CEOs share their best advice for college graduates

Your first few years in the workplace are incredibly important. Here’s what you need to know.

CEOs share their best advice for college graduates
[Photo: Flickr user University of Michigan School of Kinesiology]

My son Chris graduated from college and started his first “real” full-time job last month, working in human resources. It made me think about my first job out of college: editorial assistant in the custom publishing division of a Detroit-area advertising agency. I learned a lot in school, but my first job and bosses taught me even more.


Since experience can be a great teacher, I reached out to CEOs and business leaders to find out what they wish they had known when they started their first jobs.

Take more chances

When Kanuj Malhotra, president of digital student solutions for Barnes & Noble Education, was starting his career, he wishes he had been more willing to take chances and make mistakes.

“In developing a product, fast failures are always better than drawn-out mediocrity,” he says. “Throughout my professional journey, I’ve discovered the importance of embracing the learnings you derive from failure; they allow you to re-evaluate your product and improve in areas you may have previously overlooked. These experiences make you a better leader, manager, and product developer—and a stronger asset to your business.”


Stay true to yourself

Dani Reiss, CEO of Canada Goose, thought you had to be an extrovert to be a great leader.

“When I first started doing speaking opportunities or even just addressing my own company, I felt a lot of pressure to be the kind of motivational speaker that you see a lot in the business industry, and that wasn’t me,” he says. “It wasn’t until a friend told me I was a compelling speaker when I spoke in my style that I understood I would only be effective if I spoke authentically.”

Networking is part of your job

If you have an opportunity to meet more senior people, take it, says Laszlo Bock, cofounder and CEO of Humu, a human resources software firm.


“Treat building those relationships like a job, especially if you hate politics (like me) and are basically introverted (like me),” he says. “This will be obvious to people from certain backgrounds and hard to do for others. In school, I never approached teachers outside of class for advice. In consulting, I never felt comfortable schmoozing with the partners. But there are people less capable than you who will invest in those relationships and be advantaged as a result. Building those relationships is part of the job.”

Have patience

Don’t let outside influences push you to prioritize speed, says Ron Rudzin, president and CEO of the home furnishings company Saatva.

“When you’re young, you’re moving fast and get so excited about growth that it can throw you off course,” he says. “Don’t do it for ego. You’ve got to be smart and not worry about being the biggest on the block right away. Have patience, get your ducks in a row.”


Gain global experience

Karen Fichuk, CEO of the staffing and workforce solutions provider Randstad North America, wishes she had sought out global experience earlier in her career. Her first job was as a staff accountant in a branch office of a Fortune 500 beauty company.

“It was mostly made up of females in clerical roles, many of whom worked in that same branch, department, and some in the same exact job their entire career,” she recalls. “I actually left after three years because I didn’t think there was enough advancement in a branch location.”

Fichuk wishes she had explored more opportunities within the company. “Working for such a large organization, there were other paths for career development and cross-border experience, but I limited myself, defining my opportunities by my physical location,” she says.


Look for ways to accelerate your career

Victor Cho, CEO of the online invitation platform Evite, worked at Microsoft early in his career. One of the best pieces of advice he received was to think about three levers for accelerating your career.

“Be your own rocket ship,” he says. “Deliver with constant excellence, do your job superbly, and solve for the company first and foremost. Companies are generally meritocracies, and high performance will get rewarded and recognized. People typically focus here—but it isn’t sufficient.”

The next lever is to work for a manager who is a rocket ship, says Cho. “When you build a trusted relationship with someone who is accelerating rapidly, they will take you with them, and you can draft off of their progress.”


Finally, work on a product or business that is a rocket ship. “New opportunities will be created, and the employees who have proven themselves will be given chances at those opportunities.”

Be flexible

When Beth Gerstein, cofounder and CEO of the ethically sourced jeweler Brilliant Earth, started her first job as a satellite communication engineer, one of her responsibilities was testing hardware. “I wasn’t keen on this,” she recalls. “I spoke to an adviser who gave me the advice to stand up and be vocal about my preferences.”

After telling her manager she didn’t want to test hardware, she learned that it was important to her role and a great opportunity. “I quickly learned the critical value of my role on the team and realized my work was integral to launching our satellite,” says Gerstein. “Being accommodating and flexible was beneficial to me early on, and now as an entrepreneur and CEO, I realize how important it is for new employees to come in with an open mind, do whatever it takes, and prove themselves. Additional opportunities will come from being a flexible team player.”


Work doesn’t get easier

For the majority of his career, Tom Gozney, cofounder and CEO of Roccbox and Gozney Ovens, says he was locked in a sprint, working longer hours in anticipation of a finish line being around the corner.

“It’s easy to white-knuckle multiple commitments and work long hours thinking the next contract you land, or the next hire you make, will be the answer,” he says. “The truth is, the sprint never ends, the terrain just changes. It’s important to prioritize what’s important both at work and in your personal life, as it’s the cumulative effect of focus that truly reaps rewards.”

Even jobs you don’t love are valuable

After graduating from college, Bill Nash, president and CEO of CarMax, took a job at a public accounting firm. He says he knew on the second day it wasn’t the right fit.


“I couldn’t see myself spending the rest of my life behind a desk,” he says. “I wish I had known at the time that even in a job you don’t love, you can learn something. If I could go back, I’d tell myself to focus on learning everything you can by listening and observing your surroundings. Do the best you can do in the job you have, even if it’s not your dream job.”

Don’t let perfection get in the way cofounder and CEO Avishai Abrahami’s first job was as a member of a hacker team, packing games onto floppy disks.

“My job was to write the graphic interface and compression,” he says. “I learned how computers work internally, how to create graphics and advanced algorithms.”


Abrahami says he wish he had known not to let planning and perfection stand in the way of getting the job done. There isn’t one perfect way to solve a problem–sometimes you just have to jump in, he says.

“My experience taught me two important lessons: Always make sure you surround yourself with people who possess incredible talent, and that passion is not about money, but it absolutely is what generates creativity,” he says.

Be a good listener

Ian Siegel, CEO of the employment marketplace ZipRecruiter, says he wishes he had known the importance of listening when he started his first job.


“Good listening is the best technique to become someone others want to work with,” he says. “There’s a simple hack that I call the two-second rule. In important conversations, wait two full seconds before you respond to whatever your conversation partner is saying. It allows your brain to process all the information they gave you and makes it apparent you’re really listening.”

Experiences add up

Eugena Delman, CEO of clothing brand Ava James NYC, says she wishes she had been more patient at the beginning of her career.

“I wish someone had told me to learn as much as you can from every job you get in your career because you never know where it leads you,” she says. “I never thought I would launch my own business—much less a fashion e-comm business—but looking back at every job I had, I added another tool in my tool kit of skills and experience that eventually helped me launch my own startup.”


Communicate your passion

Bill Peña, CEO of Simply Business US, a digital insurance marketplace for small businesses, started his career as an online creative designer at a learning company.

“I wish I had known that communicating my passion was just as imperative as demonstrating technical skills,” he says. “My younger self presented as calm and collected, even in high-pressure situations, because I was confident in my abilities to deliver. But to my colleagues, it looked like I didn’t care about the work because I wasn’t showing my emotions or talking to them about it.”

Peña learned that communicating with his colleagues is just as important as delivering the actual work.


Don’t worry about competition

Jason Fried, cofounder and CEO of the project management platform Basecamp, wishes he didn’t worry so much about things outside of his control.

“Competition is going to do what they’re going to do,” he says. “The market is going to do what it’s going to do. The economy is going to do what it’s going to do. So what are you going to do? There’s lots of obsessing about things far out of your control and not enough focus on the things that you can control.”