Launch Your Career on the Right Trajectory
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Careers May 1, 2018

Launch Your Career on the Right Trajectory

How women can max­i­mize the post-col­lege decade.

Woman shoots arrow

Stephen Collins


Sally Blount

Perry Yeatman

Careers unfold over a life­time. Unex­pect­ed oppor­tu­ni­ties and obsta­cles arise — at work and at home — that affect how a career pro­gress­es, espe­cial­ly for women. The same job that may even­tu­al­ly lead one per­son into the c-suite may end in a stalled career for anoth­er. There are mul­ti­ple paths and no guar­an­tees. It’s all part of the journey. 

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But we do know that cer­tain choic­es, espe­cial­ly ear­ly in one’s career, can set peo­ple on tra­jec­to­ries that increase the like­li­hood of long-term career suc­cess. So, a key ques­tion for gain­ing more gen­der equal­i­ty in the c-suite seems to be: How can we max­i­mize the chances of suc­cess for our most promis­ing young women as they start their careers?

Through inter­views and sur­veys with hun­dreds of suc­cess­ful female exec­u­tives, we’ve iden­ti­fied the post-col­lege years as crit­i­cal to set­ting a strong career tra­jec­to­ry. Get­ting it right” in this decade can pay off for women lat­er in their 30s with faster pro­mo­tions and bet­ter career options, lead­ing to even big­ger oppor­tu­ni­ties and finan­cial rewards in their 40s, 50s, and beyond. Con­verse­ly, get­ting it wrong” ear­ly on can have dis­pro­por­tion­ate costs over the course of one’s work­ing life, espe­cial­ly if such wrongs” aren’t right­ed in the sub­se­quent decade. 

For women, the cost of a weak launch is even high­er than for their male peers, because the 30s are typ­i­cal­ly more chal­leng­ing due to grow­ing fam­i­ly respon­si­bil­i­ties. That means there is less time and ener­gy avail­able to make up for a slow start. 

So, what exact­ly does it mean to get the launch right? 

The Four Cor­ner­stones of a Suc­cess­ful Launch 

While every suc­cess­ful c-suite career has a unique tra­jec­to­ry, there is a com­mon set of under­stand­ings and capa­bil­i­ties that suc­cess­ful senior exec­u­tives gain on their jour­ney to the c-suite. Opti­mal­ly, these four insights and skill cor­ner­stones that will form a leader’s foun­da­tion­al knowl­edge are acquired begin­ning in the launch phase. 

1. Peo­ple Management 

Suc­cess­ful exec­u­tives know how to man­age peo­ple. The build­ing blocks of peo­ple man­age­ment include learn­ing how to 1) man­age your own per­for­mance, 2) man­age your report­ing rela­tion­ship with your boss, 3) man­age your per­for­mance as a team mem­ber, and lat­er 4) man­age a small team. The post-col­lege decade is the ide­al time to gain this experience. 

Learn­ing how to set and deliv­er on real­is­tic per­for­mance expec­ta­tions is key. This means hold­ing your­self account­able for doing what you say you will by the dead­lines you have agreed to (and if you can’t meet them, antic­i­pat­ing that and let­ting peo­ple know in advance when they can expect your work). It means hold­ing your direct reports account­able to the same stan­dards and know­ing when and how to chip in at a high­er lev­el to assure that your team hits its goals. 

2. Busi­ness Core Knowledge 

Suc­cess­ful exec­u­tives learn ear­ly on about core func­tions, busi­ness process­es, and how they inter­con­nect. The launch years are the time to gain mas­tery in one func­tion such as finance, account­ing, or mar­ket­ing, while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly build­ing a basic under­stand­ing of all the oth­er func­tions. This is the time to learn how the var­i­ous func­tions con­nect through an organization’s report­ing struc­ture and how oth­er con­nec­tive tis­sues” (e.g., reg­u­lar reports and meet­ings) dri­ve deci­sion-mak­ing, account­abil­i­ty, and performance. 

3. Orga­ni­za­tion­al and Strate­gic Curiosity 

Lead­ing at the top also requires under­stand­ing how orga­ni­za­tions change over time and how orga­ni­za­tion­al cul­tures can either help or hurt the change process. To the extent that a young pro­fes­sion­al can use the ear­ly career years to devel­op curios­i­ty about orga­ni­za­tion­al cul­ture and pol­i­tics (not just where deci­sions get made, but how), a career will progress more smooth­ly. It is also a good time to start track­ing the busi­ness media to learn about the ever-evolv­ing eco­nom­ic, social, and polit­i­cal forces that influ­ence orga­ni­za­tion­al choic­es and performance. 

4. Rela­tion­ship- and Net­work-build­ing Skills 

Suc­cess­ful exec­u­tives nur­ture and expand their web of rela­tion­ships over the course of their careers. The launch years are the time to begin that process by get­ting to know well a group of peo­ple in a cohort, team, and func­tion. It’s also a time to get to know some of the peo­ple in oth­er work­places. By work­ing, eat­ing, and social­iz­ing togeth­er, young pro­fes­sion­als begin to acquire a group of peo­ple at a sim­i­lar career stage whom they can call on for help and advice as their careers progress. 

