By Sally Blount and 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sally Blount was named dean of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in 2010.