What Parents Should Tell Their Kids About Finding a Career

Harvard Business Review · James M. Citrin

“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 boards of Boeing and Caterpillar, and is on the management committee at Blackstone – I know he can’t be alone.

The truth is, 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 do — and not do — when it comes to helping your kids with their careers?

Begin by telling them that in the early going they will be valued more on their potential than on 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; in other words, 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).

When your son or daughter gets to their middle to late twenties, they are likely to be in when 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 around specific professional skills, and in so doing make meaningful contributions to their organization. During this stage, encourage them to find out the 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.

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

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.
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.
Money, which includes base salary, bonus potential, and perhaps equity or long-term compensation.
This the Career Triangle. The reality is that it is 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. In other words, if your daughter is complaining about working until midnight as an investment banking intern, ask her if she really enjoys the work. If not then, she may want to consider an alternative direction as she’s only optimizing the money point of the triangle. Or 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, then 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. To quote Ben Stein, renowned columnist for The New York Times, from advice to college freshmen that he wished he had received himself when he started Columbia University in the early 1960s, “Over the years, I have seen it. Smart men and women in finance and corporate law always grow rich, or at least well-to-do. Incredibly smart men and women in short-story writing or anthropology or acting rarely do.”

The final key point to stress with your kids about how careers really work is the power of relationships. 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. You want to encourage your kids to have a relationship mindset, always seeking to help others, making an extra effort to be polite to everyone they come into contact with, especially in a professional context, regardless of what role or how senior someone is in an organization. You want to 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 believe already that they will need to network to find jobs. Not only do they not need extra pressure to do that, but in fact, 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 his or her career counseling office on the basics of setting up a LinkedIn profile, writing a resume, 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 likely 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 tradeoffs 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 daughter or son 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 can help them learn to read it for themselves.


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