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‘We build tech for human beings – real users that have problems to solve.’

Mark McCormack Aflac
Mark McCormack, Aflac

Mark McCormack, Head of Tech at Aflac Northern Ireland on his journey to tech leader.

‘We build tech for human beings – real users that have problems to solve.’ 

Mark McCormack, Head of Tech at Aflac Northern Ireland on his journey to tech leader

How did you get into tech?

I graduated in 1998 with a degree in Zoology. I always had an interest in science at school. I studied the sciences at A-level. Took that on through to university and kind of built on that learning and knowledge as I graduated and got to the end of my degree, I faced that question that many people face is basically, ‘what’s next?’. 

If you haven’t gotten a degree that has a very direct career path in front of you that can be a challenge sometimes, and so maybe the romantic part of me at one point thought I might study lions in the Serengeti or something… But unfortunately, David Attenborough wasn’t calling and so I had to think about what I might do next. And I’d always had an interest in computing … in computers, and I could see the advances of technology and where that was going. 

There was a conversion course running that was taking non-IT graduates and teaching them how to be software developers. I got enrolled into the very first pilot program of that initiative program called the Rapid Advancement Program or RAP. That was fantastic that that took graduates from a whole range of different disciplines and give them some skills in terms of how to be a coder, how to program and languages that maybe aren’t used so often today. 

As I moved into some of my first jobs and careers, I’ve been over 20 years in the tech sector here in Northern Ireland, based almost entirely in Belfast. Throughout that whole time, I worked with smaller companies, local companies and the tech sector of work for very large corporate organisations. 

Before joining Aflac two years ago, I worked at Citigroup. I led the Chief Technology Office at Citi and worked there for 11 years. 

What’s been your most valuable career lesson?

It’s not just about the technical side of things, not just about the engineering and the coding and all of that sort of thing. It’s about the people that you work with, it’s about working in teams, and you know, collaborating, sharing information, and solving problems which are too similar to how we work in many different industries as well, and so there are loads of parallels regardless of the background that you that you’ve come from.

I mean, going back to my early career and kind of coming from the university, I was kind of thrown in there into a course to teach computing skills with people from the whole range of different backgrounds – with law degrees, with engineering degrees, with marketing degrees, with English degree … like a whole broad spectrum …. I think that has been a really interesting part of the success of those programmes because what you bring together is a very broad range and a diversity of thought. And you have people that can represent a whole range of different ways of thinking, and they’ve come from different backgrounds with different knowledge, and they come together to work on, you know, problems. I think that’s incredibly valuable, and I think that today when we think about IT and tech, there’s so much more to it than just the ones and zeros and the data. 

There are so many fantastic opportunities in the sector because, at the end of the day, we build these systems, and we build these platforms and we build this technology. But we’re doing it for human beings at the end, right? We’re doing it for real users that have real problems that you know, we want to try and solve. So that kind of breadth of understanding is just incredibly valuable. 

What skills are important in the workplace?

Adaptability – because it’s all about how you can adapt to what the world needs. And if you look even at this small country here, that’s kind of what we’ve done. You know, once we were the linen capital of the world, once we were the rope making capital of the world, once we were the shipbuilding capital of the world and we don’t do any of those things anymore so much now. Now, it’s about world-class studios and being one of the cybersecurity hubs of Europe and one of the tech centres in Europe as well. And this is a place that can adapt and change what we do to whatever the word means. So, it’s all about as if you come to Northern Ireland, you see us now, and you want to see us in a year or five years, we’ll probably be doing something different, and we’re better to build a Centre for advanced technology here in Belfast. So, we’re incredibly proud of what we’ve achieved.

And those other two words around resilience and reinvention. You know, we want our people to be able to grow, adapt, change, and reinvent themselves. And I suppose I don’t need to tell anyone that lives here and often about resilience. You know, we’ve had our fair share of some tough times, but I think as we grow, develop, and go through that, we look forward to an incredible amount of positivity and optimism about what we can do and can achieve from here. So, I love working here, I love being part of the community here in Northern Ireland, I’m very proud of what we can do from this place. I think it all comes down to the fantastic education system that we have and the wonderful people that we have from here because, for me, all the way work with computers, it’s really about the people that I work with – That’s what motivates me, and that’s what I enjoy doing. You know, we solve problems together, we collaborate on things, and we work together as a team.

Those qualities, those skills that you can build, regardless of what your educational background is, regardless of what your degree is, it’s those abilities to communicate to work hard to you know, demonstrate empathy, to bring problem-solving skills. Those things are universal, so whether you work in IT, in business, in engineering or a medical setting, these are the qualities that kind of separate us from the computers in a sense and bring you to know that uniqueness to the things that we can do.

What advice do you have for graduates?

I’d say build your network. This is because they’ll help you grow your understanding of the world of work. They’ll give you advice, they’ll give you some support. You can even do something as simple as building a good profile on LinkedIn and connect them with a few people that you know and getting introductions to some other people who maybe work in some companies that you’re interested in. You’ll find that people who do work in the industry are open to sharing their knowledge and their experience tells you about what it is like to do work in an office or to work remotely, or to work for a big company or to work for a small company? The culture of that organization and what you can expect? You know, those are the things that you’ll learn, and you’ll find that you know people from here are open.

And also, the other thing I would say is always be learning. You know, for me, if you’re not learning, you’re not enjoying yourself because it’s the ability to learn and adapt and to pick up new skills is that makes work exciting. And I’m working alongside great people as you do that is really what it’s all about.

What advice would you give your my 21-year-old self?

I suppose if I go back and ask myself that, I will say try and be as fearless as you can be. There’s a lot of things in life we hold ourselves back because we’re worried about what people might think of us, or how we might come across, or we don’t know anything. And because we don’t know it and don’t know anything we might not try. And I think in this part of the world where maybe not be on the front foot as much as we could be, and I can tell you all like we are as good as anyone in the world. We’re as good as anywhere in the world to do the things that we can do. I’ve worked with teams in eight or nine different countries across the globe, and I can tell you that pound for pound, we’re probably the best place in the world, particularly for technology, particularly for problem-solving, but for doing so many things, so I would encourage us all to be myself about that age to be more fearless and to get out there and get involved in things. Because we are as good as else and we’re just as capable. So that will be my advice to a young Mark McCormick younger, better looking, more McCormick. I’ll tell him to try and stay good looking, but I don’t know if we can.

