2020 Visions: What Executives Say to This Year’s Class of College Graduates

By Brian O'Connell July 21, 2020
2020 Visions: What Executives Say to This Year’s Class of College Graduates

​In 2020, nearly 4 million college students are graduating in the United States, and it's likely that none of them expected turmoil from a pandemic, a recession and protests against racial injustice to overshadow what was supposed to be one of the greatest experiences of their lives.

We reached out to business management leaders to provide some pearls of wisdom—and a warning or two—for the college Class of 2020. Here's what some of them had to say.


John Paul Engel, founder of Knowledge Capital Consulting in Sioux City, Iowa, and a member of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

On trust: People want to work with those they know, like and trust. Therefore, it's up to the graduate to become known, liked and trusted by people in his or her career field. Students should be reaching out to alumni of their collegiate programs who are working in jobs they hope to obtain.

When I graduated, one of my professors got me a job interview on the research staff of the Federal Reserve Board. More than 5,000 people applied, and they could hire only 30. I was not one of the 30. However, I found a job working as an economist for the establishment survey for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and, after staying in touch with my professor and my original interviewer, I eventually got a job on the research staff of the Federal Reserve.

Always remember that life is long. The most important thing in your career is to build trusted relationships. The best thing to do is find the smartest people you know and learn as much as you can from them.


Spencer Smith, chief executive officer at IRC Sales Solutions in Chicago.

On opportunity: Don't listen to people who tell you it's a bad time to enter the workforce or the business world. Is it a great time? Maybe not. But will there be future millionaires and billionaires who enter the world of business at the same exact time as you with the same opportunities as you? Yes, absolutely.


Rebecca Dioso, vice president of HR consulting at HRPro/BenePro in Royal Oak, Mich.

On patience: Given the rise of COVID-19 and a faltering economy, college graduates should be patient right now. The economy is slowly restarting, and there are many people in front of you with much more experience who are also actively looking for a job.

Everyone needs to start somewhere, and we don't start as the CEO. Pick an organization that you want to work for, and see what openings they have. When you do get an interview, make sure you do your homework first and take the time to look up some basic information about the company.

When you do get an offer, think it through. For example, should you refuse to relocate when you have no good reason to do so? If someone thinks well enough of you to offer a role in a new location, take it. You can always leave if it doesn't work out, but you never know if you don't try.

If I had to do it all over again, I probably would have taken an overseas assignment. Now that I have a family, am much more established in my career and have aging parents, leaving the U.S. is much more complicated. Be willing to try new experiences.


Mike Smith, founder of Huddle Advisory, a human capital company in Glen Rock, N.J.; a SHRM member; and former human resources manager for the National Football League.

On competing: The competition for jobs will be more intense than ever. You will have to work very hard just to get interviews. Don't get discouraged by rejection. Keep at it.

Prepare yourself to take roles that aren't perfect, like temporary or contract assignments just to get experience or get your foot in a door. Use every contact you have, like a favorite college professor or friend of the family experienced in the business world, to increase chances that your resume is seen by someone at a company you wish to work for, as opposed to just applying online.

When you get a chance to interview for a good company, be less focused on the company and more focused on your potential boss. Is he someone you can learn from? Is she interested in giving you opportunities to learn and grow?

Early in your career, it's important to add skills and experiences, because that is where you learn what you are good at and what you like to do. Whatever you start doing is likely not going to be your 40-year career.


Anne Baum, vice president for Capital BlueCross, in Lehigh Valley, Pa., and author of Small Mistakes, Big Consequences: Develop Your Soft Skills to Help You Succeed (Momosa Publishing, 2018).

On attitude: Don't let the pandemic get you down; use this time productively. Use this period to learn a new skill, complete a certification or license, or build your network.

Once you're in the workforce, work hard, be honest, do your best, ask for help and be helpful. Learn as much as you can from every opportunity presented to you, regardless of whether you like or hate it. Be reliable, on time and prepared.

Above all, don't settle for average; do your very best at everything you attempt, and learn, learn and learn again.  Find a mentor where you are employed, connect with management and your peers in the company, and stay in touch through video platforms with your team if you are working remotely.

Remember the maxim, "Companies hire for attitude and train for skill."  It's hard to train enthusiasm, integrity and heart. If a person has these skills and is a team player, they win in my book over someone who may be smart but has a bad attitude or is dishonest.

Paige Arnof-Fenn, CEO and founder of Mavens & Moguls, a global branding and marketing company in Boston.

On seeing upsides: Things will get better. Build your resilience, and be patient.

A career really is a marathon and not a sprint. Consequently, don't set arbitrary goals, like being named to "30 under 30" or "40 under 40" vanity lists, because it may take you longer than Mark Zuckerberg to hit your stride, and that's OK. Most people take many detours on their career path before finding their true calling. Don't be disappointed if you get to 40 and are still exploring, because the journey really is a great adventure.

Remember, success is personal, and your definition of it will change over time. That is normal and shows maturity. Find what matters to you, and don't worry about anyone else.

As you learn and grow, get to know everybody, have lunch with different people every day, learn everyone's names—from the receptionist to senior managers. You never know where people will go, so don't burn any bridges. People have a way of popping up later.


Rex Chatterjee, managing principal of Chatterjee Legal, a law firm in Brooklyn, N.Y.

On adapting to tough times: I entered law school in August of 2008 and graduated in May of 2011. I'd entered college with the idea of working in structured finance, and within a few weeks of that first semester, the global financial system more or less collapsed. The right thing to do was to keep pursuing my interest in the finance world. I spent the entirety of my time in law school focused on that one specific area and wound up graduating without a job lined up. The system just didn't recover in time.

The moral of the story? Pick your head up, read the field and adapt accordingly.

There is absolutely zero shame in changing directions in light of the evidence. Don't take this to mean that you should alter your trajectory on a whim, just because you feel like it. But if what the world is telling you is that your otherwise good plan just won't work right now, then bail fast, bail hard and bail with a plan.

Through your experiences—and they will be grand ones—keep this in mind: Success is however you define it. Don't define success as needing to work at a specific company. Frankly, that's out of your control and may never happen for reasons wholly unrelated to you or your value.

But if you define success benchmarks for your own personal and professional growth in specific areas, such as attainment of positions at increasingly higher levels at either the same or different companies, you're in a much better state to see value in the journey itself.

Careerwise, that's really what it's all about.

Brian O'Connell is a freelance writer based in Bucks County, Pa. A former Wall Street trader, he is the author of the books CNBC Creating Wealth: An Investor's Guide to Decoding the Market (Wiley, 2001) and The Career Survival Guide: Making Your Next Career Move (McGraw-Hill Education, 2004)


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