By Ben Carpenter, author of “The Bigs: The Secrets Nobody Tells Students and Young Professionals About How to Find a Great Job, Do a Great Job, Be a Leader, Start a Business, Stay Out of Trouble, and Live A Happy Life“
You’ve fretted about your child’s future from kindergarten on. You’ve zoom-focused on homework and grades, worried that he wouldn’t have the study skills and discipline to make it once he got out from under your thumb, and (of course!) spent sleepless nights worrying he wasn’t making the most of his college education. Now that he’s finally ready to graduate, the last thing you want is for your child to stall at the real-world starting line after all the hard work he — and you! — have put in.
You know that the economy is scarier than ever and jobs are hard to come by — and you also know that a lot has changed since you sent out your first résumé. So what eleventh-hour advice can you give your child to ensure that he’ll make it as an adult (and not end up living in your basement forever)? Here are some ideas.
I know from experience how nerve-wracking it can be to watch a child leave the nest, especially when there’s so much about the real world he or she has yet to learn. I’ll never forget the panic I felt when I realized that while my daughter Avery had received a top-notch academic education, she had no clue how the working world, well, worked.
After a year-long job search, Avery finally received a promising job offer in her field of choice. Then she sent me an email with the subject line, “Is this okay to send?” Until I stopped her, Avery was about to ask her new boss for a later start date so she’d have more time to “tie up loose ends” (i.e., move out of her parents’ home and into her own apartment). Yikes, right?
Fortunately, I was able to redirect Avery before she inadvertently did any damage. But this instance really underscored to me how important it is that we parents actively guide our graduates through this uncertain time.
Here’s some advice to pass on to your graduate before diplomas are handed out:
1. Do what you’re good at, not what you love.
Much of the career advice that’s doled out these days encourages young people to “follow their dreams” and “feed their passion.” Sure, you want your child to enjoy his career… but you also want him to become and remain solvent instead of holding out for the “perfect” job that might never materialize.
That’s why you should underscore to your child that choosing a career he can do well, rather than one that seems fun and exciting, might be his best bet. Be sure to point out that this strategy isn’t as unappealing as it might sound, because the satisfaction you get from doing your job well will far outweigh how entertaining it is. From personal experience, as well as from observing family, friends, and coworkers, I can state that most professionals are happiest doing what they are good at, while pursuing other passions — that their careers give them the means to finance — on the side.
2. Try out different fields when you’re young.
For most people, it generally takes at least a few tries to find the best field, company, and/or position from which to build a career. Just think about the number of times you’ve changed jobs over the years. If your experience was anything like mine, you’ll probably agree that your rookie years — when you’re young and before you have children — are the ideal time to aggressively seek out the best match for your personality and talents.
All of my major career moves occurred before my wife and I had children. They were relatively easy, because I didn’t have to worry about uprooting my entire family, and financial concerns weren’t as pressing. I compare this to my friend Blue, who really struggled with the decision to pursue a promising opportunity because he was concerned about caring for his children. Blue’s decision would have been much easier if he’d found the right company earlier.
Of course, when you’re discussing this with your child, be sure to include the caveat that no one should leave a paying job — even if they’re unhappy with it — before they have another one lined up.
3. Always ask yourself, What’s my edge?
In other words, what makes you unique and different? Why should other people pay attention to you? What do you have to offer? What gives you an edge over the competition?
Of course you think your child is talented and special, and it’s likely true. Now, she just needs to figure out what makes her stand out from her peers and apply that distinction to a multitude of professional scenarios. If she’s starting a business, her edge can help her to define her product or service’s niche. If she’s going after a promotion, it can help differentiate her from her coworkers. In all situations, it will help her define how she can become her personal best.
4. Think of your boss and your company before yourself.
This principle was the driving force behind my insistence that my daughter not ask her new boss for a later start date, and it extends well beyond the first day of work. Make sure your graduate understands that when you’re a rookie in the big leagues, you have to prove that you’re going to be an asset to the team, not a drain on its resources or a liability for the coach. Often, that means putting your boss’s wants and needs ahead of your own.
My advice is that rookie employees need to show up before the boss… leave after she does… schedule personal appointments after business hours… work six months before taking vacation days… respond to phone calls and emails ASAP (even at night, on the weekends, or during vacations).
I get that many of these things don’t sound like a young person’s idea of fun. Your child might even think some of them are ‘unfair.’ But remember — it’s his job to make his boss’s life easier, not the other way around. Everyone has to start at the bottom and work their way up. When your child shows that he’s willing to sacrifice his own interests for the good of the team, he’ll have gotten a huge head start on being named Rookie of the Year.
