It’s quite an interesting time to enter the workforce, to say the least. I can sympathize with Gen Z grads who were forced to spend a chunk of their college years in virtual classrooms. They had to start internships online with colleagues they’d never met in person, only to emerge into a world filled with challenges like a looming recession, a lingering pandemic, climate-fueled disasters, and war.
In some ways, this is a difficult time to start a new career: But what better way to learn and cut your teeth than riding through a perfect storm?
Years ago, it was accepted wisdom that graduating from school represented the end of the learning phase of one’s life and the start of the work phase. But anybody paying attention wouldn’t believe that today; the world is changing rapidly. Many skills that were once the basis for solid long-term careers are now becoming obsolete, continuously replaced by new skills required by new jobs. And the speed of this transformation is only accelerating.
So, how should you approach your first job out of school and all the ones to come? In my experience, the key is to never stop learning.
Learning and working at the same time might sound difficult or counterintuitive, but it actually makes work more fun, and, in my opinion, it’s the only sure-fire path to a long, rewarding career. Here are the three biggest lessons I’ve learned over my career that I wish someone had told me before I entered the workforce.
Ask questions—it’s okay not to know everything
Many years ago, straight out of business school, my first job was to manage a team of seven experienced salespeople who were between 30 and 60 years old. I was very nervous since I really knew nothing about selling even though I was their boss. One of my first acts was to approach the most experienced seller in the group and ask him to teach me everything . . . since I knew nothing.
By the end of the first month, I’d developed an excellent working relationship with everyone on the team. My humble declaration of ignorance and willingness to learn won over all of them. Over the next six years, I became one of the youngest senior sales leaders in the company.
I have used this strategy throughout my career. I see every job as a learning experience. I see every day as a continuous expression of my curiosity to learn. Even today, in my current role as CEO of a global enterprise, I believe that insatiable curiosity is what keeps me going.
Centuries of human curiosity are responsible for creating civilization, the arts, literature, and the sciences— it is a powerful force. So, don’t be afraid to reveal your ignorance. No one can know it all. Curiosity and the courage to be vulnerable with humility is the soul of true collaboration at work.
Diversity can be a superpower
Whenever you think that you might be stuck in an echo chamber, surrounded by people who think exactly like you, break out. Create opportunities to be with people and situations that are unknown and different. That’s what fuels curiosity. Try to find a spot on a new team for the next project with people you don’t know, instead of falling into the sweet spot of familiarity. Surround yourself with diversity of all kinds, including people with different backgrounds and perspectives. Research has shown that this can lead to breakthrough results.
Early on in my career, I was pulled into a meeting by my manager, who knew I was going to be out of my depth. It was only later that I realized her real intent: to get a dramatically different perspective from a curious outsider in order to help her find creative solutions to a business problem. She was breaking out of her echo chamber to bring in a fresh voice and perspective. That experience inspired me to adopt that approach throughout my own career, and it has helped open my eyes to new perspectives and ideas.
Challenge assumptions—and take big bets
There are three ways to approach a project at work. First, by focusing on the outcome (Did we meet the sales goal?). Second, by focusing on the model that produces the outcome (Is there a system that will help us reach our sales goals?). And third, by understanding the assumptions that go into the model that produces the outcome (Are we selling the right things? Are we approaching the right clients?). If you focus on the third—as I have tried to do throughout my career—you can create something new. Because the truth is, most of the assumptions have been used before. They are dated. Discard them. Test new ones.
Steve Jobs was famous for doing this. In the early days of mobile computing, when everyone just knew that a stylus was required to use a small device, Jobs vehemently disagreed, saying that our own fingers would be better than any stylus. Just think about that the next time you use your smartphone. Of course, Jobs wasn’t always right—for example, he was against streaming music, but he didn’t ape the assumptions of others; he tested new ones.
How do you create new assumptions to test? Ponder, explore, debate; then experiment. And remember that if something has a zero chance of failure, it is not an experiment.
Successful people live a life of curiosity, explore the unknown courageously, and experiment joyously. You must take smart risks and be unafraid to fail fast—as long as you then use that lesson as a stepping stone for your next, bigger leap.
The more risks you take, the easier it is to spot opportunities. Take a chance on an exciting new role that both scares and excites you. Treat every meeting with your colleagues as a chance to learn something new about them or from them.
In the past few years, the world has faced multiple calamities. And although it is impossible to predict what might come next, it is clear that the new class of Gen Z employees is entering a world that desperately needs its energy and talents. Embracing a lifetime of continuous learning will help ensure that those entering the workforce are well-equipped to have a rewarding career while making much-needed contributions to society—and importantly, having fun while doing it!
Tiger Tyagarajan is chief executive officer of Genpact, a global professional services firm focused on digital transformation.