My Advice to Graduates: Understand the Calculus of Professional Success
Mathematical calculus has two parts: differentiation and integration. On these two pillars rest science and technology as we know it. There is hardly any modern engineering invention that does not owe its creation, and continued refinement, to these two concepts. Many complex problems are solved after being differentiated and then integrated. Interestingly, this is also the recipe for career success.
If you aim to be successful at your job, you need to be thoroughly differentiated and then well integrated. Differentiated individuals are unique, with a distinct brand. Their name conjures up an image of someone who knows their onions. Differentiated individuals are real--you get the sense that they mean what they say. They have street credibility because of a track record of on-time delivery of commitments. They produce something of value to their colleagues and resist the temptation to be average. Differentiation is one part of the equation. The other is integration.
Integrated individuals have empathy. They are emotionally intelligent and are in tune with their environment. They care not only about themselves but also about others; not only about their team but also about other teams; not only about their division of the business but about the entire company. They want to see the whole – not just the parts – achieve great feats. Integrated people aim for synergy of thoughts, resources, and energies. Dr. Seuss has a comment to the graduate that achieves differentiation of technical skills and integration of people skills: Oh, the places you’ll go!
Achieving this potent mix of differentiation and integration in a career, especially early on, can seem daunting. To overcome the fear of getting started, I offer you two career tips below:
First, differentiate. Pick an area where you can quickly become an expert.
As a new graduate, you likely won’t get to pick your daily tasks at work; that’s why they're called assignments. But you do get to pick how well you do them. My advice is to do them very well. Some companies have stated probation periods for new employees where they are essentially checking you out before committing to you. But even in companies without these programs, the same process is still going on informally. It might feel unnerving to learn that you are being constantly judged, but truly, it is not any different from school, where you have continuous assessments of your knowledge and performance. Do your first assignments well. Attack them with all you've got. Treat it as though your career depends upon it, because it often does. The first step toward being a differentiated graduate is to excel in your early assignments.
The second step is to pick an area of need and quickly master it. You need to be known for something. Shirley is our VBA programming expert. Paul is our presentation guru. No one is better than Alex at locating old files. Etc. What gap do you see in the organization, and how can you fill it? Think of something within your reach. Many graduates underestimate their power and falsely believe they can’t do more than they are told. Doing just what you are told is average; it’s the opposite of differentiation. To stand out, you need to do more than your assignment. Is there a process you can automate with your programming skills? Can you source for different contractors that can offer better service for less? Can you create a scoreboard or system to keep conflicts to a minimum? In any company there are thousands of opportunities that are ripe for the taking for graduates who want to seize them.
Advice to graduates and anyone beginning anew:
“Do not become scared of standing out early.”
-Michael Taiwo, author of DREAM
Then, integrate. Focus on learning every aspect of your business.
Regardless of where you start in the organization, endeavor to learn about the different parts of the company. Your aim is not to be an expert in every single detail (an impossible undertaking), but to know how each division contributes to the whole. If you are in finance, understand how engineering works, and know what safety metrics are important to the company.
Why is this important? Organizations quickly make judgments about new graduates’ potential for high leadership in very much the same way that individuals make snap judgments about others within seconds of meeting them. We size new strangers up, it’s instinctive. You will be a stranger to a new group of people, and they will want to take your measure. The earlier you can show them that you see, and care, beyond what’s on your desk, the faster you will move up the ladder.
One easy way to do this is to read anything and everything your CEO writes. If she gives a speech, listen to it. Train yourself to see decisions from the view of the CEO. It will help you understand how the company makes money, what the biggest internal and external risks are, where the most attractive prospects lay, and so on. The more of these you internalize, the better integrated you become.
In addition to following the CEO, reading the company’s quarterly and annual financial statements will help you get the big picture. You don’t need an MBA to understand this. Between Google and YouTube, you will do just fine grasping the basics. Or, you can do what I did. I scheduled a one-hour meeting with a VP of Finance, and she graciously walked me through our company’s annual report, a public document. I had about 15 questions prepared for the meeting, and she answered them all. I got an MBA in 60 minutes!
Summary: Professional success involves both differentiation and integration
In short, my advice to graduates is to not become scared of standing out early. Knowledge overcomes fear, and I hope the career advice in this post has helped. The path of career success goes through differentiation--doing your first tasks well and then mastering an area of need--and integration, keeping the grand picture of the entire estate in mind when making decisions.