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CEO advice for grads: Travel, learn, follow your passion

Kyle Kurlick / AP / Today
Appreciate and embrace the journey they are about to take. No one knows precisely what the post-undergraduate years have in store. That's the advice to graduates from Linda Bowden, president of PNC.

After the graduation caps land and the parties are over, two million college alumni will be heading out into the work world.

Some will end up being successful in their careers and others will end up on the wrong work path.

Wouldn’t it be great to know what people at the pinnacle of their careers did?

We’ve asked an array of business leaders from across the country to offer advice to recent grads based on the challenges and triumphs they’ve encountered in their careers. These top dogs offered insights on everything from mistakes they made and how their heros have changed over the years. Some common advice included try to travel as much as you can, follow your passion and learn from your mistakes.

Here’s their advice:

Brian Sharples, 51, CEO of HomeAway

Today
Brian Sharples

(Colby College class of 1982)

Q. What’s the one piece of advice you’d give college graduates today?

A. If you want to be truly happy in life then pursue a career that is aligned with your passion. If you're lucky enough to understand what it is then get started early. Don't focus on money or what other people might think. In the long run, if you do what you love then great rewards, financial or otherwise, will arrive.

Q. What would you have done differently after you graduated college?

A. Before settling into work mode, I probably would have spent a bit more time traveling – seeing the world and meeting people along the way who have explored the planet and themselves. My perspective was too narrow for too long, and traveling may have helped me discover my own passions earlier in life.

Q. What was the biggest mistake you made?

A. I've made too many mistakes to list but I don't regret a single one. The most powerful and memorable learning is born of failure.

Q. What’s the one thing you learned in college that you wish you listened to?

A.  Almost everything. I was more focused on getting good grades than actually learning something. There's a huge difference.  Later in life you better understand the privilege of having four (or more) years to absorb knowledge without the distractions of the real life that will follow.

Q. Who was your hero when you graduated, and who’s your hero today?

A. I've never been into hero worship, but coming out of college it was probably some rock star or musician. These days I'm more fascinated with entrepreneurs who have a passion for changing the world, like the late Steve Jobs.  That said, I still think rock stars are pretty cool.

John Veihmeyer, 55, Chairman and CEO of KPMG LLP

Today
John Veihmeyer

(Notre Dame class of 1977)

Q. What’s the once piece of advice you’d give college graduates today?

A.I enjoy spending time interacting with college students directly on campus through speaking engagements and our campus recruiting efforts. I will be teaching a course at the University of Notre Dame in the future. I also have the pleasure of speaking with KPMG’s younger professionals in various venues. 

Here’s the piece of advice I always pass along: Personal integrity is the critical success factor for an individual. And that includes a concern for others and your community. People who take a longer term view – who think about becoming a successful person first, and then a successful business person – tend to be more successful business people in the long run. Personal integrity is something you can and should be building from the day you start your career. As you progress to leadership positions with people reporting to you, the trust that you build up over time by doing the right thing, in the right way, will be essential.

Q. What would you have done differently after you graduated college?

A. In the first ten years of my career, I would have found some way to do a global rotation or work outside of the United States. Having a global perspective - an awareness of and sensitivity to international challenges and being equipped to work cross-culturally - is critical to succeeding in today’s global business environment, much more so than when I began my career. While I was fortunate to garner global experience over the course of my career, I believe this kind of experience early in my career, would have been invaluable.

Q. What was the biggest mistake you made?

A. We all make hundreds of mistakes. In fact, you are probably not challenging yourself enough if you are not making some mistakes. We shouldn’t be afraid to make them. The biggest mistake I almost made was turning down an opportunity to move into a different role within KPMG, which I initially viewed as a bad career move. Thankfully, I listened to the advice of a mentor and accepted the new role, and it turned out to be a great career move. The key learning for me here was to seek career guidance and inspiration from others rather than going it alone.

Q. What’s the one thing you learned in college that you wish you listened to?

A. Be a life-long learner. Don’t view college as the end of your learning experience. I’ve applied this lesson a lot in the past 15 years of my career, but I wish I did so more in the first 15 years of my career. Continuous learning and training in today’s fast-changing business environment is a must. 