Read next: Five tips for building a career around your passion

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Problem solving and creativity in a graduate role

Leona McGirr, a former KTP associate at Queen’s and a Team Leader at Fusion Antibodies on how to hone your lateral thinking skills to land that graduate role.

Leona McGirr, former KTP Associate at Queen’s

Why are problem solving abilities essential in virtually in any graduate rule?

Yeah, in any job, you’ll always have to solve problems…There’s always an opportunity to solve a problem. Anything from small like fixing the printer to something bigger, like what we’re working on and trying to find a treatment for COVID. And so there’s always an opportunity to learn and develop these problem solving skills.

How can you develop this problem solving skills and demonstrate them to the employers to the recruiters?

Look at the root cause of the problem and ask the question, why. Start tweaking things, and see, we’ll see what you get, essentially, instead of just spending and buying a new something, and so can always ask the question, why and if you give these examples to the employer, that they will say that these skills are transferable. 

How will interviewers assess how you approach the problems? And how can you demonstrate your logic and implementation to the recruiters?

Give loads of examples and those different examples both in your personal life and in work because as I said, all these skills are transferable. And it kind of gives the people who are interviewing you an opportunity to see what type of person you are and how you solve the problems and how you go about doing this. 

How can you answer a problem solving competency based question? How can you answer them?

We would always use the STAR method, which is you say the situation, the task, the action and the result. And so just make sure to include each one of them within any example that you give, that’s usually the most common way of doing it.

To what extent can games such as Sudoku, or Chess, can help strengthen your ability to swing strategy early and creativity?

I actually think all scientists love chess as well. It essentially lets you kind of plan ahead and see the bigger picture and see how one little thing that you do can impact and essentially either win the game or lose the game for you. Again, it’s very transferable into science trying to fix a wee problem on a stage every time.

Are there any problem solving techniques you can develop or refer to our students?

So for us in R&D, our standard way would be root cause analysis. So essentially, you ask the five why’s. So for example, an experiment didn’t work? Well, why it didn’t work? Because the two proteins didn’t bind? Well, why didn’t they bind? Because maybe one wasn’t stored correctly? Well, why wasn’t it stored correctly, and then bring it down to well, actually, there wasn’t enough space in the fridge. So even though you thought it might have been one thing, by the time that you break it down and ask why every stage, you realise that it’s actually something else, and it ensures that it won’t happen again.

What is creative thinking? And how can you demonstrate it?

It’s really having a different viewpoint and a different perspective on a problem. And I think that’s essentially key. For example, in my current company, I was the first chemist in an essentially biological company. So I was able to offer a different perspective on things. And it’s usually quite creative in comparison to what everybody else might think. And it’s just drawn on my existing skills and experience.

Why it is so important to show a recruiter that you come up with an innovative solutions to a problem, or an improved way of doing things? Why it is so important?

Because it shows that the candidate is willing to learn, and they’re innovative, and they’re creative. And essentially, in a workplace, everything can be improved. The worst thing, what we want to hear would be somebody who says, this is how it’s always done, instead of asking, why has it been done? And just don’t accept the first answer. Always keep asking why, and how can you improve? Both in your personal life and in work.

Why do recruiters like to see a creative thinking in a graduate hires? 

Well, it really shows the potential and shows that somebody can take initiative to try and solve a problem where more sided escalating, and having that under control, and that there is a lot of potential that you can develop that particular skill. So we’re always keen to see that.

So how to demonstrate your creativity in graduate applications, or let’s say in interviews?

Yeah, give loads of different examples, and be it something you’ve done, maybe a hobby even. It’s really nice to hear all these different examples, instead of always referring to one example, maybe your degree, always ask or always talk about personal life, part time, jobs, everything, because it allows us to see what type of person you are, as well and a lot of times, the stories are actually really interesting.

Okay, how do you develop or improve this, so, you know, creativity skills, how to improve it?

I would say just take every opportunity and go take a few risks, and don’t be afraid to try and do something outside of your comfort zone. With every stage of my career, I have challenged myself, and have always had a very steep learning curve. And I think that is actually quite a lot of fun. And again, it allows me to be creative in different ways and drawn different strengths.

So can you give us some examples of lateral thinking to draw on in an application process?

Yes. So essentially, think outside the box, and don’t take the most obvious answer as being the root cause. And if you can disprove something, well, it then in theory can be a possible solution. Ideally, what we would do is we will get a post-it note and we’d all sit around and be like, well, what happens if this was the case? Or I wonder, could this be the case? And you just go crazy with this and don’t rule anything out.

What are the links between problem solving and entrepreneurism and a good leadership? 

I think being an entrepreneur and a true leader, you need to be innovative. You need to challenge yourself and not be scared to take a few risks. And the most important thing is to learn – the road to being an entrepreneur and your own career is bumpy. You can go on a few circles, but as long as you learned, that’s the most important thing I think.

So how can you problem solve in a workplace? 

Anything from something minor like fixing the Wi Fi, fixing a computer, fixing kettle, they are all problem solving. So initially asked me, well, what’s the problem? or how can I make this current situation better? You can always improve just incrementally try something, try different lead and maybe see what the result is and just document what that result is, and see, can you improve?

So how can you bring this creativity in your graduate roles?

I would learn around the subject and draw on your own past experiences. I don’t think there’s, no such thing as a stupid suggestion. All ideas are good ideas. A lot of the time, you need to ask other people for advice as well and see how they would approach something.

Don’t be afraid to take a challenge. Take all the opportunities you can. I still don’t have my own career figured out, I don’t know where I’ll be in 10 years, 20 years time, but I know it’s going to be loads of fun. I would advise anybody to take any opportunity and just have fun along the way.

Interested in KTP at Queen’s. Find out more here.

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employability Employer Engagement Employer events Employer Insight Employer Panels Employer Q&A Employers Gradfest2021 Technical skills Technology Version 1

‘University graduates can be the catalysts for organisational change’

Dermot Murray, Senior QA Engineer at Version 1 gives his top tips on embracing workplace systems and tech.

Dermot Murray, Version 1

Why would you say enthusiasm to embrace tech is important in graduate roles?

