The Best Career Advice I Ever Got

In my role as Associate Dean at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, I am often called upon to give career advice to both our MBA students and recent graduates. I typically offer some traditional suggestions on how to go about assessing your skills and interests as well as ideas for developing a career strategy. Recently, however, I begin to think about the best advice I ever received.  I’ve been given some great suggestions by a wide variety of mentors and bosses and I thought it might be useful to pass it on here. After all, business success isn’t only about gaining the right credential or learning a particular set of skills. Ultimately, success is a question of how you apply that credential and those skills – and how you develop your values and your attitude toward work and life.

 

Here then are a few words of wisdom that every aspiring professional should take to heart:

 

  • “How can you help sell? Do good work.” Early in my career I was a management consultant. I helped a variety of organizations improve their operations and develop creative business strategies. I vividly recall one partner asking a bunch of us new consultants how we could help sell more work to our clients. Some of my colleagues offered a variety of marketing and sales ideas, but the partner cut them short and said “the best way you can promote the firm is to do good work.” I think this holds true whether you are selling your services to a client or trying to make a mark in your own organization. If you do good work, with integrity, good things follow.
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  • “I’ve never regretted taking on something that I thought was hard.” One of my former bosses said this to me when I was contemplating taking on a new role – teaching an MBA class. I had not taught before and MBA classrooms can be intimidating places.   I wasn’t sure I should add the new responsibilities to an already full plate and was quite nervous about the role. My boss encouraged me to accept the position with this thought. And, of course, he was right! The teaching position was a lot of fun and led to even more opportunities to teach and interact with students. Since then, I’ve considered his advice often. Whenever a new opportunity has presented itself, I don’t worry too much about whether it’s hard or not – I think about what I might learn and who I might meet. Great opportunities are often hard work – you shouldn’t shy away from them because of that – it’s the hard work that makes them valuable.
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  • “They’ll treat clients and professional staff the same way they treat administrative staff”. During my consulting days, we would evaluate potential hires on all sorts of criteria – analytical ability, communications skills, strategic view, interpersonal skills, etc. Most applicants were well prepared and expected to be grilled on these topics when interviewed by partners and consultants. What they may not have known is that the receptionists and secretaries could also provide feedback on their interactions with the applicant. If they perceived the candidate as arrogant, impolite or “pushy” they could add that to the overall evaluation. When I ran Chicago Booth’s admissions office, we instituted the same policy. Everyone on the team could offer an opinion on a candidate and it would have a bearing on the final admissions decision. The moral of this story is to always treat everyone you meet with respect – you never know who is watching. (It’s also simply the right thing to do).
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  • “What will you learn”? Your career choices should focus as much or more on what you’ll learn as how much money you’ll make. At this point, I can’t recall who gave me this advice, but it has served me extremely well. Your value to an organization is dependent on how much you know and how you apply that knowledge. The more experiences you can develop and the more skills you can gain, the more valuable you become. Therefore, your career path should follow opportunities to learn new things – take on new responsibilities, participate in projects that are new to you, develop relationships with people you don’t know. The more you can do this, the broader your set of skills and the more valuable you become.
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  • “It all starts with sales.” Whether you are an entrepreneur, an investment banker trying to attract clients or simply a rising manager looking to move ahead, the ability to sell and persuade is critical. Unfortunately, it’s a skill that many of us too often neglect. No matter what industry you’re in or what position you hold, sales, persuasion and negotiation skills are some of the most important things you can learn. The success of your organization and your own personal success often hinge on your ability to understand your customer (or your boss), present them with a compelling story, and convince them of the value that you provide. Take the time to develop these skills and you’ll go far.

 

These are just a few of the bits of advice that I’ve been given over the years. I’ve found them all to be right on target – even if I haven’t always followed them as well as should. I hope you’ll find them as helpful as I have.

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