5. Be creative and bold.
To the dismay of many graduates and their parents, the days of being handed a job just because you have a diploma are long gone. There are millions of job seekers with the same qualifications as your child, so if you want her to receive one of a limited number of opportunities, she’ll need to stand out.
Instead of sending out a résumé that will probably get lost in HR Purgatory, a creative and bold candidate might stand outside Company XYZ’s offices with a cardboard sign that reads, ‘Please let me tell you why I’m the person you want to fill the junior systems analyst position you posted on Monster.com.’ Or your child might take a page from a friend of mine’s book: After identifying her dream job, she walked right into the ‘big boss’s’ office, handed him her résumé, and told him she’d call him later that afternoon.
My point is, the tougher the situation, the less your child has to lose — so the more radical her actions should be. The worst that can happen is that your child doesn’t get the job.
6. Comfort and success rarely go hand in hand.
In my book, I write about liking and respecting my first real boss, “The Professor” (so named for his resemblance to the Professor on Gilligan’s Island), tremendously. However, the more I learned while at the job, the more determined I became to move on. While The Professor was a great teacher and salesman, he wasn’t fully engaged in his career. And none of his other colleagues seemed very “amped up” about their jobs, either.
The tipping point came when I was reprimanded because of entertainment expenses, not because I was spending too much but because I was spending too little. The Professor was concerned their department would have its entertainment budget cut if I didn’t “shape up” quickly. That’s when I realized that along with most other people in the department, The Professor’s number-one goal was to milk his career, not maximize it.
I realized that if I stayed in this position, I might be comfortable, but I’d always be stuck in a professional backwater. I made the difficult choice to leave this cushy environment for a higher-stakes opportunity. At some point, your child might also have to decide which is more important: sticking with the familiarity of the status quo or taking a chance on reaching the next rung of the ladder. Remind him that opportunity won’t find him within his comfort zone.
7. Stay in the driver’s seat of your career.
After making the decision to leave the safety of The Professor’s nest, I was told by myemployer’s HR department that sure, I could transfer to a new department — but first, I’d have to stick with my current job for three more years! My response? “I will give you two months to help me get transferred; then I am going to start interviewing elsewhere.”
A few weeks later, I was taking the subway to my new position in the department I’d asked to be transferred to. I was glad that my unorthodox tactic paid off, but I was fully prepared for it not to — I really would have been interviewing elsewhere two months later! Remember, life is short, and the same opportunities rarely come twice. Instruct your child not to simply ‘go along for the ride,’ especially when her goals and potential for success are at stake. Encourage her to take an active hand in charting her course forward.
8. Don’t agree to anything you don’t fully understand.
Once your graduate gets her foot in the door, she’ll likely want to impress her colleagues and higher-ups at every turn. And in an attempt to avoid looking like she doesn’t know what she’s doing, she may be tempted to feign understanding and nod her head, even though she really has no clue what’s going on. Caution her against this strategy!
Early in my career, a client bullied me into saying ‘yes’ to a request I didn’t understand — and it cost my employer $25,000. While covering up her ignorance might not come with such a steep price tag for your child, it’s still something she should avoid at all costs. Remind her that her integrity, credibility, and reputation — and possibly her job! — are all at stake. It’s always better to swallow your pride and say, ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t understand. I need you to explain.’ Oh — and that’s just as applicable in your child’s personal dealings as it is in her career.
9. When you’re upset, choose to look forward, not back.
You can’t always control what happens to you, but you can control how you react and move forward. The sooner your child learns this lesson, the more resilient he’ll be.
You know what it’s like to be handed an undesirable task at work, be blamed for your boss’s mistake, or be interrupted by an overzealous colleague during a client meeting for the thousandth time. You also know that you can choose to focus on your anger and irritation for hours, or even days. But that doesn’t do you a bit of good. Instead, in these situations, advise your child to channel his thoughts and efforts toward playing the hand he’s been dealt in a way that will benefit him the most.
10. Learn to appreciate diverse work styles.
In life and in work, we all tend to gravitate toward others who think like us and who see the world through a similar lens. But if your child doesn’t push herself past the familiar, she’ll be severely limiting herself.
Yes, it can be difficult, uncomfortable, and downright frustrating to work with people who take a different approach from you. For example, maybe you’re a Type A personality who is totally frustrated by your coworker’s seat-of-her-pants approach to projects. Remember, though, by shutting her out, you’ll also deprive yourself of her creative solutions and outside-the-box insights.
No matter what the situation is, encourage your child to always try to seek out and utilize her team’s talents, even if she doesn’t understand their methods. You can never be sure you have the best answer until you’ve heard all viewpoints.