It’s very important. Just in terms of the kind of innovation and bringing a fresh perspective to companies. So, like graduates are at the forefront of theoretical thinking. And what we’re looking to do is actually apply this knowledge into the real life and into the work industry. So, like if you take for example, a lot of kind of, you know, hardware and software, you know, the iPod Touch, for example, let’s say you know, it’s quite redundant nowadays because things change very quickly. And what we’re looking at is innovation and more efficient ways of working in industries, so, you know, one thing that companies can fall in the trap of is, you know, being reluctant to change. And actually graduates can be the catalyst for leading change. An example I can give would be, you know, the pandemic, for example, working from home. This is the kind of new normal that everyone’s really in, but you know, your university experience user being at the forefront of this, and how did you adapt and overcome these challenges? You know, the initiatives you use brought in terms of communication, engagement, socialising? These are all the things that need to be transferred into the industry. And these are things that we’re looking for. So it’s extremely important for enthusiasm and embracing change.

In what ways does your business rely on tech to maximise performance?

So it’s no surprise that for Version 1, it’s absolutely essential. So, we are consultancy, and we do specialise in supporting the digital transformation for clients. So we bring people through a journey using various technologies, what we try to do is use the cutting edge to deliver for our clients. But internally, so that’s the probably technical side. But you know, what we actually do ourselves is we use it to communicate and standardise. I’ll give a few examples of, you know, some of the kind of tech initiatives that we do, we have a podcast, you know, once a year one in which we have conversations within the industry. On our website, we’ve got webinars, blogs, white papers, news articles, and these are things you know, to engage with the industry and engage with many different people, social media platforms, that Instagram that I’m on right now, we’ve also got Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. You name it for contact. And internally, as much as maybe you know, us, us and university, we’re using teams to communicate with clients. And finally, then, you know, we’ve got like a SharePoint with a widevariety of tools, for using timesheets, you name it, so absolutely essential, yes indeed.

How would you go about proving ability to use common programmes and apps in an interview?

That’s a good question. It’s hard to kind of slide that into the question, how you’re phrasing that. I think the star approach is quite interesting. So, you know, kind of being concise and what that really is – situation, task, action and result. And maybe within the action, you could incorporate these kind of common tools and what you’ve done. So maybe an example that I could give would be that, say, one of your modules, and you’re required to do presentation, will, the action in which you can provide could be, you know, using PowerPoint efficiently and effectively, to relay the information to your peers, to you know, everyone, like the ultimate result being you know, like you achieve top marks. And also, there’s definitely ways of fitting into the question tools in which you know, you can, you know, provide results for if that makes sense.

What examples can you use of innovating to maximise technology?

One example could be for a solution, there could be an alternative tool or technology that could be used, or maybe you could extend in a technology. So for example, that’s you know, we’re on a Teams meeting, Microsoft Teams, and we’re trying to kind of collaborate together, you know, some project, there’s a tool – Slack, which can actually be used for sketching. And that’s quite useful for like, you know, drawn with feedback, kind of in sketching, going through walk walkthroughs so you know, instead of using teams, maybe you could migrate your kind of communication to Slack. The point on expanding then is, you know, using it in additional scope as well, slack also has like a kind of app directory as well. So you can add in polls, you know, chatbots news feeds. And there’s different ways of just, you know, not kind of following what is set in front of you, but actually using your initiative and, you know, embracing the tech really, and, you know, leading on further so I suppose.

How would you advise a student to show their passion for tech when they don’t have a tech background? 

So, I suppose from my perspective, I have to put myself out of the mindset of being in tech. But that’s, I think, a good way of kind of, you know, showing your enthusiasm can really be through hobbies and interest, really. So that’s dependent on the person, but I’ll give you an example, maybe of a few kind of hobbies and interests that I have, you know, if I’m reading a book, for example, you know, I’m interested in reading, specifically, one of the books I’m reading right now is on the stock markets, flash boys are called, and it’s on high frequency trading, and the kind of idea of being closer to the stock market servers. Think sports, you know, we’ll play a bit of football. And I’m kind of using, you know, stat sports. So it’s kind of integrate and, you know, heart monitor, kind of initiatives and all that stuff. And then Sports Science again that podcast I’m interested in, there’s one, dark net diaries, but just kind of cybersecurity focus. So even though I’ve kind of got my technical job, if you picked up the side, there’s a whole wide range of kind of, you know, industry within tech and these tech tools in which you can like, kind of, take your hobby, and maybe think of, you know, some kind of innovation in tech tools that you can use to, you know, showcase that. So, just a few points of my interest might not be to impress everyone here.

How can you show that you have the ability to adopt and use technology in an interesting way?

Yeah, so I think you could maybe think about how you can use it an interesting way, think about, like, what you’re currently using stuff for the think of like, you know, your smartphone, for example. It’s got so many applications in which you can download, as I mentioned, with your hobbies, you know, Strava, being able to, like, you know, detect your matrix of roaming, for example, everything, these are kind of, you know, common applications that you don’t really think that you’re using, but you’re actually using, think of maybe, you know, smart appliances, for example, around the house, you might have kind of smart TV, or smart lamp, and how you can actually then, you know, showcase that and help people. So I’ve got family that always asked me ‘Dermot, how do you do this, do that.’ And I’m always kind of demonstrating to them, but also by kind of, you know, using this tech, you understand it more, and you can actually demonstrate it to other people. And that really helps with your show of skills with kind of, you know, leadership, it helps for what the industry is really looking, you know, you’re looking a community of practice people who share, collaborate and transfer knowledge together. And just by getting cool, and getting stuck in really kind of corny, it’s not.

How can you embrace technology and help others to do so?

I’ve really touched on that and for example, of maybe helping, you know, that’s, you know, like, update the latest software on his phone or laptops, for example, some security plan says, and my mom dad’s face, you know, helping them kind of just stuff yet. And that’s kind of you know, one of the things really just by getting involved and getting stuck in even necessarily you don’t quite understand that at the time but by getting involved in that tool, and helping other people you know, you’re helping yourself as well. And I think it’s just kind of a stage of getting involved really is the best way to do that.

How important what would you say, is practical experience of workplace technology.

