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June 05, 2013

College grads: Using free time in your 20s to make it pay off in your 40s

These last few weeks, work life balance has been elusive. I've been crazed with the wind down of the school year and ducking from editors who might want more from me. I long for the days when I was in my early 20s and had the time to more easily invest in my career. 

So, if I was a college graduate, how would I spend my free time? I tackled that question in my Miami Herald column today.


Advice to graduates: Combine networking with true passions

 Andrew Lucas / MCT

By Cindy Krischer Goodman


In the boardroom of large public companies, where few women sit at the table, there’s a dysfunctional dynamic going on. The female directors say they are left out of strategic decision-making because those conversations often happen on the golf course and they don’t play golf.

After learning about this in the Harvard Business Review, I brought it up with a female CEO who wishes she had mastered golf and said she would advise new college graduates to learn the sport. I wonder though, will professional networking and back-door decision-making in the future even be done on the greens? Or will it be done some other place entirely that requires a different skill?

With work/life balance an increasing concern, how should today’s college graduates optimize their free time now to build the right networks, learn the right skills and lay the foundation to become successful leaders in the future?

Advice from high-level professionals varies greatly, and there’s acknowledgement that today’s formula might not be the recipe for tomorrow.

Most of today’s board members and CEOs began their careers when email and social networks didn’t exist. This 2013 crop of college graduates, an estimated 1.8 million people, enters the workforce with highly developed digital skills, multitasking abilities and an expectation of work/life balance. And, even with the hiring outlook still bleak, many prioritize the nature of the work over compensation when considering a job, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

One South Florida professional advises college graduates to master multiple languages and leave the country rather than spend that time learning to golf.

“Your 20s is the ideal time to raise your hand to take on a project in Portugal or enroll in a business program in Spain,” says Bonnie Crabtree, senior client partner and office managing director of Korn/Ferry International’s Miami office. Contacts in other parts of the world and a different perspective can become valuable in your later career, she says.

Crabtree says her firm recently researched the backgrounds of board members at the nation’s top public companies. “International experience really shows up in statistics.”

Sometimes knowing what you want to accomplish can shape your early career strategy. J. Preston Jones, interim dean of the H. Wayne Huizenga School of Business and Entrepreneurship at Nova Southeastern University, often networks on the golf course, playing alongside university presidents, community leaders and fundraisers. He advises graduates to identify the ultimate job they want and study where and how those who now hold those positions built strategic relationships.

“If the decision makers are playing golf or fishing or climbing the Himalayas, those are activities you should consider adding to your repertoire of things you become passionate about.” Doing activities you enjoy, outside the workplace with other professionals makes business fun, he says. “You are not only bonding but welding relationships.”

Using your 20s to position yourself as a leader can also pay off. Community, charity and political organizations are the lunch clubs and golf courses of tomorrow. Getting involved in Make A Wish, the Cuban American Bar Association or the University of Florida alumni group can put a college graduate or new associate in front of judges, senior vice presidents and business owners.

You can’t just be a member. You have to chair a committee or run events. You want others to see you as a leader,” says Jill Granat, senior vice president/general counsel of Burger King Corp. and president of the Burger King McLamore Foundation. But she cautions that you need to choose an organization you are passionate about or you will come off as superficial. “Don’t do something you don’t like.”

Granat also advises positioning yourself as a leader inside your company, too, by showing you are flexible and seizing opportunities. “You need to be willing to make your mark where the company needs you. You might want to do X, but if you are willing to do Y, you will get a foot in the door.”

Of course, today’s college graduates feel more comfortable than prior generations building connections online. Building and maintaining social networks are worth the time investment. But that is only one step of the process, says Mary Leslie Smith, a partner in the Miami office of Foley & Lardner and the newly installed president of the Dade County Bar Association. Be bold and invite people to enjoy experiences with you, she says.

“I just went with a client to a Madonna concert and now we have that experience that we enjoyed together. You can’t get that by connecting on Linked In,” Smith explains, adding that building a vibrant network in your early career includes forging relationships at all levels. “Ten years from now that associate next may be a general counsel who becomes a client. The more friendships, the more relationships you build, the better.”

Smith also believes one of the best time investments a young professional can make is financial education, particularly for those without business degrees. “Learn to read a financial statement, the key terms in the stock market, how to read a prospectus. It will pay off for you.”

It may seem overwhelming, but start now building a community invested in your success — mentors, sponsors or supporters. Jennifer Moline, senior vice president of finance and accounting at Terremark Worldwide, says it takes courage and a time investment to ask for advice and listen well, which becomes increasingly challenging later in your career. She suggests making a list of everyone you know and ask them to introduce you to successful people who have careers that you are interested in. An introduction by someone who knows you is most effective. “Don’t ask for a job, ask for advice.” Throughout your career, keep your network of supporters informed of your progress, which can be done on social networks, she says.

With this advice in mind, I wanted to dig deeper with Boris Groysberg, a Harvard Business School professor and author of the HBR article on women in the boardroom. Groysberg said while golf has proved key in board culture today, even he is not convinced it will pay off when college graduates are leaders.

“Having cutting edge skills is what’s going to be most important,” he said. To get those skills, he advises young people to scout for companies that will develop them by moving them around within the organization. In addition, he advises them to determine their strengths and then cultivate them. Though the likelihood of reaching the top is small, he says, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “If you combine what you’re passionate about with your strengths, it can be a satisfying journey.”