Career Advice

Career Advice for Graduates

9 Jun 2024  

It is Commencement Day at Kellogg. This afternoon, hundreds of students will gather in Evanston to receive their degrees. I’ll be there for the procession and ceremony. For the faculty, attendance is optional, but I love the energy and seeing my students on such a notable day.

If you follow this blog, you know I usually write a post offering some financial advice to the new graduates. Someone asked me if I planned to do that again, inquiring, “Do you have anything new to say on that topic?”

I really don’t, so if you are interested in my financial recommendations, you can look at the posts from 2023 or 2021 or earlier.

Instead, today I’ll provide some career advice, things that new graduates might keep in mind as they launch their careers and build their personal brands.

Focus on the Numbers

The world of business revolves around numbers. Results matter and results are almost always financial: profit, revenue, cash flow. Creative ideas and innovations are wonderful but quickly connect to financial questions. What is the margin? How much investment? What is the price?

You want to be known for getting the numbers right. If senior managers think you can’t handle the numbers, you won’t get big opportunities.

As you start off then, keep an eye on the numbers. Double check the figures. Understand what the numbers mean and where they come from. Avoid complicated calculations you don’t completely understand.

Curate Your Digital Footprint

We all have a digital presence; everything we post on-line circulates in the world. You can be very confident that the people around you will see all this. Hiring managers will of course do searches. Your colleagues and managers will see your posts, too.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to have a personal digital presence and a work digital presence. These all blend together more than we might like.

This means you have to be thoughtful about what you post. A strong Linked-In presence is key, along with occasional updates. Post of travels are fine. A picture from the Taylor Swift concert is ok. Work highlights are great. Just be sure everything is consistent and well-done.

Ignoring the digital world isn’t a solution; someone with no on-line presence is a making a statement, too.

Nurture Your Team

Relationships are the foundation of business, and the relationships you form early in your career can last for decades. I worked with Jonathan Copulsky when I was just out of college decades ago; he was a senior consultant at Booz Allen when I was a new analyst. I now work with Jonathan at Northwestern, and he advised me on my book (you can blame him for the title). Sergio Pereira was my first manager at Kraft when I finished my MBA, and he now speaks in my class. Julie Hennessy was my manager for many years when I worked on Miracle Whip, and we now work together at Kellogg.

As you start out, get to know your peers. Show up for them. Build these relationships and then keep in touch. They will be valuable throughout your career journey.

Being new in a career is a unique moment to form relationships. You are all junior people, trying to figure out the world. It is a lot harder to build trust when you are more senior; politics is intense, people are busy with life, everyone has agendas. Take advantage of your opportunity.

Be Positive

The simplest way to boost your brand is to be enthusiastic. When you project positive energy, you become a welcome presence in the world. Managers love it when employees are happy. Dinner hosts are delighted when guests seem to be enjoying the evening. If you say something nice about a colleague, it might get back to them and they will think good things about you.

It is easy to complain but being negative does a lot of damage. Who wants a complainer around? Life is tough enough. This year, for example, I had a class where two students scored me a 1 out of 6 on my teaching evaluation. They clearly didn’t love the class. But a 1? All this does is create bad feelings. I don’t have fond feelings for that class.

A colleague’s team recently did their annual anonymous feedback. A couple people were highly critical. This was a surprise because everyone had been encouraged to bring up any concerns. The impact of this negative feedback? Negativity all around. Why do something nice for people who ding you on the anonymous survey?

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make suggestions and ask for changes. Just don’t hide behind anonymous surveys and bring bad energy.

Show Up

Working from home is all the rage, but being present is critical. When you can, go into the office. Show up.

When you are in-person, you can build relationships. Work friends make things a lot more fun; you have people to celebrate with and complain to. It is tough to build a friendship on Teams or Zoom.

Being present also builds your brand. When your manager sees you in the office, they know that you are there and engaged. If something interesting comes up, it will likely go to the person who is there.

If you are working remotely, take every opportunity to go in.

Ask for Help

I think a lot of highly trained people believe that they should know what to do. With a college degree and a Kellogg MBA, you should know how to proceed.

I would be quick to ask for help. The people around you will usually know what to do. Just ask them. The reality is that most people like helping; it makes them feel knowledgeable and useful. When taking on a new project, start by asking for advice.

This all extends beyond work. If life seems hard and difficult and hopeless, and it sometimes will, reach out. Your friends and family can sometimes help. There are so many other resources available. Don’t think that it is all on you.

Congratulations graduates. Best wishes for this next phase. Here’s to grand adventures, interesting work and great colleagues.

3 Responses


    Great words and great advices that may save graduates from many failures at work or when trying to start up businesses, specially when you are fresh out form school

  2. Birju Shah says:

    That is very cool and very true to see how real relationships create a virtuous cycle that lasts throughout time and space.

  3. Jonathan Copulsky says:

    Thanks for the shout-out! That was a long time ago.

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