CEOs and top leaders share advice for grads and the tips they’d give themselves

(Credit: Unsplah)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Linda Lacina, Digital Editor, World Economic Forum

  • Subscribe to Meet The Leader on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.
  • Meet The Leader is a fortnightly podcast from the World Economic Forum that features the world’s top changemakers, showcasing the habits and traits effective leaders can’t work without.
  • In this special compilation episode, excerpts from past episodes of Meet The Leader and the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting highlight advice for new grads and those starting their careers.

It’s graduation season and a new crop of leaders will be taking steps into their new careers and lives. This can be as exciting as it is nerve wracking. In a special compilation episode, Meet the Leader has pulled together anecdotes from top leaders it has interviewed as well as leaders who have spoken at World Economic Forum events to share how these changemakers have forged new paths, navigated uncertainty and found distinct ways they can make a difference.

Meet the Leader/Linda Lacina: Punit Renjen is the Global CEO of Deloitte, a professional services network with offices in more than 150 countries. But as a kid growing up though, no one pegged him as a future CEO. Knowing these perceptions helped him, however – helped him follow his own path and not allow himself to be typecast. Here’s Punit to explain more.

Advice for grads: Don’t typecast yourself

Punit Renjen: I have to tell you at age 18, if you had lined up all of my friends and you had asked people who would be successful in life (successful being defined as professional success) I don’t think anybody would have pointed to me. And I mean, that’s the truth. At age 18, I was the one that people pointed to and in soft voices say, ‘Well, what’s going to happen to that poor Punit?’ And ‘I wonder what his parents think about that?’ And, at some level I knew that I needed to get out of that. And the Rotary Foundation scholarship that I got really changed my life. It gave me an opportunity to come to the United States. I came sight unseen to Oregon. Never been overseas, never been on an airplane. It gave me a perspective. Now, looking back, in retrospect, that life is a marathon. Today, if you look at professional success, in that group of friends all 18 year old, I’m doing pretty good.

Meet the Leader/Linda Lacina: You had dropped out of pre-med realizing that it just wasn’t for you. Can you talk a little bit about that decision and what it taught you about persistence and just moving forward in the direction that you need to go?

Punit Renjen: You know, when I was growing up in India, if you were good, in mathematics, you went on an engineering track. If you were not good in mathematics, you went on a medicine track. I went on a pre-med track and realized very quickly that I didn’t do well with looking at blood and cadavers and dissecting small animals. And again, if you’d lined me up with all my friends, I would not have been the one that people pointed to because all my friends were either going into engineering school or internal medicine. And I decided that I would go a different path.

“If I accepted what people were saying about me and typecast myself, I would have ended up completely different. I refuse to do that at some level.”—Punit Renjen, CEO, Deloitte

The learnings, again, for me in retrospect is that If you were to make a call at that point in time and you accepted what people were saying about you and typecast yourself, I would have ended up completely different. I refuse to do that at some level. There’s only one of you and what you will see in life is there’ll be ups and downs. Keep trying to do what you get satisfaction out of.

Advice for grads: Learn to love where find yourself in life

Punit Renjen: Here’s another learning: I never thought that I was going to be with Deloitte. I was not a very sophisticated individual early on. I remember coming to the United States and one of the first friends that I had, she was committed to being a doctor and she’s now a very successful doctor. I think people who know exactly what they want to do in life – they’re very lucky. I think most of most individuals really never focus on what makes them happy as they go through life.

I’m in the middle where I fell into a profession and I taught myself to love it. And that’s been part of why I’ve been successful professionally. If you’re in that first group, I think you are blessed if you know exactly what you want to do. Please go follow that and put the world on fire. If you’re in that third group, try and teach yourself to come into the second group and, like me, learn to love the profession that you find yourself in.

Advice for grads: Find a boss you can learn from

Meet the Leader/Linda Lacina: Jack Ma is the founder of Alibaba, but at the start of his career, he famously applied to and was rejected from 30 different jobs, including one at Kentucky Fried Chicken. The experience gave him special insight, though, into learning how to pivot and also the true value of the first boss. Here’s Jack talking at the 2019 Annual Meeting.

Jack Ma: The first job is the most important. Not necessarily a company that has a big name. You should find a good boss that can teach you how to be a human being, how to do things right, how to do things properly. And stay there. Give yourself a promise: I will stay there for at least three years.

