A Graduation Letter to My Kids

May 9, 2017



By Mark Behan
President, Behan Communications Inc.

As you seek a path to your professional dreams, I thought I’d share a few things I wish I knew when I stood where you do today.

You will probably spend most of your life – the next 40 years or so -- working. Success means getting the chance to do something you love. It means doing something that brings you lasting professional satisfaction and personal gratification. It may be something that brings you economic security and personal notoriety. No job is without difficulty and frustration. The test is whether over the long run there are more good days than bad. But how?

Be the CEO of Your Career.

You must control your own professional destiny, now and in the future. Most people allow well-meaning others – bosses, family, teachers – to take charge of their careers. Or they allow events to control their destiny. They accept the jobs that find them, rather than getting a job – or creating the job -- they really love. They allow others to decide what they are good at, or what they are qualified to do, or where they would fit in. A great, satisfying career never just happens. It is carefully created. By you.

Politicians, for all their faults, are the rare breed who thinks constantly of their next job. Most people think it’s an act of disloyalty to be plotting a career move while on someone’s payroll. Wrong. It’s smart. Remember: Your job is what you must do for your employer. Your career is what you must do for yourself.

Set A High Trajectory Now

Many of my friends are starting to look at retirement. Some are disappointed their career curve flattened, their progression attenuated. Younger, well-educated competitors, though lacking their years of experience, won the better professional opportunities.

Now is the time to put your career on a trajectory that catapults it into a higher orbit, ensuring you have a wider range of opportunities in 30 years.

Consider working for a member of Congress or the state Legislature, a state or federal agency; a leading NGO, a big corporation; a national political campaign, or in the news media. Someone once colorfully described these jobs as drinking from a fire hose. They provide broad, early exposure to diverse people, problems and issues. Getting hired by a big brand name is a stamp of approval respected by other employers.

Or consider working in a small organization where you you’ll be called on to learn everything and do everything.

Think about traveling, studying or working abroad. International experience is both personally enriching and a huge career asset. It signals to employers that you have successfully navigated a culture other than your own and that you are adept at dealing with different kinds of people and unfamiliar situations. Moreover, almost every business and organization of any size is now dealing with international customers, products or concerns.

Cultivate Mentors

Almost every organization has experienced people willing to help you. Your job is to find them.  It could be the boss, but often it’s not.  A mentor may be a co-worker or someone in another department. It may be someone outside the organization – a client, vendor or even a competitor. Often, it’s someone you don’t especially like -- the difficult, demanding superior who keeps pushing you harder.

Cultivating mentors will help your career in a big way. This does not mean asking them to serve as your personal life coach. It means showing sincere interest in their story. It means asking questions of them, asking about their career, and soliciting their advice. (“How did you get here? Would you do it again? What would you do if you were me? What kind of experience would you get?)

Mentors have experience and contacts. They will hear of openings and opportunities and think of you. They can connect you to their network, vastly expanding your own. Of course, mentors have no special corner on wisdom: They aren’t always right. And there are limits to what they can they do for you. But each will have something to share. The best mentors have energy and imagination and ideas. They can be friends for life and good sounding boards along the way. Most will be delighted that you are sincerely interested in them.

Doing Your Job Will Never Be Enough

Think like a CEO from your first day on the job: How much is the boss spending on me, and how much value am I creating in return?

Success is not found in merely completing the nominal duties in your job description.  It requires you to advance the mission of your organization in real and measurable ways every day. Learning any new job is a challenge, but once you master it, start looking for problems to solve, teams to build, and ways to innovate. Never bring the boss a problem without a solution. Volunteer for the tough assignments. Embrace every big, hairy complicated mess as an opportunity. You’re building experience and a reputation as a go-to leader who can make progress happen.

Relational Skills Trump Almost Everything

You must be technically competent, of course, but for long-term success, you’ll need to blend technical competence with great relational skills. Succeed depends on your ability to work with, resolve differences with, and create shared success with other people – including people who are smarter (or not), more experienced (or not), reliable (or not), team players (or not), on the same page (or not), and highly ambitious (or not). You’ll need to read the boss, the room, your colleagues, the marketplace and the world and then figure out a way to make things happen. Remember, when you share the credit and make everybody feel important, you set the stage for more success. Stay honestly humble.