So, I do think it’s kind of very important, you know, you’ve got the theory behind it, and you want to kind of, you know, put it practical. So that’s the kind of stuff you know, with uni, you’d want to take into the industry and kind of get stuck in. And that really is the word kind of get stuck in. I never imagined myself kind of growing up to be a software tester. But getting involved in the IT industry, you see kind of what opportunities arise. And not even just within the kind of tech sector, think about the other different industries, in which you don’t necessarily know what you’re getting involved in, but by you know, utilising tech tools and, you know, embracing innovation, think of that as the bigger picture rather than, you know, specifically just tech related, but innovation. Going back to kind of, you know, tech, there’s a lot of open source tools that you can use, and they will be free to use in terms of, you know, try and find the right things, there’s a lot of free trials of stuff. So for example, maybe like Photoshop or video editing skills, if you need some experience, but then in industry, or within a kind of, you know, hobby that say, I don’t know what but you can maybe use that for like 30 days or seven days, and that might be sufficient to kind of pick up your skills. Finally, as well, like, there’s, if you’re going technical, there’s, you know, Azure has free courses for students, and it also has a free account where you can get, you know, up to 200 pounds, etc, you know, that kind of sandbox and play with kind of technical tools. And, yeah, I think as well, one important thing is even like the practicalness of social media is so important, and a lot of kind of students and people forget, you know, how important it is for companies. So even just, you know, you’re you’re getting full freight and with kind of social media, and that practical way of applying your skills. 

How can you demonstrate that you have developed key workplace skills, and technology?

Yeah, so the demonstration then is kind of, by providing and showing examples of how you’ve kind of came up with that, I think, like, by demonstrating as well, you need to kind of understand, firstly, that it depends on the role. Or at least, like, there’s a lot of opportunities in which you can actually, you know, enhance your skills, I would give examples of, you know, on LinkedIn, if anyone’s involved aon LindkedIn, there’s a lot of webinars in which you can kind of do get involved within tools and tech and understand kind of components. As well as that specifically within your industry. I think like one or two personal references, which I used to be Udemy. And it’s good for kind of, you know, harnessing and developing skills, and then being able to present them and relay them back into work back into my CV and back into kind of, you know, day to day skills as well. So there’s a lot of opportunities out there. And there’s a lot of kind of free things that you can view online and just taking upon each of the applications as well, such as meetups really, like might be a bit hard during the pandemic, but embracing the change, maybe you know, Slack or, you know, Teams might be a good solution for that. So webinars. Yeah.

What soft skills would you say go hand in hand with tech skills?

There’s, there’s a lot really like, one thing to think is, is well, that, you know, technology skills are just tools of making your soft skills more efficient than effective. So like numeracy skills, for example. I mean, that that’s really given within the IT industry, you know, you could talk about coding performance or all aspects, but not just specifically with the IT industry, like you can think about, you know, your communication skills with putting this many times but social media, using teams, you know, creativity skills as well. creativity to complex solutions, like my job is doing quality assurance, and it kind of plays into analytical thinking and problem solving. And by problem solving, you have to be very creative on you know, there’s a lot of constraints to the problem and how you fix that. So there’s there’s definitely ways to express willingness to learn as well. So embracing the technology which is the key point of everything, being able to, you know, go into new skills and new tools and test new systems up correctly. And even gone non technical within the IT industry, you know, there’s a lot of project masters and kind of, you know, Scrum masters etc project manager sorry that, you know, we really focus on organisation and there’s a lot of kind of tools that are available to you know help kind of do that, calendars, JIRA for, you know, management. So, they’re inextricably linked, really in my opinion.

What would you say you should include in the IT skills section on your CV?

Yeah, that’s a good question. I suppose it’s dependent on the possession and the industry, I mean, you should really do your research on kind of, you know, what type of roles you’re applying for, and kind of think about that, I think, but whenever you were talking about the common applications in the office 365 suite, you know, there’s always, you know, opportunity ability to kind of show that, and that’s, you know, applicable across any industry. Think about the bespoke software on which you can use, might go back to, you know, if you’re doing some design with somebody with a website in Photoshop could be useful, you know, five years from now, that could be a tool your skill to be included. But going back, then definitely have a look at the industry standards in which you’re applying for. So if I go back to my kind of key position, I’d be looking for kind of buzzwords with selenium, kotlin, cucumber, postman, Java, just you know, as an interfere. And if I just see that within an application, that would pique my interest, and you know, like, that would be the same thing that you need to think then is going to position like, take up the industry standard tools, and learn a wee bit about that. So whenever you go into, you know, an opportunity or an interview, you’re able to kind of, you know, demonstrate ‘Yes, I know what that is certainly’. Also, it’s always nice to kind of add in any certifications that you’ve got within your university – Udemy courses, as well as other mentions. And definitely, as well, like, you can also maybe use going back to the kind of soft skills that you’re mentioning, you can maybe then use IT skills to support your soft skills. So I’m good at communication. Here’s a reason. So evidence based as well so it’s ready and can be used really.

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Employer Engagement Employer Insight Employer Panels Employer Q&A Employers Uncategorised Version 1

“The Google news tab can tell you the most recent company info, so you are not caught out in an interview”

Graham Ryan, Strategic Resourcing Manager at Version 1 gives his top tips on navigating the graduate recruitment and application process.

Graham Ryan, Version 1

How can I use my LinkedIn profile to stand out?

Okay, so first, depending on what you’re interested in from a business point of view, you know, follow the companies or [graduate] programmes…writing blogs, as we know, for the last couple years is a huge thing, you know to comment back on people you are following that are in your area that you either want to get into, or you’re in at the moment. But also don’t forget the personal side, your own interests, things like that don’t feel that LinkedIn is purely just from a business point of view. If you write a blog on something you’re interested in, that’s not necessarily in the area, you know people, you know, people like that and people are open minded, but definitely get involved, certainly from a blog point of view and liking and sharing material.

How do I build valuable work relationships in a virtual environment?

Okay so, when you’re coming onboard and starting in a new role you have to make a good first impression – that’s key. Regular catch up sessions with the business, don’t be scared to have chats with different people across the business. Gain trust from others by keeping up communication.

So, if I was going to do one thing today to make me stand out in the recruitment process, what would that be?

Just one of the key things here as far as research, you’ll find a lot of people do this but when you’re Googling a company just go in news tab, find out the recent stories so you don’t get caught in interview if a company has had a recent win they ask you about. Have a look at the news tab of Google when you are going for an interview in a company, it’ll give you the recent news just in case it’s brought up and you never know it might not be brought up, or the candidate could bring it up, which would be obviously very impressive, if someone did that.

What is the etiquette for virtual meetings? Should I keep my camera on, should put my hand up to contribute and when should I use the chat feature?

