Making the Most of Your 20s: A CEO’s Checklist for Accelerating Your Career

11 Sep 2015
 President and CEO at The Boston Consulting Group

In 1983, I graduated from the University of Michigan with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. My timing sucked. The U.S. was in a recession, oil prices had fallen 30%, and the job market for ChemE’s had declined even more. The career I had expected to pursue in synthetic fuels, following two great summer experiences, had evaporated.

After the on-campus recruiting process during my senior year, I was fortunate to have two opportunities: one with the R&D group of a petrochemical company, the other with P&G in soap product development. On the surface the choice seemed easy. The petrochemical job paid 10% more (a reasonably big deal, given my student loans) and was much closer to my interests.

In what seemed at the time to be a novel approach, I built a spreadsheet in the newly introduced Lotus 1-2-3 that weighted and scored every decision factor. It was close, but the analysis clearly showed I should take the petrochemical job. However, something about “the answer” didn’t feel right. I had liked P&G’s culture and people, the focus on training, and the responsibility given to young engineers, and I’d really liked the idea of owning a project and taking it to the market. I’d also be working on a broader range of issues and projects—my role wouldn’t be static.

So what did I do? I took the P&G job (and still managed to make a dent in my loans). Looking back, I consider it one of the best decisions I ever made.

Five years later, as I was completing an MBA, I had more opportunities but a similar experience. My heart—and to her everlasting credit, my mom—knew that the right place for me was BCG’s relatively new 20-person office in New York, even though the analytic part of me, which was busy weighing pros and cons, knew there were far safer options.

In the years since joining BCG, I ran recruiting in New York, led the New York office, and oversaw the Americas before becoming CEO. I’ve had the opportunity to speak with thousands of young adults about their career choices. Each individual is different, but when it comes to mapping out a career, many of the trade-offs, aspirations, and pressures are very similar.

I can’t build your spreadsheets or weight your criteria, but I do hope I can provide a bit of perspective on the priorities that should guide you early in your career, when choices are often more interesting and more divergent, and your degrees of freedom are greatest.


The Starting Point: A Job You Find Truly Energizing and Satisfying

For some of you this probably sounds obvious. Why would you take a job that you didn’t think you’d enjoy? But it’s not as rare a misstep as you might think. Career advisors can sometimes feed the obsession with résumé building. Insecurity can also get in the way, pointing to safer options. And peer pressure can push you toward opportunities designed to shape what others think of you.

Never underestimate the value of a job you actually find fulfilling. The truth is, when we are energized by what we do, it shines through. We push for more responsibility, we engage more deeply and more creatively, and we become strong contributors to teams rather than seeking to go it alone. I think I would have done well in the petrochemical job, but I still remember how energized I felt at P&G—and later at BCG—because of my role and the people I was surrounded by, both of which directly contributed to my own growth and performance.

Personally, I would encourage holding any job to the “five-year test”: Can I see myself working happily at this job for five years? Of course, you’re not literally committing to five years; another opportunity can always come along—even within the same company. But if you choose a place where you think you can be genuinely happy for that long, you’ll not only be invested in today, you’ll be more likely to build the skills, accomplishments, mind-set, and relationships to prepare for the future.

For many of you, there’s more than one place that could clear this hurdle. Three questions can help you narrow the list.


Can You Build Capabilities for the Long Term?

I can’t stress this enough. Most people will change employers multiple times. Even in a single company, roles will evolve dramatically. In a world that’s being continuously reshaped by massive forces like globalization and, in particular, technology, there is a growing premium on adaptiveness and lifelong learning. It’s never been so important to find a company that will let you reshape your role and push yourself to grow in different ways. You want to avoid being at a standstill.

Your twenties are a unique period to build a set of capabilities that will last a lifetime. Most of us will work for 40 to 50 years and some even longer—my dad just retired at age 79, having had three distinct careers. Use this time to invest in yourself.

Every job enables you to grow in one way or another, so what does this really mean?

