Saima answered that it’s about leaders being explicit about when they can be available for shadowing the team member, and then noted that this generation is very value-driven.

Saima said, “They really want to love what they do, and believe in what they do. Seeing that you're a cog in a much larger wheel is both exceptionally important and hard, when you're sitting in your parents' living room in your hometown. They want meaning, they want to be valuable, but they have no visibility. We encourage them to send email introductions to everyone, or what fits the culture best…sometimes, it’s all up to a message, a one-on-one.”

When it comes to searching for job opportunities, Saima said that it’s all about due diligence. Asking for an assignment that can give the applicant a more holistic view of the organization, can give them not only more exposure, but also more connection to the organization.

“We're finding with the great resignation and remote work that for people, the connections are very weak to the employer initially. It's easy to say, ‘this isn't the place for me’ and walk away at the three month mark. If you haven't done the due diligence, then you haven't invested and gone all in as soon as you join. LinkedIn is your friend!”, explained Saima. She added that through LinkedIn, it’s all about being proactive, reaching out to the leader of the team you want to join, and asking if you could speak to a team member to see what their experience has been like.

In agreement with Saima, Marilyn said that applicants have every right to also question the organization, and how they can add value to them. On the other side of things, Marilyn also tends to hire people based on the quality of their questions and their answers, and really appreciates it when fresh grads ask her questions in the hiring process.

Setting fresh grads up for success

Marilyn then asked Saima about factors other than asking questions to the leaders and team members during the first six months of hiring a fresh grad, that could help the fresh grads be successful.

Saima answered that this is largely due to the company itself, and one of the best things they can do is show the people they hire that they are valued. She shared an example of a consulting firm which hires a class or two of fresh grads every of the things the company realized is that those new recruits all have a lot of questions and concerns about diversity, inclusion and equity, and how the company had reacted to the Black Lives Matter movement. The company encourages those new cohorts to get together weekly for a chat, where a leader is also present to take notes on the key things this new generation of recruits is concerned about. The organization takes these components into consideration and this creates an environment where fresh grads feel heard. One-on-one meetings are another way organizations can go with, in listening to fresh grads. It’s important not to overlook them, even if one might not have that many important things to say, but just having the opportunity to express what’s on one’s mind can go a long way.

Marilyn agreed with the importance of one-on-ones, and added that she always makes it clear to everyone she hires, that just because she is their leader does not mean everything she does must be perfect and closed to feedback. When she receives feedback from one of them, she repeats it in the daily standup, to make it more explicitly to the rest of the team that feedback is not only accepted, but also taken into account.

Saima added that one of the good things about remote work is that it reduces the sense of hierarchy by making everyone equal sized boxes on a screen, which can reinforce psychologically safety in a team if done properly.

🔥Rapid Fire

The one thing every team needs is…”Trust”

The one thing a team needs to avoid…”Lack of clarity around responsibilities and roles, particularly in this virtual world”

A good team leader is…”Transparent, and has a sense of humor”

The best book on teams is…”The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni

What’s your favorite team ritual? “We’re a fully remote team, so we do a lot of ice-breakers and questions, one of the things we discuss a lot is TV shows we watch and books. It gives you a sense of your team members’ interests, it feels like we’re peeling each other’s layers. Another ritual is show and tell, you have to pick something near you and show it to everybody.”

Marilyn brought up the point of interconnectedness, and how although it can be easily achieved in office settings where one can easily pick up on their team member’s personalities or interests, in the virtual world, it’s more difficult to create those moments.

In agreement, Saima added that Cosmic Conversations helped create beautiful moments which she shared with her family, when answering the question about turning to someone and telling them something you admire about them.

“We're a very close family, we talk all the time. But when do you intentionally turn to somebody, and tell them something you admire about them? It was just one of those moments that brought me to tears”, Saima said.


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