So obviously always camera on, unless you’re told otherwise. Certainly, camera on in interviews settings and meetings. The chat is used throughout, some people raise their hand on Microsoft Teams for example or else just write a comment if it’s a question or something like that. Don’t be afraid of what the right thing to do is, all the tools that are there, so put up your hand or write in the comment section… don’t overthink it. Don’t overthink it, don’t be worried about it. There’s no right or wrong way.

If I don’t like my job how long should I stick at it?

You might get better opportunities to move into different roles in the company. The opportunities are not going to be handed to you then, and you know if you get in, put your head down. Mightn’t be an area where you want to end up or stay, but just work hard on it and all of a sudden you’ll see the opportunities come at you, without a shadow of a doubt.

What are the top skills you’re looking for in graduates?

So in terms of technical skills first anyway in terms of that so like software engineers, it’s a big thing at the minute, data analytics, business analysis, DevOps engineers their level of skills and soft skills, well maybe we can upskill on themselves, you know, depending on the company, certainly development is a key area that we’re looking at. 

What support will I get starting a new job working from home?

You’ll get senior leaders in the business who are really impressed when graduates reach out to them. People are easily accessible nowadays – I know it’s not face to face but everyone’s online – a quick catchup for a 5-10 minute chat – you know it’s there. It’s seen as a really positive thing for senior leaders. 

What do you love to see in a new recruit?

Attitude, someone who’s very driven, open-minded. If you come with all the knowledge but a bad attitude a wrong attitude. Certainly, someone who comes in fresh and ready … It’s just a good idea to try different things and to get involved in different things based on the different projects and different teams and to hit the ground running.

What can I do to make myself more employable?

Okay so, so, upskilling. Use the time to upskill if you’re out of employment. We’ve seen in the last year people taking up banana bread and people have done stuff with their career as well – just explain what you’ve been up to as well.

What is the most common mistake you see in interviews?

Like at the end of the day an interview – it’s, it’s a conversation with a stranger. When you’re having a conversation with a stranger on the street you don’t just shut up shop. Treat it as a conversation that the interviewer’s trying to get more information out of you. So if you don’t know something or you’re unsure – get them to reword the question, what I would say certainly if you don’t know you don’t know. Be aware of the waffle – it’s natural because of nerves. But in terms of an engineer because it happens it’s actually taken for nerves as well as the press that every given question, but just think about it from that aspect. First impressions are key you will get some hiring managers that will listen to what their thoughts are, you know – have a smile like we do on a face to face smile and a strong handshake. Be yourself. Because if you come in with a shop. You know it’s just hard to come back from that.

Where can I find opportunities?

Ask your mates who’ve been through it recently or their siblings – you’ll be amazed at the different companies, you’ll get by reaching out to your friends and things.

If you Google news on a company how can you drop it into an interview without it sounding rehearsed?

You just say for example, there’s always a situation, when you get an opportunity to ask questions. Just say I noticed you won that or you’ve acquired this company – can you tell me a bit more about that? Bring it forward in the interview and wait until the end. 

What could I ask at the end of the interview?

Keep away from the question to ask for salary and things like that. Another thing you could say is, how would ideally a person succeed in this role? How could I shape this role? Rather than “what are the benefits?” Another thing to say is just, just not to curse. I know it sounds easy, but just to be conscious of that.

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“Employers want to know that you have researched their specific sector.”

Courtney Ward, a Quality Team Leader at Randox, shares her advice for graduates.

Courtney Ward, Randox

So what is commercial awareness?

So commercial awareness to me means having a real understanding of all the key companies operating in a specific industry or area or sector, you know, a knowledge of the different products that those different companies sell, what services they offer, and any kind of direct competitors, you know, companies offering the same product, you know, or any kind of slight differences between those products that they offer, and kind of my advice to graduates would be to really do your market research, yes you may be interested in various  different you know sectors or kind of companies but make sure you’ve done a little bit of digging a little bit of research around that area and who definitely, maybe the geographical area you’re interested in, who are the key players, you know, in that area.

What ways might an employer assess commercial awareness on an application form or a cover letter?

So, they’ll look that you’ve actually done your research, you know, they’ll look that you’ve tailored your cover letter or application to that specific employer or sector, that’s one of the biggest things. Show them that you’ve done the time and the research in their area. You know – then they’ll take their time with your cover letter if you haven’t taken the time with them then they won’t take the time with you. So you know making sure that you demonstrate that you have an awareness of the business landscape, you know that you’re aware of that and how that role that you’re applying for fits into it you know they’ll want to see that you’ve actually read the job spec, and you’ve demonstrated that again, back in the cover letter you know that you’ve hit all those key essential criteria, and just indicate to them that you’re aware of where they fit against other companies and I really think tailoring is the biggest thing, tailoring it that you’ve read, you know, their details and if you answer all of the you know the, the criteria or desirables they’re looking for, or address some of them they now know that you’ve actually read it and as you’re happy, and understanding, you know what it is they’re actually looking for. 

How can you demonstrate an understanding of the business and knowledge of his activities and products?

So, take every opportunity in your interview to demonstrate this, so as I said, doing that market research and that research in the company beforehand is really critical. But make sure you take the chance to express that in the interview don’t do all that research and then not saying anything about it unless you know, don’t wait for the question. Take your opportunity. So, common questions will be, you know, why did you apply for this role for this company? So that’s your key to go and demonstrate your research, you know, do they have a top-selling product or service? You know, mention that, you know, they’ve been demonstrate that they’re moving into a new area, or they have an upcoming product – you know, mention that you’ve seen that, you know, that you’re aware that they have that product or that service and offering. Have they won any awards for any of their products? We can always drop in or, you know, ‘award-winning product or service’ and things like that. A big one would be to read the latest news section so a lot of companies -particularly Randox will always put new brand new things or things that are out of the company on the latest news on our website so always check in that because that’ll be the big things they want to share so that’s your first check box – oh I actually went on the website, read what’s happened with the company. 

When’s the most appropriate moment to mention your research in an interview?

So it could be why are you attracted to this role, what does this role mean to you? If your role directly relates to any of those products or latest news? If I were to do it for my role – what interests you in a quality role? You could say I’m interested in having high standard testing, making sure everything is meeting all the criteria. I saw you guys recently got your accreditation or you guys were awarded some other accreditation for a certain test – that could be a nice way to roll that in. So I think prepping before hand is really good. So if I ever have interviews what I would do would be to write down those key questions that I think they’re going to ask and prep a little bit of an answer – nearly like an exam – you know making sure.. well this kind of goes out the window in an interview when you’re nervous – but having done it beforehand you will have at least though through the answers.