  • Breadth, Not Just Depth. For many employers, the best way to get value out of their staff over the short term is to train them to do one or two things really well. A great analyst, for example, will keep getting more spreadsheets to build. For you, however, there is tremendous value in venturing beyond your core skill set and seeing the world from a range of perspectives—including from abroad. Depth of expertise matters, especially in areas where you have great passion and interest, but don’t miss the opportunity to become well-rounded and adaptive while the risks are relatively low.
  • Apprenticeship, Not Just Management. Your boss will care a lot about the quality of what you deliver, but what you really need to ask is how much he or she will care about you. Apprenticeship goes way beyond managing your output. It is the extra investment to make you better in the long term, not just productive in the short term; the willingness to give candid feedback regularly and informally, not just in an annual review; and the commitment to push you outside your comfort zone and to be supportive if things start to go wrong. Finally, it is an environment where talented peers see helping one another as part of the culture and feel vested in one another’s success—the true attitude of a winning team.
  • Capabilities, Not Just Knowledge. Historically, entry-level jobs have tended to focus on the knowledge you acquire. But in today’s world, and even more so in the years to come, knowledge is becoming increasingly commoditized. It’s what you can do with that knowledge that will differentiate you. Can you draw insight from disparate sources? Can you lead high-performing teams? Do you have the skills to drive change in a world of complexity, and the empathy to see things through the eyes of others, including customers, employees, and society?


Can You Make a Difference?

Mark Twain said, “The two best days of your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” Purpose is the fuel of a great career.

Of course, most of us won’t be Jobs, Brin, or Musk, fundamentally changing the world almost right out of the gate. Over time, how you want to make a difference will likely change, and how you can make a difference will expand. So don’t focus solely on the difference you can make in the short term, but do expect to find meaning in your work early on.

Consider asking yourself these questions as you weigh your options: Is this a place that seeks to help change the world or merely to extract value from the status quo? Will I see real impact from my work? Is this an environment that’s driven by the best ideas and not simply by who is most senior in the room? Do the values of this place match my own, and will they leave me proud of what I do?


Can You Find and Manage Your Own Balance?

I’m in a profession known for hard work. Client expectations are high and time frames are often short. But even in an industry as intense as ours, finding your own personal balance is important to your success. Establishing priorities outside of work, maintaining your health and relationships, and genuinely enjoying the people you work with shouldn’t be seen as perks or incidental privileges but rather as vital counterweights that contribute to both your well-being and your career.

Over time, the things that matter most to you will evolve. There will be periods when diving into your job, even working lots of hours, will feel right, and traveling the world or taking on a tough assignment will be energizing, particularly when you can see the impact of your efforts. But you’ll probably come to view the trade-offs differently over time. You might find, for example, that having more predictability, more flexible hours, or the ability to take some time off becomes really important to you.

The key is to be honest with yourself about what is right for you at this time. Even if your balance tilts toward work, make sure you find a place where life beyondwork matters, so that you’ll have the support you need as your priorities evolve.

One final piece of advice: you should put as much effort into making the right decision as you put into getting the offers. Job seekers often devote so much time and emotional energy to getting the job offer—writing a résumé, networking, securing and preparing for interviews—that they are worn down by the time the offers finally arrive.

But making the right job decision takes work. It is fine to start by listening to the recruiter’s pitch, reading anonymous comments on career websites, or getting your friends’ advice, but you are shortchanging yourself if you stop there. You should seek a range of views from current and past employees and people you find credible. Ask the hard questions and look for answers in real-life examples, not just in the corporate vision or policy statement. Then, give yourself time to think. Our decisions are heavily influenced by those we speak to last; that’s why car dealers never want us to leave the showroom. But the odds are that your decision will be better if you can talk to others who gave you offers and still be confident in your final choice.

I didn’t set out to be the world’s greatest soap maker, but my first big job decision was, in hindsight, a defining moment. That choice—together with the decision to join BCG—made me appreciate how important it is to look at job opportunities from multiple angles, some less obvious than others, and to think deeply about the experience, culture, and team you’ll be part of. With self-reflection, focus, and a commitment to investing in yourself and making a difference, you can find the place that is right for you now and prepares you for the decades ahead, too.