Before we gave a commencement address recently, we received some advice about what not to say. First, we were told, don’t bore the graduates with cliches such as “the road not taken”. Don’t blather on with buzzwords such as “synergy” or “paradigm”, either. And, most of all, don’t tell the graduates they’re the best and the brightest, that the future belongs to them, or talk about how hard things were when you were young. They’ll just laugh—or groan.
We were urged to instead just admit that the economy is awful and give the students what they want to hear: advice on how to succeed anyway.
Oh, is that all?
Three years ago, we wrote a column, “Dear Graduate”, on just this topic. “The way to get ahead is to over-deliver,” we said. “Expand the organization’s expectations of you and exceed them.”
We firmly believe that advice still holds true. But the current environment prompts us to add four codicils to the over-deliver credo, to reinforce it (and bolster you) for the tumultuous ride ahead.
Graduates probably won’t like them very much, any more than you like the current economic environment. Consider the first one: Get off your computer.
No, we’re not being Neanderthals. We love the wonders of the Web as much as the next geek. We live on our BlackBerrys, tapping away on them even while we’re talking with each other, eating dinner or watching ballgames. We love Twitter. We stalk our children on Facebook. Frankly, when it comes to technology, we’re certifiable.
But we’re not trying to get promoted. When we were, we both knew one thing for certain: relationships matter. Real ones are perhaps maintained electronically, but they’re not built that way. So the next time you’re about to send an email to someone at work, hit the delete key instead, then take the elevator or walk down the hall and talk to that person. Get to know them. Let them get to know you. And if you’re thinking about working from home two or three days a week because “it’s so easy” or “it doesn’t really matter”, slap yourself awake—you’re being unrealistic. If you want to be a leader someday, being there is imperative.
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Our second piece of advice probably sounds just as old-fashioned as the first, but we prefer to think of it as timeless: You’ve got to pay your dues if you want to sing the blues.
Ok, we stole that line, and from Ringo Starr, the former drummer for The Beatles, of all people. But for graduates right now, as the song goes, “you know it don’t come easy”—especially any more.
If you’re a new employee hoping to achieve work-life balance, we strongly suggest you hold that thought. Hold it, that is, until you’ve earned some credits with a nice, long run of great performance. In this brave new world, with the US unemployment rate exceeding 9%, flexibility is an earned reward, not an entitlement.
Our third piece of advice is to love everyone.
Yes, we’re serious. We all live in a culture of pervasive criticism and snark. It might be tempting to dismiss those who seem less successful as losers. It might be tempting to fall into the trap of office politics, aligning oneself with one group or the other, hoping that group has the inside track.
How pointless. Most people you meet at work, regardless of rank or title, know something you don’t.
Many people, no matter what their place in the hierarchy, can mentor you in some way. So try to shed your cynicism; listen to every voice in the room. It will make you smarter and more humble. And if intelligence and humility are the two main traits people see in you, you’ll be a winner, no matter what’s happening with the gross domestic product.
Our final piece of advice to the Class of 2009 is intended especially for graduates with business degrees: please stop apologizing.
Despite all the recent noise about capitalism, the vast majority of companies employ good and decent people doing good and decent work. There’s no need to feel shame. You are about to enter a noble profession. Business is a force for progress, creating jobs, opportunity and hope, and you’ll be a part of that world. That alone is cause for celebration.
And we do suggest you celebrate. You are the best and the brightest. The future does belong to you. All you need to do is over-deliver—and then some.
Write to Jack & Suzy
Jack and Suzy are eager to hear about your career dilemmas and challenges at work, and look forward to answering some of your questions in future columns. Jack and Suzy Welch are the authors of the international best-seller, Winning. Their latest book is Winning: The Answers: Confronting 74 of the Toughest Questions in Business Today. Mint readers can email them questions at firstname.lastname@example.org Please include your name, occupation and city. Only select questions will be answered.
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