So how important is it for a graduate to keep up with economic and political trends and what exactly does that mean?

That is a really difficult for graduate you know that’s something that you’re only going to learn when you get into an industry you know, there’s only so much research and that you can do with it experience in the job role of how things affect different businesses. I think being aware that they can so example would be, oil and gas, political trends you know will affect industries, different economic upturns and downturns you know will affect that. The COVID-19 pandemic is the biggest one there so whenever we began the testing back in March 2020 you could not get your hands on supplies, materials for testing, they became like gold dust when the entire world is trying to test for COVID-19 – lab consumables, pipettes, reagents, all become, you know the limiting factor, industries, not be able to get into manufacture them to get out so that was a key thing, that’s something that even me before this all happened I wouldn’t even think that that could have to that was an experience that I had, you know, going through my role. Again – rollout of vaccinations is another good one, you know that was a real political and economic debate so being up to date with current affairs, reading really good kind of online publications, you know that talk about these things. It’s a really good way, even if – you don’t need to know the ins and outs of it, a very broad level understanding will set you apart from other graduates you know by even actually having went that bit farther and trying to get that understanding. 

How important is it for a candidate to research, and keep up to date with knowledge of an industry or knowing the major players so the competition that you’re up against the brand, how important is it to know all of those?

I think it is important because particularly for certain roles – it will be more important. So, if you’re doing sales, for example, you know that’s really, really important that people want to know, well actually I know that your company is the best seller of this reagent, you know, so I know that it’s up against these other you know players and difference in geographical, you know, where does that company sell, you know will be very important. Again, you’ll not be expected to know everything but you know, having an awareness of that is so important. Following different publications, there’s lots of resources online, you know that will do these kinds of reports and trends you know of different areas. but again, social media posts, that’s actually – LinkedIn is actually really great source. You can follow CEOs of companies you know different people, they’re always gonna be posting on mine when something is doing well, they’ll post those key facts and figures. So it’s hard to keep up, particularly as a student, if you’re doing your exams you know you have expected to spend all day long. Dipping in and out of it – create like your own kind of professional Twitter your own professional you know what your LinkedIn will be – but one tailored  to do that so you can say oh well, actually half an hour today ago set and have a look at the industries and look down and then you can look down any key facts and figures that you see, bringing company feeds for example, around our Randox newsfeed we’ve publicised quite heavily our achievements with the COVID 19 pandemic and our different tests. So we will always put things on there quite regularly. So, if the company really using social media and actually makes it a lot easier, because I’ll be posting stories quite regularly.

So how can you demonstrate an awareness of how your role affects business performance and how your actions as a graduate affect the business’ bottom line?

I think, read around the role – a lot of roles, despite being vastly different industries will have may have different names, but to be very similar role, you know, certain types of companies will have the same role, no matter what it is the sector they’re in. See if you can find any testimonials – people, you’ll often find online people saying, a day in the life of such and such, you know a specific role. Can you find anything detailing, those different roles, every role is imperative to a business, so being able to see how it fits in the bigger picture is important, reach out to people on LinkedIn, you know, in that role. I have some questions about that, some people will be responsive to that you know they will be willing to offer you some advice on that. And also highlight any kind of experience or transferable skills you have, no matter where you’ve worked in what areas you will always have a transferable skill. There’s skills you know like communication, teamwork, whether you whether you’re the top dog or just entry level you will have been demonstrating the same skills across the board so even if you’re going from one sector to another and that’s a complete 180, you will have transferable skills. That was really when we had to hire a lot of testing staff, obviously the testing numbers that we do. We got a lot of applicants from people with non-science backgrounds. They were able to demonstrate to us that you know yes, I have to have a science degree but I have all these key transferable skills. They slotted right into the roles with us. So, you know, for me from my background I got pulled in from design and then was that in doing PCR testing so it really is. I have transferable skills and think that yes some of them were technical but there’s all these skills that were so important to my participation in the Randox kind of National Testing programme.

So what are your top tips to develop a commercial awareness?

As I said before, it’s a lot of time and effort, and typically when you’re still doing your studies, it can be a bit overwhelming but just that little bit and often I think keep yourself in the loop, particularly if you have a passion for a certain industry or a certain sector, or a certain company, you know, you may have followed up from you were young, just keeping up, up to date into that specific, you know, professional Twitter accounts that you follow relevant people you could dip in and out off wherever you want to, set up email alerts you know for relevant Twitter feeds, relevant terms , follow different reporters or some reporters who are very interested, you know, in certain sectors you know they’ll always publish really useful information for you. And so, I think, little and often is the key. It can be overwhelming but even taking that first step forward, will really set you apart from other graduates. 

How important are time management skills, organisation skills, planning skills and prioritisation? How important are these and how can you develop them?

They are really important, no matter what area you work in the business, be it science and r&d, sales, anything. All of these, all these skills are transferable and they’re very important at all the different roles  and you’ll develop them no matter what role you’re in. It’s very important to ask for  feedback so from both your peers, and from your supervisors or anything like that, you know, can they offer you any constructive feedback you know of anything if any of those particular skills that you think you want to build on, because sometimes it’s hard to see from outside – someone might say you’re really good, you know, at time management, I’m really impressed. Maybe your organisation could be a bit better but these are things you can do. So just being vocal on that.  One of the big things with graduates is the fear of the phone. No matter what business you’re in, you need to pick up that phone if someone is asking you we need a response we need that information right now, you might think I’m going to send them an email first and give them a couple of hours, you know you need confidence, picking up the phone and even, even after all my studies and my PhD and stuff, with all emails whenever I went into the kind of, you know, an industry job, you have to do that. So, you can always follow up with a good follow up with an email with a call, you know, discuss those and say, as we discussed in the phone – here’s all the points the from the call. But yeah, That’s a big thing, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone – you’ll forge relationships that way and then you can always call them again. It’s always good to get relationships with people in certain areas.

How can a student who doesn’t have professional experience demonstrate skills in an interview? 