If we are going to get more women into the c-suite and oth­er sig­nif­i­cant lead­er­ship posi­tions, we need more women to launch well.”

Ear­ly Career Accelerators 

While many path­ways can lead to the c-suite, there is a set of high­ly com­pet­i­tive, entry-lev­el jobs that offer some of the most reli­able oppor­tu­ni­ties for acquir­ing the core busi­ness skills and expe­ri­ences indi­cat­ed above. We call them ear­ly career accel­er­a­tors” and describe them briefly below. 

Despite the obvi­ous advan­tages these jobs can pro­vide, research tells us that women often shy away from apply­ing for them. The gen­er­al per­cep­tion is that these com­pet­i­tive jobs require long hours and oper­at­ing in tough work envi­ron­ments. And, at least from a dis­tance, they don’t feel par­tic­u­lar­ly moti­vat­ing to women as long-term career options. When it comes to busi­ness school, some of the same per­cep­tions, as well as the daunt­ing list price, can make that feel like a poor fit too. 

Man­age­ment Consulting

The sheer diver­si­ty and mag­ni­tude of projects and peo­ple one is like­ly to encounter work­ing for a con­sult­ing firm make this an excel­lent start­ing point for almost any career, help­ing a young pro­fes­sion­al progress in all four key devel­op­ment areas. Indeed, even just two years in con­sult­ing ear­ly on can make a big dif­fer­ence. Just look at the list of alum­ni from these firms — they’re lead­ing orga­ni­za­tions across all indus­tries, sec­tors, and geographies. 

Bank­ing and Finance 

Tak­ing a job that helps solid­i­fy an under­stand­ing of the basics of finance and how and why cer­tain projects get fund­ed, while oth­ers don’t, is time well spent. Being com­fort­able talk­ing to banks and nav­i­gat­ing income state­ments, bud­gets, cash flows, and bal­ance sheets is valu­able for all future lead­ers. And the oppor­tu­ni­ties to engage with dif­fer­ent kinds of clients across a vari­ety of indus­tries broad­en per­spec­tives and rela­tion­al skills and can jump­start one’s network. 

Blue-chip Cor­po­ra­tions

While work­ing for blue-chip cor­po­ra­tions won’t like­ly pro­vide the same breadth of expo­sure or the hands-on expe­ri­ence that some con­sult­ing and finance path­ways do, these com­pa­nies offer some of the most reli­able man­age­ment train­ing pro­grams. These pro­grams are known for devel­op­ing func­tion­al exper­tise, fos­ter­ing orga­ni­za­tion­al and strate­gic aware­ness, and build­ing key rela­tion­ships. They pro­vide a low­er-trav­el envi­ron­ment and excel­lent devel­op­ment. More­over, get­ting hired by one adds instant cred­i­bil­i­ty to a resume. 

Small Busi­ness­es

One route less fre­quent­ly talked about, but which we are bull­ish on based on our inter­views, is the oppor­tu­ni­ty to work for a small­er, fast-grow­ing com­pa­ny. Here, we are talk­ing about com­pa­nies that have estab­lished them­selves beyond the start­up phase. As these orga­ni­za­tions expand and move to put a basic func­tion­al struc­ture in place, bright young 20-some­things often find that they can get hands-on expe­ri­ence in man­ag­ing peo­ple, learn­ing the basics of busi­ness and how and why deci­sions get made. While small­er firms may not yet have estab­lished man­age­ment-train­ing pro­grams, best-in-class poli­cies and prac­tices, or even a full-time HR per­son, the evi­dence from the many suc­cess­ful women we inter­viewed sug­gests that ear­ly hands-on expe­ri­ence see­ing how all facets of a busi­ness work togeth­er, albeit on a small­er scale, can prove invaluable.

Busi­ness School

The oth­er obvi­ous career accel­er­a­tor our research iden­ti­fied — admit­ted­ly, not sur­pris­ing­ly, giv­en our start­ing point inter­view­ing suc­cess­ful Kel­logg alum­nae — is attend­ing a top busi­ness school. Ben­e­fits cit­ed include a thor­ough under­stand­ing of busi­ness basics, broad access to busi­ness thought lead­ers and CEOs, expo­sure to a broad array of orga­ni­za­tions, ear­ly rela­tion­ship build­ing, and exten­sive expe­ri­ences in peer team man­age­ment — all deliv­ered in a rel­a­tive­ly short peri­od of time. 

If we are going to get more women into the c-suite and oth­er sig­nif­i­cant lead­er­ship posi­tions, we need more women to launch well. The good news: there are many ways to accu­mu­late the need­ed cor­ner­stone knowl­edge in the ear­ly years. The tougher news is that some of the most reli­able path­ways will require young women to engage in dis­com­fort as they embrace paths they may not ful­ly know, under­stand, or appre­ci­ate, at least initially. 

But as our inter­views make clear, invest­ing the time and effort to lever­age these career accel­er­a­tors will pay div­i­dends down the road for any woman, regard­less of her long-term career aspi­ra­tions. A bet­ter launch means bet­ter tools to use lat­er in one’s career — in any sec­tor and at any oper­at­ing scale. 

Featured Faculty

Sally Blount

Dean, Kellogg School of Management; Michael L. Nemmers Professor of Management & Organizations

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