Launch Your Career on the Right Trajectory
Skip to content
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.

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

Michael L. Nemmers Professor of Strategy

Most Popular This Week
  1. Sitting Near a High-Performer Can Make You Better at Your Job
    “Spillover” from certain coworkers can boost our productivity—or jeopardize our employment.
    The spillover effect in offices impacts workers in close physical proximity.
  2. Podcast: How to Discuss Poor Performance with Your Employee
    Giving negative feedback is not easy, but such critiques can be meaningful for both parties if you use the right roadmap. Get advice on this episode of The Insightful Leader.
  3. 2 Factors Will Determine How Much AI Transforms Our Economy
    They’ll also dictate how workers stand to fare.
    robot waiter serves couple in restaurant
  4. Will AI Kill Human Creativity?
    What Fake Drake tells us about what’s ahead.
    Rockstars await a job interview.
  5. How Are Black–White Biracial People Perceived in Terms of Race?
    Understanding the answer—and why black and white Americans may percieve biracial people differently—is increasingly important in a multiracial society.
    How are biracial people perceived in terms of race
  6. 5 Tips for Growing as a Leader without Burning Yourself Out
    A leadership coach and former CEO on how to take a holistic approach to your career.
    father picking up kids from school
  7. Will AI Eventually Replace Doctors?
    Maybe not entirely. But the doctor–patient relationship is likely to change dramatically.
    doctors offices in small nodules
  8. What Should Leaders Make of the Latest AI?
    As ChatGPT flaunts its creative capabilities, two experts discuss the promise and pitfalls of our coexistence with machines.
    person working on computer next to computer working at a computer
  9. Today’s Gig Workers Are Subject to Endless Experimentation
    “It raises the question, do we want to be a society where experimentation is just the norm?”
    gig worker at computer with three scientists studying them through a window
  10. How to Make Inclusivity More Than Just an Office Buzzword
    Tips for turning good intentions into actions.
    A group of coworkers sit in various chairs.
  11. China’s Youth Unemployment Problem
    If the record-breaking joblessness persists, as seems likely, China will have an even harder time supporting its rapidly aging population.
    college graduate standing before Chinese flag
  12. The Psychological Factor That Helps Shape Our Moral Decision-Making
    We all have a preferred motivation style. When that aligns with how we’re approaching a specific goal, it can impact how ethical we are in sticky situations.
    a person puts donuts into a bag next to a sign that reads "limit one"
  13. How to Manage a Disengaged Employee—and Get Them Excited about Work Again
    Don’t give up on checked-out team members. Try these strategies instead.
    CEO cheering on team with pom-poms
  14. Why Do Some People Succeed after Failing, While Others Continue to Flounder?
    A new study dispels some of the mystery behind success after failure.
    Scientists build a staircase from paper
  15. Why Are We So Quick to Borrow When the Value of Our Home Rises?
    The reason isn’t as simple as just feeling wealthier.
    A homeowner uses the value of their home to buy things.
  16. One Key to a Happy Marriage? A Joint Bank Account.
    Merging finances helps newlyweds align their financial goals and avoid scorekeeping.
    married couple standing at bank teller's window
  17. What’s at Stake in the Debt-Ceiling Standoff?
    Defaulting would be an unmitigated disaster, quickly felt by ordinary Americans.
    two groups of politicians negotiate while dangling upside down from the ceiling of a room
  18. Take 5: Research-Backed Tips for Scheduling Your Day
    Kellogg faculty offer ideas for working smarter and not harder.
    A to-do list with easy and hard tasks
  19. The Second-Mover Advantage
    A primer on how late-entering companies can compete with pioneers.
More in Careers