One of the big things with that would be flexibility. So being able to show – I’ve been involved in a number of different clubs and societies – I’ve juggled a part time job with my studies, you know, I’ve been able to do it that way, because for the most part you’ll never really have one project, you’ll probably have five, you know, and you’ll have to keep them all long side by side, you know, like did you study different courseworks as mini projects, you know that you’ve got yourself through to the end. Communication, really important, as I said, you know, I can pick up the phone and I can call people, I can communicate with people at various different levels, you know. Were you a student rep, where you communicated with lecturers, key people in the course organisation, your peers. Persuasion and negotiation is a hard one to demonstrate particularly as a student I used to give workshops on how to do this. Have you had to persuade different clubs for time, use of a room, use of a football pitch? That’s persuasion and negotiation – negotiating for different tutorial times. Everyone will have evidence of these skills – it’s taking the time to sit down and actually write them down, you know, being able to be specific with them you will have them it’s just one of the hardest things.  Keep a record, you know, keep a record for yourself when you demonstrate certain things now when it comes to those job interviews, you can open your book and I did that last day and they did that.

How important is it to stay calm under pressure?

It’s really important. I can say from working in testing labs whenever the samples are flowing in at an astronomical number, you really have to keep your pressured head. It can be overwhelming, different work – someone might come in and there’s 10 different people vying for your expertise and your time at any one point. Take your time. Don’t be afraid to step back and take your time to think about how you’re going to respond to all of these different pressures. Some people will just go ahead and start rushing through it but I think it’s important to take, even if it’s 5-10 minutes to kind of sit down. I always make lists, you know, what are the things I need to do, and I still even if it’s tiny – I’ll write it down and tick it off because always feels really good, because otherwise you’re just sitting thinking I’ve ten things to do and you can’t focus on the job at hand so sometimes write it all down to prioritise it. Take that 10 minutes take that half an hour, even if you’re under pressure, that’s most important. It’s like essay answers – taking the time to brainstorm, you know different projects at work. And then you know you’re going to answer all the things you need to do and you’re going to do it effectively.

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“It’s better to compromise than to lose”

Viktorija Mikalauskaite, a Senior Associate in the Legal Department at FinTrU on the skills you need to be a future leader including the art of influencing, persuading and teamwork. 

Viktorija Mikalauskaite

Could you just tell us a bit about influencing skills, what are they and you know, what do they involve?

So um, influencing skills, you know, they are skills that you use to persuade someone that your idea is better than someone else’s idea that your suggested terms or make better sense and persuade someone to change their ways of thinking of but without forcing them to do so. But at the same time, respecting opinions of others and compromising or mutual agreement cannot be found, and it’s better to compromise than lose. What I like to say it is a combination of communication and persuasion and negotiation, but it also involves confidence which is an extremely important factor. And if either one of those elements are missing, then you will not be able to influence effectively, you need to be able to communicate productively, it needs to be changing your communication style, depending on personality or profession of a person that you’re communicating with or trying to influence. So whether it’s your employer, or a colleague or a client, the communication style will be different now. And an influencing it’s also about, you know, convincing someone to get on board and to gain that approval support from your team or employer on your suggested ideas. So ultimately, what you’re looking for from influencing someone is their backup. And, as I mentioned, before, communication and persuasion and negotiation, they all work hand in hand with confidence, you need to believe in yourself, you need to believe in your skills, you need to believe in your ability and your ability to influence and persuade. And, you know, that comes with time and practice and experience.

Is there anything else that you’d watch out on that, and any other techniques that we produce? 

I mean, there are several techniques that that, you know, graduates can use in the workplace, when it comes to influencing. The first one that comes into my mind is, you know, know your audience, know the people you work with, or the people you work for. So, you know, all of you who joined today, at some stage, you will be working with people that have different personalities, different level of experience, different needs, different roles, get to know them, don’t be afraid to flex your communication style, as I said, previously, when dealing with people from or, or employees from different backgrounds. Identify who you will be reporting to, and how much influence they have on the decision that company or team makes, you know, and, and really, you know, invest the time and getting to know people that you’re trying to influence and build those relationships, you know, you need to build the relationship to show how ambitious you are, and, you know, and to, to build your own personal brand that will distinguish you from the others. And, you know, if you show that you’re ambitious, that you can, then then you get noticed, people will remember you. And another technique, you know, build trust, which is also linked to know your audience. So, generally, people like to be a nurturing environment to know, but those who listen and show compassion and concern, that’s how you become trustworthy, you know, when you show that care and support to someone, you know, build upon that trust and build on the trust with your employer, by delivering work on time meeting deadlines, you know, go over, going over and above what’s expected from you, and, you know, volunteer to take extra workload if your capacity allows. And I suppose another one is, demonstrate your credibility, you know, you want to, you want to establish your reputation and prove that you’re reliable. And you know, by showing that you’re credible to your claim that you’re working with, or your employer or your client, you know, that helps to persuade them to agree with what you’re saying. And that can be achieved by, you know, being one of the strongest performers or top performers. And showing constant improvement and your quality of work and working well under pressure and, and even being accountable for your own mistakes. You know, if you made a mistake, raise your hand. Admit it, you know, don’t hide it. Don’t. Don’t defend it. Don’t blame it on someone else. Yeah, I mean, that will show that you have that sense of responsibility and credibility.

So what kind of skills do you need to put together to provide like a good case study in person or even in writing?

Well, you need to research you need to prepare, and you need to practice and, you know, communicate in a concise and clear manner. And whether it’s on paper or in person. And it’s important that your audience understands what you’re trying to say. And that you put your point across effectively. And, you know, you need to, if you if you’re presenting your case in person, think about your tone, you know, assess your audience to tailor your tone. So whether it’s a formal tone that should be using or more casual, but always remain professional. And that’s, that’s extremely important. And no, you’re topping inside out, you know, you don’t want to get stuck, especially the asked questions, and just spent about, you know, what is the purpose of that case? What is the goal here? And what do you want people to take away from that case?

Communication is extremely important. And being able to communicate effectively is essential for business. And it’s a foundation of influencing skills that I have touched on previously. And it’s also the basis for leadership and teamwork. And so it’s, you know, when you think about, you know, by communicating effectively, what that means is, you know, thinking about the content of what you’re going to say, or the content of a speech or presentation that you’re going to deliver, you know, sometimes less is more. And you know, how you present yourself when communicating, being able to answer the questions, as well as, ask good questions. You know, that’s, that’s a skill in itself. And, you know, when we talk about appealing to the head and to the heart, that for me goes back, you know, to know your audience. And if you know, your audience, and you can assess, then you can tailor your communication style, and you can tailor your tone. But you can also tailor the content of what you’re going to say as well.

