Tips For Recent Graduates From An Executive Recruiter

If I were asked to give a graduation speech summarizing the lessons I've learned in my thirty years as an executive recruiter, it might go something like this.


As college graduates head out into the business world, they could use some concrete advice. If I were asked to give a graduation speech summarizing the lessons I've learned in my thirty years as an executive recruiter, it might go something like this. There are a few things I want to tell you at this point in your life: Take risks. Keep a broad focus to find a passion that complements your skill set. Look into what skills are in demand and which ones you're interested in acquiring. Be consistent and work very hard. Never quit. Life is never a straight path. Be open to all kinds of people and their ideas. When you receive an act of kindness, pay it forward; that will introduce you to people who may enrich your life both emotionally and spiritually. And most importantly: Don't be afraid to fail.

The Lessons Of Failure

In my field of executive search, early on in your career, you fail all the time. In fact, when I entered the field, the vast majority of people would quit within two years, if not within the first six months. They couldn't handle the intense competition or the rejection they encountered on a daily basis. Also, most executive recruiters, including myself, worked on a 100% commission basis. Talk about pressure.

Over thirty years ago, in my first weeks working in executive search, I was attempting to gain a large Chicago company as my first client. The vice president of tax was very well known nationwide. He was looking to fill a key position and wanted someone who could provide succession planning since he planned to retire in the next few years. When I called him to introduce myself, he was very tough on me. He would ask me how I could possibly run a search for his company from California without meeting with the candidates. He would berate me, tell me I was too assertive, call me "hotshot" and even hang up on me. He made me nervous and even made me question my abilities. He didn't sway me though. Each time I hung up the phone, I would begin preparing for the next call and how I would respond to his objections.

One day after leaving him message after message, he finally called me. He said, "Hey hotshot, you have 48 hours to bring me a candidate for this position." My heart almost leaped out of my chest. I made dozens of phone calls and finally found a good candidate. He interviewed her and she made it to the final round of interviews, but she didn't get the job. I had failed. When he hired the other candidate (someone he already knew), he told me my candidate was solid but didn't have the executive presence of the candidate he hired.

About a month later, he wrote me a letter that said, "Paul, you made a believer out of me." I was no longer "hotshot" to him. He apologized for being so hard on me, but said he admired my tenacity and confidence and that I should keep up the good work. He added that the candidate I had sent him was second best.

Two years ago, I received a call from a CFO from another company. His VP of tax was retiring and he wanted to hire his replacement. I asked him who referred him to my firm and he mentioned another firm's VP treasurer, whose father had worked with me many years ago. That father was the VP of tax who had called me "hotshot" 32 years ago this year.

Help Your Talents Live

My point is that all you recent graduates have all the education you need to succeed, but do you have the guts to fail? If you aren't failing in your journey, you will stay in your comfort zone and never reach your full potential.

Les Brown is a motivational speaker and something he said has stuck with me for years. He said, "Imagine being on your death bed, and standing around your bed are the ghosts of the dreams, the ideas, the abilities, the talents given to you by life, and that you, for whatever reason, never acted on those ideas. You never used those talents. You never used those gifts. And there they are standing beside your bed, looking at you with large, angry eyes saying, 'We came to you and only you could have given us life! And now, we must die with you forever.' "

Don't leave any of your given talents to die. When you figure out what you want to do, then go out and do it. You have to be ready to fail, to be knocked down and get up every time, move forward, learn from that failure and use it to get closer to obtaining your goals. Also, please don't point fingers that you aren't where you want to be because of your boss or your company or anything else. No excuses. You have to be better than that. Our country needs you to be the best you can be.

I used to have a picture in my office when I started out in my career—you know, when I was "hotshot" to some VP of Tax 32 years ago. The picture was of an old Indiana gym, with the sunlight shining through the window onto the basketball court. The text on the picture said something I want you to remember: "You will always miss 100% of the shots you don't take."

Time to start taking those shots, class of 2022!

The Newsweek Expert Forum is an invitation-only network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.
What's this?
Content labeled as the Expert Forum is produced and managed by Newsweek Expert Forum, a fee based, invitation only membership community. The opinions expressed in this content do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Newsweek or the Newsweek Expert Forum.