There are myriad metaphors about career progression: Climbing the ladder. Leaning in. Leveling up.
The problem with such imagery, says Alisa Amarosa Wood ’08, partner at KKR & Co. and co-CEO of the investment firm’s democratized private equity business, is that it suggests career paths are linear, which is simply not the case for most people.
“Careers zig and zag. You take two steps forward and one back,” she says. “Careers are like living, breathing organisms that evolve and grow over time.”
For students on the cusp of graduating from business school, now is when that trajectory truly begins to take shape — and they should expect it to follow a jagged line, a whimsical curlicue, or a path that’s even less defined. But that doesn’t mean the early stages of post-grad life need to be chaotic. Keeping the focus on confidence and purpose will help you shape a well-rounded career, no matter the trajectory or bumps along the way.
On May 14, Wood spoke to Columbia Business School’s graduating class at the 2023 commencement ceremony. Here, she shares some of her top tips for how new MBA graduates can build that confidence and purpose and set themselves up for success.
1. Make an Impeccable First Impression
In the first few months of any job, colleagues and managers alike are forming perceptions — so don’t take your initial interactions with them lightly. "Early on, every moment you spend with people is reputation-forming,” says Wood. “Have opinions, and actually use your voice. That’s probably the biggest thing you can do to set yourself apart.”
Of course, it’s daunting to speak up when you’re still getting acclimated to a new role, company, or industry. But it’s important to use your voice to ask judicious questions and share informed ideas. Often, proactivity will be noticed — and rewarded. "Don’t just robotically do the things that are asked of you. Think long and hard enough about those requests, and try to digest them and understand their greater purpose,” says Wood.
Managers in particular tend to appreciate team members who take initiative. Instead of waiting around for opportunities to present themselves, Wood suggests actively seeking them out. “Don’t wait for somebody to pull up a chair. Make room for yourself. Squeeze your way in, and do it tactfully and artfully,” she says.
2. Always Be Networking
Wood wholeheartedly agrees with the adage that in business, it’s not only what you know but who you know. “You can have the best business plan in the world, and at the end of the day, who is executing it — and the relationships that person brings to the table — is make or break for success or failure,” she says.
Wood acknowledges that networking can be challenging in today’s career landscape, where roles are increasingly remote or hybrid. “So much of business is about sitting next to someone when they’re negotiating a deal and watching how they navigate tough questions,” she says. “If you’re doing partially or fully remote work, you have to go out of your way to try to re-create those apprenticeship moments.”
For instance, if you’re attending an important meeting on Zoom, request a casual debrief with colleagues afterward. If possible, meet with your coworkers and managers in person at least occasionally. “Ninety percent of the most important things in business happen walking to the meeting and coming out of the meeting. It’s usually not what's in the room,” Wood says.
3. Practice Self-Awareness — and Self-Care
Being aware of your strengths and weaknesses is another important element of long-term career success. It’s also critical to prioritize balance — in more ways than one.
“One of my mentors always says, ‘Think about your career as a toolkit.’ You don’t want to have 20 hammers. You need to have different skills to be able to solve lots of different problems,” says Wood. That said, there’s no shame in admitting when you need support: “If you don’t know how to do something, that’s okay. Have the skill to say so and the confidence to go find somebody who does.”
Another form of balance involves mitigating burnout. For new graduates feeling depleted by the rigors of business school before they’ve even started their first post-grad job, that may mean taking a short pause before entering the professional world.
“If you do take a break, be sure there’s an element of deliberateness around what you do,” she says. If you want to work in international business, for instance, traveling to South America to learn Spanish could be a good use of time. “Find a way to create a narrative out of your time off,” Wood adds. “Figure out how to take individual pearls and make them into a necklace.”
4. Embrace ‘Penicillin Moments’
One of the most important — and counterintuitive — pieces of career advice Wood offers is to embrace your mistakes. “Mistakes are actually good. Just don’t make the same one twice,” she says.
In fact, failure in some form is part of almost every big business win, storied career, or world-changing startup. Wood cites the discovery of penicillin as an example. “That wasn’t what the inventors were trying to create, but the world today would be unimaginable without it,” she says.
In the face of unexpected challenges — which are all but certain — Wood suggests stepping back to consider the bigger picture. Not only does this put things in perspective, but it helps you cultivate resilience and even discover greater opportunity. “When there’s complexity and volatility, it’s the creative, nonlinear thinker that’s going to do best,” she says. “So don’t stay in a place where two plus two equals four — find a place where two plus two actually equals ten.”