What are some of the interview questions that kind of assess your influence and skills and your persuasiveness?

If an employer wants to assess your influencing skills of persuasiveness, they will most likely ask you a scenario based question. Okay. They would start with, give me an example of or tell me about that something or how you would approach certain situation. So, you know, an example can be, you know, you might be asked, tell me about the time you had to communicate effectively? Well, tell me about the time you had to change your communication style for different audience. So here, think about, maybe you delivered a presentation as part of the coursework that received the great feedback, or maybe you handled a social media account or, you know, for university or social. Yeah, that received lots of followers and became very popular, both very good examples to use, and, you know, for graduates. And you might be asked, you know, tell me about the time you worked with a difficult person. And, you know, here an employer would want to know if you have communication skills, you know, did you flex your style? What tone did you use when you talk with a difficult person? And, you know, did you confront that person over his or her behaviour? Another question you might be asked is, you know, tell me about the time, you know, you have persuaded someone to do something that, that, that they didn’t want to do. If you and that you both, you know, think about it being a part time job, and you convince your colleague to stay in the company, even though he or she received another job offer, you know, or maybe you don’t have a job, you know, if you, perhaps you convinced a person in your class, to join a charity event or similar initiative by university? Also, you know, a very good example to use for that question. And another question that, that is, a great question to ask is, tell me about the time you had an argument or disagreement with your teammate? So, this is a great question to ask by employers, because what they will be looking from your answer is that you have communication skills, that you work in a team. And, also, if you have problem solving skills, because, you know, if you had an argument, they’ll need to know how that ended as well.

What are ways that we could develop our skills then?

I mean, there are, there are the best way to develop and influencing skills or getting involved in various group activities, project work, or find a part time job that both involves client facing or customer facing. You need to get involved in the in the group activity because, you know, you, you could you can’t influence someone, if you’re not a part of the team, you know, at the same time, you can, you have a great insight in how others lead in the team, or you know, or what sort of ideas they have, you know, or ways that they use to influence someone and in the team that you pour it off. And, I mean, public speaking is a great way to develop influencing skills, you know, it will improve your confidence, it will improve your communication skills, and it will also help, you know, ways of different ways of interacting with audience Yes. Also, in university debates, I don’t know if you still have them in Queens, but university that is, is a great way to also develop influencing skills. And, you know, you don’t need to participate if you don’t want to, but simply by, you know, by watching the debate, you can have great insight. You know, as I mentioned previously, watching how others lead and how others communicate with the audience.

How do we develop then leadership potential? And how do recruiters assess leadership potential?

It’s a good question. And, you know, some people are natural leaders. But everyone can develop a necessary skill set. To become a leader, a great way to develop leadership potential is by taking on more responsibility. So volunteering to take an extra workload at work, if your capacity allows, but not taking any more than you can handle. And you need to go over and above than what’s described in your job description if you want to grow and progress. Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. Yes, and honestly, this is one of the best ways to learn something new. And it will certainly help to develop your personal brand and get noticed by people. And, you know, seek opportunities that allow you to develop leadership potential. Yeah, keep on top of university updates, to see if there are any project work going on, that you can take part in. So for example, maybe you can be a mentor, or maybe you know, you can get involved in the induction week, welcoming new students, or even coaching a sports team, you know, and equally important, and, you know, offer your encouragement and your guidance to people that you coach or people you work with, or even students in your class because leadership can be practised anywhere, as long as you keep learning.

Could you name a couple of leadership skills and qualities? 

These are so consistent, so many skills or qualities, you know, and the list goes on and on and on. But and some of them are you know, they should, you know you need to be ambitious, that’s your goal and focus on problem solving and organisation need to be organised, and keep the track and track the progress of work. And make sure to communicate that beats with the team, company client or to one another one is delegation. It’s very important, you know, you can’t do everything yourself, you need to learn how to delegate. You don’t delegate you for you to bring yourself up, but you delegate, you know, facilitate the workflow and help others in the team to grow and progress by allocating them the responsibility and showing that trust time management. Be aware of the deadlines. And always think how can I improve turnaround times, and learn prioritise. And once you once you learn how to prioritise, then you prioritise appropriately. 

How would you persuade someone who doesn’t seem interested in a project to get involved with the team?

And well, I mean, you need to first of all, and that’s a very good question. But I think I touched on this a little bit as well. Whatever I talked about, know your audience. So you know, if someone is reluctant to join the project team, then you encourage them to do so. You know, if you know that person and what they’re looking for their goals and why they’re not interested in the project. Try to find Is there something in the project that you can you can use to encourage them to join. So for example, maybe the project, create some opportunities that later can lead to better things or promotion or a payrise. You know, and you need to know once. First of all you need to know the project, what is the project, what the project entails? What are the skills that you can gain while I’m working on that project. And then knowing what the person is looking for, if he say no to that opportunity, while he or she is saying no, you know, what, what, what different? You know, what are they looking for exactly? And then, and then just find them, just find, you know, something that attracts them. So find something that would say, oh, by the way, you know, these are the skills that you will learn in the project. And by the way, do you know, did you know that, you know, people do well, then they get promoted to certain level or they moved to Fairfax?

So how do you strike a balance between influencing and forcing your opinion? 

Yeah, it is a good one. And so yes, as I said, influencing is persuading or convincing someone to do something, but without forcing them to do. Compromise was what you mentioned was not, yeah, so there’s a fine line, you know, you have to, you know, at some stage, you won’t be able to convince someone, or you won’t be able to persuade someone, but you have to find a compromise. And so rather than walking away from it, you’ll have to find a compromise. But I think there is a fine balance between forcing people to do something, rather than influencing. And it’s always thing professional, you know, and using the skills that that I mentioned today, earlier today, to, you know, speak professional, knowing your tone, knowing what tone do you use, you know, again, if you speak with your colleague, and the and your employer, you’ll use a different sort of tone. So you know, it’d be forcing someone your opinion, then your tone will change, if you’re trying to influence someone with the opinion with the communication style that suits a person. And then that’s not forcing, that’s talking. That’s a discussion that that leads to convincing or persuasion. So it’s the tone and assess the person who you’re talking with. And, and if you’re stuck, then try to see if there is a middle ground or a compromise that you can both come up with.

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