You're hired!

How can you build a successful career? Lucy Mair finds out from The Apprentice contestant and founder of InspirEngage International, Melody Hossaini

She's best known as the "tiger" from series seven of BBC reality show The Apprentice, who, after a disastrous task, was fired in week ten of the 12-week competition to become Alan Sugar's business partner. She had dramatic bust-ups and turned in some spectacular boardroom performances, but Melody Hossaini is more than just a reality TV celebrity, being the founder and director of social enterprise InspirEngage International. Before uttering his famous "You're fired!", Lord Sugar voiced the thoughts of many viewers when he admitted to Melody: "I have difficulty understanding what it is that you do." When we meet, Melody explains that her organisation aims to improve the lives of young people by running skills development workshops and also acts as a consultant on youth engagement to clients ranging from the United Nations and the British Council to Philips and Bank of America Merrill Lynch. She adds: "InspirEngage International combines a good cause with a robust business model. Clients pay for the services that we deliver, which is how we make money. But we measure social capital as well as cash profits, and we do that by having a close relationship with our beneficiaries and listening to their feedback."

Today Melody is delivering a skills development training session for members of the Society of Finance, Accounting and Business (SOFAB) at the University of Manchester. The workshop is devoted to developing the students' leadership, communication and project management skills, which Melody identifies as the "main components" of a successful career. But these aren't all you need. Drawing on her own experience, Melody tells us what else will help you to achieve your aspirations.

Vision, passion, plan

Whether you're interested in setting up your own business or working in a corporate environment, there are three "cornerstones" that will get you there, says Melody. The first is having a vision, because it's essential to know what your goal is in order to achieve it. Melody began forming her own vision when she was involved in establishing the UK Youth Parliament at the age of 13. After moving from Iran to Sweden, and then to the UK, the teenaged Melody found herself comparing different political systems and sociocultural values, and says "I thought young people needed to be involved in shaping these things as well."

Melody quickly discovered a passion for working in the youth sector - her second cornerstone. When you set yourself a goal, whether it's to achieve a 2:1, get your chosen job, or set up a business, passion, Melody explains, is "the vehicle that will carry you to your destination." Meanwhile, if you're struggling to decide what to do when you graduate, "the only antidote to clear this problem is to find something you're passionate about." It's difficult to doubt Melody's enthusiasm for working to develop the skills of young people. "I absolutely love what I do," she says, and receiving positive feedback from her beneficiaries is "what it's all about."

Finally, Melody says, you need a plan, which will be the map to your destination. However, InspirEngage International wasn't born from a detailed business strategy - "it happened organically". Melody continues: "I worked for causes associated with young people voluntarily for ten years and then I asked myself, how do I carry on doing something that I love and make a living from it?" Melody says the organisation now has a clear plan to "grow our reach."

Personal branding

"Your personal brand is what you're going to be putting forward to employers when you attend a job interview. Or, if you're an aspiring entrepreneur, it's what you'll use to encourage people to buy into your vision," says Melody. Personal branding isn't about styling yourself like the Beckhams or turning yourself into a carbon copy of a "perfect" candidate, but about critically assessing your strengths and understanding your weaknesses so you can present yourself to others in the best possible light.

The key, says Melody, is to understand what makes you unique. "I really don't like it when people say that we're all the same. There's something different about you, and the sooner you can realise that and capitalise on those differences to be able to progress, the better."

Building a network

Melody makes it clear that success isn't about who you know, but about what you know and how you use that knowledge. Yet building a network of contacts in the industry you're interested in working in can be a springboard to success. After graduating with a 2:1 in Law from Oxford Brookes University in 2006, Melody spent two years working for the National Youth Agency, a charity that aims to improve the services available to young people. When she completed her contract there, Melody made full use of her network - which proved to be invaluable in getting her own business off the ground.

"I had a contact through some of the work that I'd done perviously, and I set up a meeting with him at his office," Melody recalls. In a chance encounter in the lobby, Melody was then introduced to the director of the company. "He showed me what he was working on, and I said, I like this bit, but I don't like this bit, and I'll tell you what we can do to improve it." As a result, InspirEngage International won its first contract to manage an "amazing project" on climate change. It's easy to begin building a network by attending events on campus and doing work placements and internships, and Melody advises: "If you have contacts, stay in touch!"

Mindset

A fierce sense of determination is what you'd expect from a woman who admits that, while taking part in The Apprentice, "I never packed my bags before going to the boardroom. I didn't want to tempt fate - I was there to win it!" And, whether you're a contestant in a competition or a candidate for a job, she says that "mindset is everything." Although there will always be people who tell you that you can't do something, Melody says you shouldn't let fear be the reason you don't do it. She adds: "If you want to go really far, you have to take a step back. These steps back are the challenges that you face in life that will allow you to go even further than you would have done."

My final question to Melody is about her personal challenges. "It's really hard to manage time," she says without hesitation. "When you do something you love, you just can't stop." However, she's realised that "it's much more important to focus on specific things you want to achieve than to try to do everything", and that's the key piece of advice she wants to pass on.

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