Q. Who was your hero when you graduated, and who’s your hero today?

A. During summers in high school and college (I graduated from Notre Dame), I had the opportunity to work for my father. He owned a small business. Through his words and actions, my father taught me the keys to succeeding in business were treating everyone you come in contact with - from the most junior person employee to the biggest client - with respect, as well as always maintaining your personal integrity. A lot of people may not view this as a means to succeed in today’s business world, but those life lessons have served me well. My father has and will always be my hero.  

Rick Arquilla, 59, president and COO, Roto-Rooter

(Ohio State University class of 1975)

Today
Rick Arquilla

Q. What’s the one piece of advice you’d give college graduates today?

A. Don't hide behind the Internet and e-mail to find a job. Get out there, meet people, and network!

Q. What would you have done differently after you graduated college?

A. Find the right corporate culture. Don't get hung up on what business the company is in.

Q. What was the biggest mistake you made?

A. Chasing money instead of my passion. Find something you are passionate about and the money will take care of itself.

Q. What’s the one thing you learned in college that you wish you listened to?

A. Memorizing and regurgitating will pass the course but it is not learning!

Q. Who was your hero when you graduated, and who’s your hero today?

A. Jack Nicklaus (1975 ). Ronald Reagan (Today).

Linda Bowden, 60, President, PNC, New Jersey

(Rowan University class of 1973)

Today
Linda Bowden

Q. What’s the one piece of advice you’d give college graduates today?

A. I’d say that the one piece of advice for college graduates is that they should appreciate and embrace the journey they are about to take. No one knows precisely what the post-undergraduate years have in store. There are, however, certain traits that are invaluable to success. These include adaptability, determination, broadening your vision, being energetic both physically and emotionally, nurturing yourself, a willingness to be a team player, always acting in an upright and honest manner, not being afraid to be a rebel and being enterprising.

Q. What would you have done differently after you graduated college?

A. I would have worried less about thinking I needed to know it all. I began my post-undergraduate days in teaching, which is a terrific profession but eventually I began to have doubts that my chosen career was right for me, personally. I also would have been more fearless in terms of knowing it was OK to make mistakes—we all do, especially early in our careers.

Q.  What was the biggest mistake you made?

A. Staying too long in a role that I knew in my heart was not right for me was probably one of the biggest mistakes I made.

Q. What’s the one thing you learned in college that you wish you listened to?

A. As far as the one thing I wish I’d listened to while in college, it would’ve been the observation that it’s OK to fail. Your failures can sometimes be your greatest learning opportunity. It comes back to the idea of believing in yourself, and realizing those experiences represent an opportunity to learn and develop new skills.

Q. Who was your hero when you graduated, and who’s your hero today?

A. It would be my father. He was part of the greatest generation, and an honest and upright man. My father was always in a life-long learning mode and he encouraged that in us as well.    

Today
Jim Goodnight

Jim Goodnight, 69, CEO of SAS

(North Carolina State University class of 1965)

Q. What’s the one piece of advice you’d give college graduates today?

A. If you want to be successful in business, make sure you have some understanding of analytics and when to use them. People who can use analytics - such as data mining and forecasting - to turn raw data into better business decisions have never been in greater demand. With all the talk of “Big Data,” organizations across industries need people who understand how to use analytics to make sense of it all. I encourage this year’s graduates to learn about how and when analytics can support their decisions.

Q.  What would you have done differently after you graduated college?

A. That’s hard to say. Things have gone pretty well. The one thing that felt like a mistake was my short stint in Florida. While I was in graduate school at NC State working on my PhD in Statistics, I took a year off to work on the Apollo space program in Florida. We worked in cubicles, we had to pay for a cup of coffee, and employees weren’t trusted. It wasn’t an environment anyone would enjoy working in. I left after a year. While it seemed like a mistake at the time, it was one of those formative experiences that shaped my thoughts about what a good workplace should be.