11. Know when to look after your own interests.
In “The Bigs“, I shared how my boss’s boss, Mack, reacted when I announced his intention to resign his position and move to another company. After gliding confidently around the ring a few times, he settled on a plan of attack and started swinging — not wildly, but with deliberate and measured blows. A right jab,‘you’re making a huge mistake’… a left jab, ‘that firm is too small’… setting me up for a right uppercut, ‘you will regret this.’ For 10 minutes Mack worked me over the best he could.
If I’d been a newbie, I might have believed that Mack really did have my best interests in mind. Fortunately, I was six years into my career and had already changed jobs twice, so this Mack Attack didn’t faze me. I knew that Mack didn’t care about me or what was best for my career; he was working toward the best interests of the company.
I certainly don’t hold that against Mack, but the incident did serve as an important lesson that you should pass on to your graduate: Look after your own career interests. Nobody else is going to do it for you.
12. Own your mistakes.
No matter how much you know or how hard you try, you are going to make mistakes as you pursue your career. The question is, how will you handle them? I caution all graduates not to follow in the footsteps of a former coworker he refers to as “Never,” who never took responsibility for any mistakes and never apologized for anything.
Never was actually very good at what she did, but her insistence on passing the blame and refusing to admit her errors cost her all of the respect, support, and goodwill she could have earned. Here’s the lesson: Refusing to own your mistakes doesn’t make you seem more competent; it reveals cowardice, callousness, and untrustworthiness.
Tell your child that if he is a hardworking, valued employee, when he does own up to his mistakes, his confession will be viewed as a sign of strength, not weakness, by his coworkers. Plus, he’ll be in a position to learn and improve.
13. Be a good steward of the “little” things.
For example, always proofread your emails for errors before pressing “send.” Don’t leave voicemails unanswered at the end of the day. Keep your desk and computer files organized. Call your clients to share progress, even when a report isn’t required.
Most people don’t think much of letting the so-called ‘little things’ slide. They think it’s okay to cut ‘unimportant’ corners. So when your child pays attention to small, often-overlooked details, she’ll distinguish herself from the pack. Trust me, putting in just a little more work than most people are willing to is a great way to propel yourself toward success.
14. If you want to be a leader, act like one.
If your graduate’s goal is to be at the forefront of his field’s innovation and growth, he may feel discouraged when his first job is composed of tasks a trained monkey could do. But don’t let him succumb to the I’ll never get there from here or theWhat I do in this position doesn’t matter line of thinking. Instead, advise him to get a head start developing the leadership qualities he’ll need in the future.
The best way to move up in the ranks is to lead in whatever position you’re in now. Even if you’re the lowest man or woman on the totem pole, you can still display leadership qualities like having integrity and a good attitude, providing others with helpful feedback, and treating them with respect. The fact is, very few employees consistently show leadership skills. If you’re the exception from day one, the Powers That Be will notice.
15. Do what you say you’re going to do, when you say you’re going to do it.
One basic requirement for doing an outstanding job is to handle all your work-related tasks, large or small, in a timely manner. Tell your graduate that if her job is to get a report done by Friday, get it done byFriday. If HR asks her to fill out a form today, do it promptly.
Yes, meeting deadlines sounds like a no-brainer. But you’d be surprised by how many professionals don’t live by this rule. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been handed excuses and requests for extensions instead of the finished product. But I can tell you that that type of behavior is not going to do your child any favors in the workplace.
16. Don’t let anyone have anything negative to say about you.
Over the course of their careers, many people encounter individuals whose opinions they think don’t matter and whose actions they think won’t impact them. These people may also believe their position gives them license to dispense with politeness and consideration. Beware: Those assumptions could get your child into big trouble. In many companies, for example, the most hated people are the assistants who treat people in a high-handed way because they work for the boss.
Everyone your child comes in contact with should have a positive experience with him. Even if someone is a pest, rude, or stupid, instruct your child to always treat him respectfully. One day he may be working with, or for, that person. Also, mention that how his boss views him will be heavily influenced by what people in the company tell that boss.
17. Don’t complain about your job to your coworkers.
There will be plenty of things your child won’t like about her first (and second, and fifth) job. But complaining about them around the water cooler — even if she has a very sympathetic audience — is never a good idea.
If negative comments get back to your child’s boss, she will develop a reputation for unprofessional behavior. Moreover, her boss will wonder why she didn’t talk to him directly. Anytime your child is unhappy with something at work, whether it’s her workload, the tasks she’s being given, or how she’s being treated by a coworker, instruct her to bring those concerns directly to her supervisor. If she feels that isn’t possible, tell her to continue to do the best job she can while looking for a more suitable position.
