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Class of 2020: These 4 simple rules can guide your entire career

The executive chair of the board of Deloitte says, “I’ve found that the following principles have gotten me and my colleagues through the hardest of times—including the one we’re all living through now.”

Class of 2020: These 4 simple rules can guide your entire career
[Photo: Good Free Photos/Unsplash]

Call me sentimental, but I’ve always loved graduations: the way they tie up loose ends and signify new beginnings, the chance to reflect on the past, and celebrate the future. In my earliest days of leadership, I even sent out an email to colleagues when I was “graduating” to a new part of our organization.

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“I’ve always wished to be asked to speak at a commencement,” I wrote to them, “as I’m never short on (frequently uninvited) advice to give.”

Since then, I’ve delivered a handful of real-life commencement addresses, including one at my own business school alma mater. And last year, I attended my favorite graduation ceremony yet when my twins graduated from college.

Of course, graduations look very different today—as does the world students are graduating into. For so many, this pandemic has heightened the anxiety already baked into senior year, altering post-graduate plans and affecting job prospects.

But it’s because of this uncertainty that I believe the essential practices of commencement—reflection, transition, and, yes, even celebration—are more important than ever before. This means commencement enthusiasts like me can still take part in the time-honored tradition of offering graduates unsolicited advice.

To the class of 2020: I don’t pretend to know what it’s like to graduate in such a moment as this one. But I’ve found that the following principles have gotten me and my colleagues through the hardest of times—including the one we’re all living through now.

Assume and expect positive intent

With a number of colleges going pass/fail this semester, many students have voiced a common concern: “How will future employers react to seeing a P rather than an A on my transcript?”

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The answer is: We’ll understand. After all, we know what you’re going through. And, in all likelihood, we have also benefitted from others’ understanding during these challenging times.

This crisis has highlighted the importance of empathy, patience, and trust. In many ways, it has shown that people are far often more compassionate than we might expect.

Whether it’s something as massive as a global pandemic, or as small as a challenging project, I’ve always found that assuming positive intentions is key to not only building relationships but also to learning. When you lose your defensiveness, you open yourself up to new ways of seeing and doing things. As organizations grapple with how to meet this moment, your new perspective might just be your most valuable asset.

Stay curious

Though graduation may signify an end—perhaps just a temporary one—to your formal education, this crisis has demonstrated the many ways in which learning can extend beyond the physical classroom.

What’s more, it has reinforced what has long been true. The best innovations happen when we work across fields, sectors, and disciplines. Your major won’t necessarily determine your employment, nor will it define your value as an employee. Rather, the most successful graduates will be the ones who are curious, creative, collaborative, and able to think critically about the world around them.

So, continue to learn. Keep doing your homework. Keep listening to your peers and to those above you, to those you agree with and those with different perspectives, and keep raising your hand and asking hard questions.

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Reach out to your communities to see how you can help those in greatest need. Lending a hand—or even just lending an ear—is perhaps the most valuable learning opportunity of all.

Choose words with care

In a moment when written communication is more important than ever, choose your words with care. Whether you’re crafting an informal email or a widely circulated memo, a social media update, or a cover letter, take your time writing it. Read over your work twice. Then, walk away for a few minutes. And when you come back, read it again. Yes, speed is important, but those extra few minutes you spend culling and clarifying can help you avoid miscommunication, saving you precious time in the long run.

Remember what’s really important

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this crisis has crystallized my belief that family and health come first, always. When this virus begins to subside, as it will, it may become more difficult to keep this belief front and center. And as you take on more responsibility at work, it may become harder to put it into practice.

Still, whatever it takes, and whatever form it takes, prioritize your family and friends, professors and coaches who got you to this moment: the people cheering from a distance as you get your diploma, counting down the days until they get to give you a congratulatory hug.


Janet Foutty is the executive chair of the board of Deloitte in the U.S. Janet is also a member of Deloitte’s global board of directors and previously served as the chair and CEO of Deloitte Consulting.

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