My parents always used to say: ‘if you study hard you will get a good job’. As much as I respect and appreciate their advice, I also kindly disagree. At least in the traditional understanding of what ‘studying hard’ means. School, university, after-class courses, 3 diplomas, 3 different faculties, I’ve done it all.
None of these experiences, however, prepared me better to kick-start my career, than 4.5 years spent in youth-run NGO called AIESEC.
AIESEC is the largest leadership organization (or ‘movement’) in the world, run by students. By students, it was also created 70 years ago and the main mission was (and still is): Peace and fulfillment of humankind potential. It achieves this mission by developing leadership skills through several programs including international exchange. This is a very short intro – trust me there’s much more – if you’re curious, just Google it!
Joining AIESEC back in 2012 has been by far one of the top 3 best decisions in my life. I’m sure that my professional experience wouldn’t look as positive as it does now if it wasn’t for all the years spent there. Now I’m 28 years old, happily hired in one of the best global e-commerce companies, working as a manager in digital marketing, and truly enjoying every day of it. Here are 5 ways how AIESEC helped me get there.
- Cross-cultural and cross-area communication skills
In the modern companies’ world, it is nearly impossible to get your job done alone. And I don’t mean working with your own team but constantly collaborating with other stakeholders. As a digital marketer, I am dependent on the work of developers, graphic designers, product managers, sales representatives etc.
Say I have a project of building 200 brand new product pages across 5 different languages. Being able to effectively communicate the goal and business impact of the initiative and synchronize tasks of all of the teams is not something you learn naturally. Add to it the fact that inside of the teams you have people from various cultural backgrounds and different countries.
In AIESEC, liaising with multiple international stakeholders was our business as usual. You simply cannot deliver a national marketing campaign aiming to recruit 300 new joiners if you don’t know how to work with the talent management, business development, and finance teams at the same time. Learning how to work ‘in synergies’ takes time, arguments, heated discussions, often lots of frustration. But when you master the ability to put your own area smoothly in the process, it gets much easier. Good news: the moment you learn it, it stays with you for a long time.
A couple of years later, communicating with developers, graphic designers, product managers, or sales representatives is not scary anymore. It’s exciting.
- Productivity driven by the purpose
Let’s be honest: a straightforward 9-to-5 working day can be a challenge if you work in a fast-paced, successful company. From time to time you need to stay in the office a bit longer; and not really because there’s pressure to do it but because you WANT TO deliver things in the best way.
I could be complaining about having sooo much to do. But this is not the mindset I inherited from working in AIESEC. I still remember a 12-hour office day when I was a part of the national leadership team in AIESEC Portugal. This, however, wasn’t really a reason to complain but to re-think my productivity standards. Maybe there are tasks I should delegate? Maybe we need to set different expectations with the team?
The lesson learned from that intense experience was simple: workload can always be adjusted as long as working with purpose stays untouched. In other words: I don’t mind staying at the office this 30 min. longer from time to time as long as I’m driven by purpose and understand the point and impact of every project.
- Problem-solving ability
It was right before Christmas. I have been planning this marketing event with my team for over a month. Our goal was to engage as many students as possible to sign up for an international internship program. Everything was perfectly synchronized but then, one day before the event, we found out that there will be almost no budget associated with us. In just one evening we had to come up with a solution. Result? Instead of printing flyers and buying an expensive banner, we got a few kilos of tangerines and gave them away to students during the event.
Problem-solving ability is a must when you work in a youth-run NGO with not much money to spend. After several similar situations like the one above I realized that there is no such thing as ‘problem’; there are only challenges to solve.
Still, let’s be honest: finding a way to replace flyers with fruits to engage 500 students at the university is not really comparable to fixing a bug on the entire website reaching millions of people or building online ranking of hundreds of pages but… what is important is the ‘no problems-only challenges’ mindset. When you got this, you’ll find solutions much quicker and with much more energy than expected.
- The ‘challenge accepted!’ mindset
Speaking about challenges… If you’re lucky, you’ll work in a team that never lets you stay in your comfort zone. At my job, I always have to be innovative and creative, at the same time keeping a data-driven mentality. Recently I’ve been running this project that connected more than 10k clients internationally, with a single purpose to grow a number of high-quality online signals. It seemed super complicated from the very start and frankly, the scope intimidated me.
Then I thought about how I was thrown into deep waters while starting my role as a Head of Marketing in AIESEC Portugal. Had to come up with a national marketing strategy and build it from scratches, in a country that I didn’t know, the language I didn’t speak, and people I have never worked with.
What those 2 situations have in common? Comfort zone. It’s far away. And that’s good. Making a conscious decision to start a project so big and out of anything familiar is the fastest way to grow. I learned not to fear the unknown and trust that adventurous gut when I was in AIESEC. There were many mistakes, failures, and learning points but one thing that got stuck for good: that ‘challenge accepted!’ mindset that helps me start every ambitious initiative with confidence and a positive attitude.
- Quick adaption skills
In AIESEC, you usually change your role every 6 months. Every half a year there’s a new team to lead or new team leader to lead you, there’s a new plan, a new skill set to gain, and new stakeholders. You jump into that new environment because you’re driven by the purpose of the organization. As a result, you learn how to quickly adapt to any conditions.
When working in a challenging and superfast area such as digital marketing, you need to have that adaptation gene, simply because it saves you lots of time. When I moved from Warsaw to Dublin to start my new role, I could have given everybody an excuse that ‘oh I am still adjusting to the new environment’ and thus justify any possible delay or mistake. Instead, the new office, new people, and the new city didn’t really impress me in a way that I already knew how to naturally blend into the new reality. It doesn’t mean I didn’t make mistakes but definitely, the whole process took much less time than expected and was much smoother.
A story like many others
I’m telling you this not to brag but to say that this is nothing specifically impressive when it comes to AIESEC-ers’ journeys. This is really just a typical story about what usually happens to people who have AIESEC experience in their pockets. A lot of my friends who I know from AIESEC have been doing truly extraordinary things after they ‘graduated’: opening NGOs, kicking-off startups, rocking the corporate world, becoming world-class youth leaders, traveling around the world… always driven by purpose, always positive, solution-oriented, and passionate. Coincidence?
So if you are a student, I strongly encourage you to become an AIESEC member. If you’re a young professional who’s looking for an adventure (or if you’re a student), participate in a life-changing international exchange program. And if you want to do something impactful for yourself and your company, give it a try and take part in the exchange program (volunteering, entrepreneurship, or internship) as a Partner. I guarantee you’ll grow and learn in ways you’d never expect.
If you’re curious about more personal growth-related articles, take a look at my Daily Habits category. You’ll find stories about accelerating your productivity, wellness, and success. Enjoy!