18. A single act can ruin your great reputation.
In my book I told the story of a client called “Hoops.” Friendly and accommodating, Hoops taught me a lot about the bond market and achieved an impressive level of personal success. However, one bad decision — not disclosing a sales arrangement to his firm — knocked him out of the game forever. What might have been a negotiated discount was now an illegal kickback. Hoops never recovered.
It takes a lifetime to build a reputation, but a single act can destroy it. Most mistakes can be corrected and don’t do lasting damage to a person’s reputation or career. However, some things cannot be undone, and, unfortunately for Hoops, his transgression was one of those. Don’t allow your child to play fast and loose with his reputation. Make sure he doesn’t assume that ‘it will never happen to me.’ Tell him not to do anything he would be embarrassed to see as a headline on the evening news!
19. Don’t pick fights you can’t win.
Fighting in the office is a bad idea, period. It makes people unhappy and unproductive and is a huge waste of time and energy. Nevertheless, Carpenter acknowledges that serious office disputes are a fact of life for many people at some point during their careers. Tell your child that if she ever feels the pressing need to take on a coworker, to do so only if she knows with certainty she will win.
While I was the CEO of my firm, an employee I’ll call Mr. Nuts began bragging to his coworkers that he soon expected to have my job! Now, Mr. Nuts had a sledgehammer way of dealing with people and the bad reputation that comes along with it. I had tried to coach him on how better to deal with others, but the lessons never seemed to take. So, when I found out he had turned on his one supporter — me! — I couldn’t believe it. The next workday was Mr. Nuts’s last day at that company.
I still shake my head in amazement that this man thought he could pick a fight with a CEO and get away with it. Admittedly, that’s an extreme example, but you and your graduate can take this lesson away from it: Don’t do anything that could antagonize someone who has the power to influence the direction of your career.
20. Don’t badmouth your coworkers.
This is my personal golden rule for business: Never say anything negative about anybody in your office. Pass it on to your graduate: Don’t vent about your boss in the break room. Don’t gripe about your coworker with the rest of the team. Don’t even make fun of John’s crazy tie, unless he’s right there laughing with you.
These comments have a way of getting back to the people they’re about. One of the things I’m most ashamed of in my career is badmouthing a colleague for no good reason. The things I said had a negative effect on our working relationship for years, until I finally reached out with a heartfelt apology. And guess what? Even if the other person never becomes aware of what you said, your colleagues will still make judgments about your character based on your willingness to bash someone else behind his or her back.
21. Live within your means.
Like many young people who are just beginning to support themselves, your graduate may think that his personal finances (whether they’re good or bad) won’t impact his life in the workplace. That’s wishful thinking, especially if your child is struggling to stay solvent. It can be difficult to check personal stressors at the office door, meaning that if he’s worried about money, his anxiety might impact his focus, his performance, and even the values he applies to his work.
You probably know from personal experience that the easiest path to achieving financial security, or at least reducing financial stress, is to discipline your spending habits. Here’s what I told my own child: ‘If there’s any way you can help it, don’t spend more than you earn. If you don’t yet make a lot of money, don’t acquire a taste for expensive things. I promise you will be happier in a small apartment, driving an older car, drinking cheap wine than you will be in a big apartment, driving a fancy car, drinking expensive wine, and having to worry about how to pay for it all.’
22. Don’t forget to have fun.
Finally, remind your graduate that while she’ll need to put her nose to the grindstone, she shouldn’t forget to remove it every once in awhile!
I mean it! While work should certainly be a priority, it’s also important to have fun and disengage every once in awhile. The fuller and more satisfying your child’s life is in general, the more effective she’ll be at work. Plus, part of living a happy life is having friends and family to share it with.
Even though plenty has changed since the days we, the parents, were entering the job market, the important things haven’t. The fundamentals of hard work, integrity, respect, perseverance, and so forth still lead to success — so when advising your child, feel free to draw on your own experiences.
Make a point to have a conversation about the lessons you think she most needs to take to heart — perhaps over a celebratory dinner or while packing up her dorm room. Most of all, help your child to understand that when you live and work by a code that’s shaped by values, integrity, dedication, and a true team spirit, you will set yourself apart from the other rookies in a way that gets you hired, recognized, and promoted.
Ben Carpenter is the vice chairman of CRT Capital Group, a 300-person institutional broker-dealer located in Stamford, CT. He is also the author of “The Bigs: The Secrets Nobody Tells Students and Young Professionals About How to Find a Great Job, Do a Great Job, Be a Leader, Start a Business, Stay Out of Trouble, and Live A Happy Life“.