“Find a good boss that can teach you how to be a human being, how to do things right, how to do things properly.”—Jack Ma, Founder, Alibaba
So normally I say when you’re 20, 30 years old, you don’t know what do you do. You have a lot of ideas. You think you can do anything, but you actually can’t. So following one person. When you are 30 to 40 years old, you really want to try to do something yourself. Just focus on the things you’re good at. At 50 years old to 60, enable young people to do better. Over 60 years old, spend time with your grandchildren and yourself.

Advice for grads: Get good at learning, tech and working in teams

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: In 1983, Rich Lesser was a chemical engineering student graduating from the University of Michigan. It was the worst economic downturn since World War Two and he’d say later that it was ‘as if the world was frozen in time.’ That 21-year-old wouldn’t have imagined a number of experiences he’s had including his many years as CEO of Boston Consulting Group. Here’s Rich Lesser, current BCG Global Chair, on being willing to go beyond your major and your expectations and the advice he’d give himself.

Rich Lesser: I would say three things. The first is that critical thinking skills are even more important today than they were back then. Of course you come out of college with a lot of knowledge, but what matters less is the knowledge that you have, than your ability to think critically about issues and continue to learn and to grow and to build new skills over time. You can feel really proud of all you’ve learned in your college education. That’s something that feel great about. But if you think that that means your education is done, you’re sorely mistaken.

“What matters less is the knowledge that you have, than your ability to think critically about issues and continue to learn and to grow and to build new skills over time.”—Rich Lesser, Global Chairman, Boston Consulting Group

The second is that it’s all about the ability to work in teams. Of course you want to be a strong individual contributor. Each of us should be looking to put in more than we get back in life and in our jobs. But at the end of the day, the real progress is made in teams and particularly more diverse teams where you bring people with different backgrounds and perspectives and geographies, ideally that you go further, faster, you have more challenge, more critical thinking collectively, and the ability to push things forward.

And the third is the incredible role of technology and how rapidly it’s reshaping the world. And then all of us, whether we have a technical degree or a non-technological degree, have to build something, have comfort with technology, how it applies to the areas that we’re focusing our own careers on and how we use it to make a positive contribution in the world and build our own skills over time. And whether that’s AI or digital or synthetic biology (depending on if you’re in the life sciences world) or in not so many years we’ll be talking about quantum computing and the potential that it offers. We all have to recognize how much technology is marching on, in a fast and relentless way. And if we’re going to contribute to our fullest potential we have to have some understanding of that and some comfort with it.

Advice for grads: Explore, explore, explore

Rich Lesser: I don’t think there was any one experience that caused me to be on the road to being a CEO late in my career, or being involved in climate or getting involved in other topics. It’s about having a sense of exploration and a commitment to finding ways that you can make a distinctive difference. And each one of us can. But what that means for each one of us is a different thing. And we have to therefore be open-minded and have a little bit of a sense of exploration and curiosity and creativity and spark. Even as we get very deep into our careers to figure out what next might be and how we can step up and try to make a difference in different lines.

Advice for grads: Make the most of every moment

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: Al gore has spent the past four decades dedicated to public service and the climate. He served as a US congressman Senator and vice-president. And thanks in part to work from leaders like himself, progress is taking shape for the climate though there’s still much work to be done. In January. I asked him what he’d tell a younger version of himself. Here’s what he said.

“Those of us alive in this extraordinary time should see it as a privilege to have work to do that will determine the future of our civilization.—Al Gore, former US Vice President and founder of the Climate Reality Project

Al Gore: Oh, gosh, I started working on the climate crisis 45 years ago. If I had to do it over again, I would have started earlier.

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: So you’d tell him to get workin’.

Al Gore: Yeah. Yeah. To turn this around and look at it a different way. Linda, I think that those of us alive in this extraordinary time. Should see it as a privilege to have work to do that will determine the future of our civilization. It’s really the case. And there’s a sense of joy if you have work that makes you feel as if it justifies pouring every ounce of energy you have into it.

“If I could go back and do things over. I would just start even earlier and put even more energy in.”—Al Gore, former US Vice President and founder of the Climate Reality Project

We don’t have time for despair. We don’t have time to get depressed. It’s an all-hands-on deck time. We need to solve this crisis. We can’t look away from it. We can’t pretend that it’s not as deadly serious as it is. We can’t pretend it’s not getting worse, faster than we’ve yet begun to solve it.