Stay Fresh

The most successful and satisfied people I know stay fresh. They’ve cultivated lots of interests and actively pursue them. They read broadly. They travel.  They take bike trips in Europe, learn guitar or oil painting. They’re up on movies and social trends. They enjoy politics. They sail or fly fish or climb mountains. One Washington lawyer friend writes racy spy novels for relaxation and a little side money. Another plays bass guitar in a rock band. A buttoned-down executive rides his motorcycle to weekend bike rallies with tattooed Hog owners.

They realize that a narrow, boring life kills the brain. Diversity and adventure keep life rich and interesting. They excel in their professions but realize that, at its very best, work can bring only limited joy for a limited time. So, they open themselves up to as many other experiences as possible – and, in so doing, also excel professionally. They pick up insights from their non-work experience. They transfer lessons and ideas from one field to another. They become true innovators because they see creative connections in unrelated fields that others miss.

Get Good at Tough Calls

People like me who give unsolicited career advice almost always include something about taking smart risks, which is meaningless. Get used to making tough choices and difficult decisions -- especially when there is no clarity or certainty and you are forced to choose a direction based only on your instincts and experience. People who are not willing to make tough calls get left behind.

Gather all the information you can, vet it for accuracy, completeness and relevance, talk to the smartest people you know, and then decide. Sometimes you will be wrong, and will learn from the failure in your decision-making process. But an inability to make decisions can be fatal to your career. Note there are real traps here: In unfamiliar territory, you are likely to rely on true experts and more likely to get decisions right. In very familiar territory, you may rely too heavily on your own judgment and make the wrong call. When your decisions affect other people, as they almost all do, tread particularly carefully. The more decisions you make, the better your process will get.   

Don’t Be Afraid to Jump Ship

Some people advise that the day you start a job is the day your start looking for the next job. That’s a little glib, but the point is right: Don’t be afraid to change jobs in pursuit of more challenging or better-paying, work, or a larger, more diverse organization with more opportunity. Especially early in your career, changing jobs every two to three years is a good thing, not a bad thing, as long as you move forward, gain more diverse experience and enrich your background.  Maybe the next great opportunity is within the same organization. Don’t be shy about asking your boss for advancement and for more money. Tap into the trade publications for your field. Learn about the careers of the truly successful people.

Look for a Better Way

A company I know follows a practice of spotting talented up-and-coming employees, plucking them out of mid-level jobs, and giving them surprisingly high-level responsibilities. A 30-year-old MBA with only five years at this company sometimes ends up running a division and leading people with twice as much experience.

The company realizes that innovation, energy and ideas often come from young people, not people steeped in the old ways. The most experienced people are rarely the innovators. They guard the old way. Outsiders tend to discover the new way.

The young people successful in early leadership roles are those who sincerely respect the experience and judgment of their more seasoned colleagues. They gently challenge the prevailing orthodoxy. They ensure that dissenting voices are heard. In short, they open organizations to new ways of thinking and doing. They champion positive change while honoring experience.

Help Someone Else Succeed

The ability to work with a large, diverse group of people – even those with more experience than you have – is critical to career success. The most successful people are the collaborators – those who can galvanize, energize and inspire others and bring out the best in them. The best team leaders are catalysts who encourage and protect their people, give them room to grow, all the credit for success, and support and understanding in failure. This is why so many athletes are successful in business. They know intuitively how to build, cultivate and care for a team. They realize that, unless every player contributes, success is unlikely. They know how to make others successful and they work hard at doing that. In the process, they become great successes themselves.

Be a Problem Solver

I divide the world into two kinds of people: Those who bring problems to the boss and those who bring solutions. You know the ones who get ahead. Great employees are not stopped by a problem; they are intrigued and energized by it. It sends them off looking for a good answer. Employees who ask their boss to solve every single problem never get ahead. The boss concludes either that they have no creative problem-solving skill or that they don’t care enough to solve the problem themselves. Sometimes, in junior-level jobs, you may not have the knowledge or resources to solve a problem on your own. So, reach out to other people in the organization who can help you. The boss will marvel at your initiative.

Trust Your Instincts

You are going to be the first to know if you love your job or it’s a dead end. You’re going to know whether the boss is sincerely interested in your career, or whether the organization really has enough growth opportunities to keep you interested for the long-term.

If you find yourself working for people you don’t respect or trust, or in a job where you are not being challenged or given the opportunity to do your very best work, start looking right away. Find a place where the demands are high and expectations challenging. Work for people you admire. You will be much happier and more successful. Find a place where you can soar.

Now, it's time for you to fly. 

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