Considering the wide variety of graduation speakers, you’ve got to wonder if it really makes a difference whether students get Apple CEO Tim Cook, a celebrity like Matthew McConaughey, or a political academic leader such as Condoleezza Rice at their commencement ceremonies.
What matters most is not the speakers' career paths but the lessons they learned at critical junctures in their careers. They have stories to tell about pivotal moments that made a real difference in their lives. Those are the stories that stick with us. And you know what? The good ones will resonate with you even if you’ve been around a while.
Whether you’re just starting out or have been in the workforce for years, I guarantee these three counterintuitive lessons will make a big difference in your career.
Cast a Wide Net
My wife graduated from college intent on getting into engineering. She’s actually an applied math wiz so a technical field was both within her comfort zone and in demand at the time. But wouldn’t you know, it turns out that she hates working behind a desk and, as a result, didn’t last long in her field.
Looking back, she regrets not being open to a broader range of opportunities. For example, she passed up a chance to get into pharmaceutical sales because she didn’t think it was for her. That’s exactly why she should have done it: to break out of her comfort zone and learn a critical skill set.
In fact, I began to segue from engineering into sales and marketing about a decade into my career. Not only was that the key to becoming business savvy, it also turned out to be a catalyst in reaching the executive management level.
There will be plenty of time for you to focus on what you do best later in your career, but early on, you want to cast a pretty wide net and increase your exposure. Broadening your perspective, going where opportunity takes you, and doing what scares you can all be career game changers.
Think Big … Company
Next to finding my way to the high-tech industry, the hands-down best move I made right out of college was going to work for a big, industry-leading company. That hands-on experience gave me a solid foundation in engineering design, project management, problem solving, and people management.
Ironically, that’s also where I learned to groom my own career instead of expecting the company to do it for me. The tools I learned and the confidence and maturity I gained during that period were both transferrable and scalable – helping me to become an effective senior leader with companies big and small.
Working for an outstanding big company right out of school exposes you to a broad range of experiences, teaches you basic skills and best practices, helps you get out and build your professional network, and prepares you to excel at whatever you find your best suited for – at whatever level you’re capable of achieving.
It should come as no surprise that many if not most of the successful entrepreneurs and CEOs I’ve known got their start at big-name companies like IBM, Intel, and Microsoft.
Forget About Money
Today, senior executives of public companies are primarily compensated in the form of equity, not cash. That’s especially true in the technology sector where a growing number of CEOs make $1 a year; the rest is stock and options. The logic is, if they do great work and their companies grow and make money, their shareholders make money and so do they. Everybody’s on the same page. Sort of makes sense, doesn’t it?
Why not approach your career the same way? Yes, I know you need to eat, a place to sleep, and a way to get around. You need to go out and have a good time and buy presents on holidays. And you certainly don’t want to get screwed by the man. I get that. But while the traditional worker worries about his next paycheck, you’ll do better off in the long run by thinking long-term.
That’s how I’ve always approached my career: First and foremost I took on as much responsibility as I could get my hands on and did the very best job I possibly could. Even as a relatively low-level employee, I felt as if it was my company. Guess what? That’s how founders and executives act. And that’s how they move up the ladder and make the big bucks .... in equity.
All three stories provide counterintuitive lessons, but that’s usually the way experience works. It’s never what you expect. Cast a wide net, think big company, and forget about the money. If you follow that advice early on, you’ll have a much better chance of being successful at running your own show.
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