What You Should Tell Your Kids About Finding a Career

by James M. Citrin

Quick Takes

  • Encourage your kids to discover their strengths and interests and learn marketable skills early on
  • Advise them to develop a reputation and make meaningful contributions to their organization after a few years in the workforce
  • Promote their understanding of the trade-offs between job satisfaction, lifestyle, and money
  • Help them cultivate a relationship mindset

After board dinners, we inevitably sit around and talk about our kids and their careers,” Dave Calhoun recently told me. “Frankly, we’re often at a loss with how to help them.” If someone with Calhoun’s experience has trouble with this—he’s chairman of Nielsen’s board, sits on the boards of Boeing and Caterpillar, and is on the management committee at Blackstone—I know he can’t be alone.

It’s difficult to advise kids about how careers really work today and how to get any job, much less a great job. All parents love their kids and want to set them up for a life of self-sufficiency, meaning, and happiness. But at the same time, your advice may be heavily discounted—the world has changed since you were job hunting as a new grad, and your kid may not see that you realize that. Moreover, whether you intend it or not, chances are your kids will perceive that you expect them to surpass your own success, which can make even the most well-intentioned conversation feel fraught.

So what should you say—and not say—when it comes to helping your kids with their careers?

Your Potential Outweighs Your Experience When You’re Starting Out

Begin by telling them that in the early going, they will be valued more for their potential than for their experience and track record. I call the first couple of years in one’s career the Aspiration Phase, in which it’s all about exercising one’s intellectual and interpersonal energies, and bringing enthusiasm, work ethic, and energy to an organization. The Aspiration Phase is about discovery, the process of learning, and the development of knowledge—the time when your kids will be getting the early experiences that will inform and influence their career. The most important objective is for them to discover their strengths and interests, and to begin learning marketable skills. They should try out as many different kinds of tasks and jobs as possible, and get feedback from peers, friends, and mentors to help them identify what they’re good at (and what they’re not).

Discover Your Strengths and Interests

When your child gets to their middle to late twenties, they are likely to be in what I call the Promise Phase. During this stage, their value will begin to be recognized through compensation, promotions, and access to the best assignments and mentors. Your kids should continue to explore their interests and talents, but the key will be to also begin to develop a track record and reputation for specific professional skills, and in so doing, make meaningful contributions to their organization. During this stage, encourage them to find answers to questions such as whether they prefer working on their own, in small project teams, or in larger organizations, and whether they are honestly willing to put up with the late nights and weekend work required for jobs in lucrative sectors like technology and financial services. They should reflect on whether they thrive in competitive environments, where there are stars and also-rans, or if they prefer cultures that put a premium on teamwork or tenure. Honest answers to these kinds of questions will help guide them to the career paths more suited to them.

There Will Be Trade-offs

If your college graduate is struggling to answer these questions, help them understand that there are inevitable trade-offs to be made between three competing forces:

  1. Job satisfaction, which is all about the inherent quality of what they are working on, the impact of the role, how much autonomy they have and how much they’re learning, and how proud they are to be associated with a brand
  2. Lifestyle, which has to do with where they live, their working hours, how much control they have over their schedule, if they have to commute, and general working conditions
  3. Money, which includes base salary, bonus potential, and perhaps equity or long-term compensation

This is the career triangle. It’s relatively easy to maximize one of the points on the triangle, and it’s not impossible to optimize a second. But especially in the early years of one’s career, it’s incredibly difficult to max out all three. If your daughter is complaining about working until midnight as an investment banking intern, ask her if she really enjoys the work. If not, she may want to consider an alternative direction as she’s only optimizing the money point of the triangle. If your son is having trouble making ends meet working for Teach for America but loves the job and enjoys where he’s currently based, encourage him to live frugally and know that there will be time to rebalance his career around compensation a little later.

Speaking about money and jobs, there is a single piece of advice you can give your kids that is so obvious that many people overlook it. If your son or daughter wants to make a lot of money, the single best way is to go into a field that pays well.

Relationships Matter

Relationships are critical both to getting jobs and to being successful once on the job. But it is also one of the most essential factors to overall happiness. Encourage your kids to have a relationship mindset, always seeking to help others and making an extra effort to be polite to every one they come into contact with, especially in a professional context, regardless of what role or how senior someone is in an organization. Stress the importance of following up on introductions and sending thank-you emails. But I would actually advise you to not encourage your kid to network. Trust me, they have been buffeted by messages about how everything happens through networking. They are likely to already believe that they will need to network to find jobs. Not only do they not need extra pressure to do that, they will be more effective and happier if you encourage them to focus less on networking and more on finding ways to develop meaningful relationships, based on the timeless truth of give-and-take.

No doubt your child has already gotten a lot of advice from their career counseling office on the basics of setting up a LinkedIn profile, writing a résumé, and interviewing. They may even have been taught how to create a target list that organizes their first-choice companies into a spreadsheet, with contacts, follow-ups, and next steps. Books like mine and good career counselors can teach them that. But as their parent, they’re looking to you for something else. They don’t need you to organize their job search for them, nag them, or serve up unhelpful platitudes like “follow your passions.” Instead, help them think through the trade-offs they’ll have to make. Resist the urge to relate everything back to your own experience—that can come across as, “Here’s how I did it, so it’s the road you should take, too.” Instead, let your child know that their career will likely follow a winding path, with multiple left and right turns.

You can’t give them a map—but you can give them encouragement that there is indeed one, and you can help them learn to read it for themselves.

Adapted from content posted on hbr.org, May 15, 2015 (product #H0226Z).

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