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What business advice would you give your younger self?

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People holding up paper showing a question markTime really does fly.  I can still remember my last day at college like it was yesterday.  I can remember the sense of achievement, purpose and an overwhelming feeling that anything was achievable.  As I walked through those college gates for the last time, I remember feeling that I could change the world. And, if I recall correctly, my first step to changing the world was to celebrate at a nearby bar with a beer…


Sadly, this was rather a long time ago now – longer than I like to admit.  But I recently had cause to reflect and think back to those hard but hedonistic college days.  Believe it or not, this self-reflection was prompted by a simple thread in a LinkedIN forum.  One of the contributors posed the question “What business advice would you give your younger self?”, and there are a number of great responses.  If you get the chance, it’s well worth reading the whole thread here.  This is such a simple yet powerful question, and it really got me thinking.


Having reflected on this question I thought I’d share the advice that, in retrospect, I would give myself when I was that naïve, green-around-the-gills graduate that was walking out the college gates.    I wouldn’t for one moment suggest that this advice should be seen as definitive (and I wouldn’t even suggest that it should be taken seriously). It’s little more than a product of my own meandering experience, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Perhaps after reading this article, you could let me know what advice you would give your younger self?  Here are my suggestions:


1. Be curious and never stop learning:  I genuinely find business fascinating.  There are so many fascinating people, processes and organisations… and there’s always something new to learn.  Approach business from a position of genuine curiosity and you’ll see dimensions you didn’t think existed. Feel free to challenge “taken for granted” structures.  Innovation is important and it doesn’t matter whether you’re fresh out of college, or whether you’re the CEO, you might just have the next big idea…


2. Be brave and ask difficult questions:  Middle-management in some badly-run organisations hide bad news from senior managers.  This can create a culture where everyone is afraid to ask probing questions; because probing questions might uncover the precise problems that are being hidden.  However, the only successful long term strategy is to expose the bad news.  As the old cliché goes: “Bad news does not get better with age”.  Short term unpopularity and comfortableness is worth it for longer-term respect and results.  And, by extension, when you become a manager, make sure you have processes and dashboards in place that enable you to see how your team, function or business is really running (not how people tell you it is running).


3. Beware of absolute truths:  In a business context, I’ve rarely found anything that is absolutely “black and white”.  I’m very cautious of people who give me “either or” options.  My immediate reaction is “isn’t there something in the middle? What about the shades of grey”.  If something seems completely right or completely wrong, perhaps something hasn’t been considered…


4. Observe your own ethical code even when those around you aren’t:  I think it’s really important to operate with a personal ethical code.  Sadly, not everyone “walks the talk” and some people are so determined to progress, to get the deal or grow their business that they’ll act in an unethical manner.  That’s life.  It isn’t nice, but the only way to succeed is to observe it, challenge it, but in some cases accept that you can’t change it.


5. Balance gut, heart and brain:  Business decisions are hard, this is true whether you’re running a company or working for a company.  Make sure where possible you get the data you need to make an informed decision, but also accept that in some cases you might not be able to “know” every possible outcome before making a decision.  Sometimes making a decision (any decision) is better than standing at a crossroads scratching your head.


So those are the tips I’d give my younger self.  What tips would you give your younger self?


This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

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