When I started SAS with John Sall and others a few years later, we decided to create a different kind of company. We gave people their own offices. We provided free drinks and snacks. We set up a sand volley ball court out on the front lawn and built a racquet ball court so employees could exercise on breaks. When one of our first employees had a child, we started an in-house daycare. Thirty-six years later, we still treat SAS employees well, because happy employees lead to happy customers and a healthy company. If a company treats its people like they make a difference, they will make a difference.

Q. What was the biggest mistake you made?

A. I bought an airline once. It was not a data- and analytics-driven decision. At the time, I wanted to maintain a hub at Raleigh-Durham International Airport. Four years and a pile of money later, the airline went bankrupt. It was a mistake, but it reinforced what I already knew - and unfortunately had ignored in this instance: Always check your data and run the analytics. 

Q. What’s the one thing you learned in college that you wish you listened to?

A. Listen to what your data and analytics tell you. I’ve made a few big decisions that resulted in red ink, such as buying the airline. In almost every case, those decisions were not supported with good data.

Q. Who was your hero when you graduated, and who’s your hero today?

A. Then: I admired my high school basketball coach and the leadership he showed. He always gave credit to others for successes and took responsibility when the team failed.

Now: Across industries, smart men and women are using analytics to help banks fight fraud, retailers stock the right styles and sizes, hospitals improve patient care, and manufacturers ensure product quality. Today, as we enter a new age of analytics, my heroes are the many analysts, quantitative experts and data scientists who apply their skills and new technologies to transform the way the world works.

AJ Khubani, 52, CEO of TeleBrands Corp., the marketers of “As Seen on TV” products

Today
AJ Khubani

(Montclair State College New Jersey class of 1983)

Q. What’s the one piece of advice you’d give college graduates today?

A. For years I’ve advised students to decide what they are passionate about and to focus their attention on that. Their passion would eventually bring them tremendous personal and financial reward. Today I would add that they should put a bit more consideration into the financial reward part of their careers.

Q. What would you have done differently after you graduated college?

A. I am very happy with the direction and decisions I made after college. I wouldn’t change anything.

Q. What was the biggest mistake you made?

A. Taking too much risk in the business and putting ALL of my personal assets on the line and nearly losing everything.

Q. What’s the one thing you learned in college that you wish you listened to?

A. It is essential to have a monthly financial meeting.

Q.Who was your hero when you graduated, and who’s your hero today?

A. My father then and now.

Brian MacLean, 58, President and COO, Travelers Insurance

(Fordham College Rose Hill class of 1975)

Today
Brian MacLean

Q. What’s the one piece of advice you’d give college graduates today?

A. My one piece of advice to college graduates is don't expect simple solutions to complicated problems. Most of life's really challenging issues are multi-dimensional and can't be solved with a sound bite or a one line vision statement. To resolve difficult issues you need serious people willing to work hard to understand different perspectives and look for collaborative solutions. It's never easy.

Q. What would you have done differently after you graduated college?

A. After graduation I wish I had stayed in touch with the people I had just spent four years with. Today's graduates have the advantages of cell phones and social media, but regardless of the technology you still have to make the effort. I lost something by letting those relationships get away.

Q. What was the biggest mistake you made?

A. I believe the most important and most difficult dimension to business decisions is the human element. Accordingly, my greatest challenge in business has been living up to the responsibility of managing people. When you are responsible for managing someone, or some group of people, your ultimate responsibility is to help them be as successful as possible. This involves assessing their performance and providing prompt, constructive and direct feedback. While it can be difficult to assess performance, it’s a lot harder to communicate your assessment to the employee in a direct and constructive manner. Because giving this feedback involves human emotions most managers, including myself, have made the mistake of not being as direct as they should be.

Q. What’s the one thing you learned in college that you wish you listened to?  

A. In my freshman year at Fordham I was told, "Try to get all A's.  You probably won't, but you'll have done your best." It was great advice, and it wasn't just about academics. I haven't forgotten the message, but I haven't always fully applied it either.

Q. Who was your hero when you graduated, and who’s your hero today?

A. My hero when I graduated from college was my older brother John, primarily because he helped me get a job.

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