I don’t know. If I could go back and do things over. I would just start even earlier and put even more energy in.

Advice for grads: Find out how you can make a distinct difference

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: Audrey Choi was named Morgan Stanley’s Chief Sustainability Officer in 2017 and will soon retire after 15 years at the firm, becoming a senior advisor to the firm as well as the CEO of its Institute for Sustainable Investing. She had a non-traditional path to working at an investment bank having worked as a journalist and also in public policy. And she came to Morgan Stanley in leadership development. But she saw an opportunity, a way of thinking for the climate, that could create a larger flywheel for change. She’d wind up inventing her own role and her story is a critical one for anyone looking to make the most of their unique talents and to make their mark.

“Your value is what new perspective do you bring and how can you think about doing something different.”—Audrey Choi, Morgan Stanley

Audrey Choi: There was an incredible person at Morgan Stanley who was the chief talent officer. And she asked me to come join the firm, not because I had a traditional human resources background and not because I had a traditional banking background, but frankly, precisely because I didn’t, to work with her around talent management and leadership development.

And very quickly I kind of said, well, my differential abilities here and the skills or different view that I’m bringing to it is that having worked in policy, having worked in journalism. I think that what could really enrich the model of how we think about leadership is really thinking about that broad ecosystem. How do we also think about the impact that the business that we do is having on communities. How do we think about the impact of our business on the broader ecosystem and the interactions between public policy, reputation, community development, and all of those things should really be a part of how we understand what it is to be a leader in finance, and of course, what it is to be a leader Morgan Stanley.

And what I ended up really pitching was saying if we want to be building the best possible leaders for Morgan Stanley, but also for the industry, it really should be about how we understand all of these things holistically. And actually the more I thought about that, the more I realize it really went both ways. It wasn’t about just making us better leaders or thinking about these things holistically, but really thinking about where could finance play a distinctive, incredible important role in some of the biggest issues that we were facing. Where could finance could really be a part of harnessing the capital markets to help protect the environment and strengthen communities and really drive economic opportunities.

And that the way we will be able to do that most significantly was actually by doing it as part of the business. So from the very beginning, I said, this is not about corporate social responsibility. This is not about philanthropy. This is not about reputation building, but fundamentally, this is where can we leverage the business by doing what we do as a business to advance these and to align with these broader goals.

So that’s what actually led to the fact that in 2008, I essentially pitched that we could form this thing called the Global Sustainable Finance Group whose mission would be to harness the capital markets to protect the environment, strengthen communities and create opportunities. And pretty amazingly, I think that Morgan Stanley again, in late 2008, actually approved that and we announced the formation of the group in early 2009.

And again, for any of our listeners who remember what was happening in the world in terms of the financial crisis, that’s a pretty extraordinary time I think, to plant that kind of a flag, a pretty big leap of faith.

Advice for grads: Think beyond your job description

Meet the Leader / Linda Lacina: I also asked Audrey how anyone can be a leader regardless of their job description. Here’s what she said.

Audrey Choi: What people have to remember is if the only thing you’re ever doing at work is doing what you’re told to do, you’re not adding as much value as you could be. And also, whatever you’re being told to do is probably what people have always done and always expected out of that role. Your value is what new perspective do you bring and how can you think about doing something different.Which is not to say disobey your bosses. But I’m saying, how can we think innovatively about how we do this even better. Especially with regards to sustainability or impact of any kind, it’s not just the people who have it in their title who should be doing it because if only those of us who have it in our title, do it, we’ll never get anywhere.

“If anyone says, ‘I want to have impact, but that’s not my job description’ they should be a little bit more creative about how they define their job description.” —Audrey Choi, Morgan Stanley

Everything that I do, I only have enabled to succeed in because I’ve been able to enlist my colleagues and partners, frankly, in climate change. One of my greatest partners is the Chief Risk Officer of the firm. He has been an incredible, convert, student and leader now in this. And, I wouldn’t have been able to do any of the things that I’ve done on behalf of the firm around net zero and climate change if it hadn’t been in partnership with all of our business leaders. Any change worth making requires a lot of people and you gotta really be building those bridges and enlisting others.

And so that’s why I just think if anyone says, ‘I want to have impact, but that’s not my job description’ they should be a little bit more creative about how they define their job description.

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