31 successful Australian CEOs share their advice for university graduates entering the workforce

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Landing your first job is a daunting yet exciting moment.

With a number of new skills to learn on the job along with workplace etiquette and the names of coworkers, getting on side with the boss early on can be a key to your success.

With that in mind, Business Insider asked 31 CEOs what they expect university graduates entering the workforce to know.

Here’s what they had to say.

Libby Roy, MD at PayPal Australia

Libby Roy/ Supplied

I still remember my first day as a consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton. I was overwhelmed by the jargon, felt incredibly inexperienced and was worried about making a mistake. But what I’ve learned throughout my career is that your mistakes can teach you as much as the successes. By being prepared to fail, you are also setting yourself up to push the boundaries and achieve the unexpected.

My number one piece of advice to graduates is don’t pigeon-hole yourself. Focus on exposing yourself to a variety of opportunities that could uncover different experiences and challenges so you can build your skills, figure out what interests you and discover what you are good at.

Get involved beyond your defined role by taking the initiative and volunteering to help on different projects to build your network and experience. It’s also key to work on your stakeholder relationships – remember that the people you work with in your 20s could be in very influential positions later in life and you never know when you will bump into them again.

Taking a step back — you might find the biggest challenge is not necessarily getting a job, but finding a job you love. While getting experience under your belt is critical, it is also important that you choose a company which is aligned to your values and fosters a culture where you feel you fit in and are motivated to get involved beyond your 9 to 5 job description.

Luke Anear, CEO at SafetyCulture

SuppliedLuke Anear

Create your side hustle. We are looking for initiative, even if your side project wasn’t successful, what did you learn, what was the problem you were trying to solve. Don’t rely on university to make you employable, even working in a cafe can give you insights into customer service and product delivery.

Don’t wait until you have finished your degree to approach a company. We have had year 12 students walk in our front door and land software engineering roles, so if you have some talent, can demonstrate your knowledge on a subject, then we would talk to you.

In the meantime, go to meet-ups that are on regularly in Sydney and Melbourne, and if you live somewhere else, save up and fly in for a week of meet-ups. Use the meet-ups app to find what’s on. Network.

Most importantly, start doing something, even if it isn’t what you end up doing, you will learn from it.

Tara Commerford, MD and VP at GoDaddy ANZ

Tara Commerford/ Supplied

A career is ever-formative, so it’s important to enter the workforce with an open mind and seek to learn as much as you can in every role you land. Don’t be afraid to ask for more opportunities to challenge yourself, build your skill and value set and force yourself out of your comfort zone. Seek mentorship for guidance, support and most importantly for finding purpose.

Self reflection is crucial to your corporate success. Be mindful of continuing to grow both your skill set and your emotional intelligence, as they both are important attributes for career progression.

Patrick Llewellyn, CEO at 99designs

SuppliedPatrick Llewellyn

Respect everyone you meet in your organisation and value the contribution they make, no matter the role they play. Forging relationships built on respect and trust will make it easier in the long run, when new opportunities arise or should you need to call on a favour. You are at the beginning of a long and winding journey and you never know when paths may cross again.

And get ready, because in many ways the real learning is just about to begin. The more you embrace on-the-job learning, the more adaptable and valuable you’ll be through the many phases of your career journey.

Ben Pfisterer, Head of APAC Operations at Square

SuppliedBen Pfisterer

Australia has a very strong education system that continues to produce great talent for our workforce, yet I believe we still lack diverse thinking among students who don’t fully understand all the opportunities available to them beyond traditional career paths.

Currently, graduates gravitate towards working at legacy corporate institutions or “blue chip” companies, which are better known or established, but this can often lead to a slower path to gaining experience. My advice to new graduates is to go out and find some alternatives, to talk to people who have a better understanding of the new and emerging sectors, and look beyond the big names when applying for jobs.

Australia is attracting and breeding more high growth startups and tech companies than ever before, and these organisations can offer incredibly diverse experience for graduates across the board — not just engineers! Tech companies need a wide range of talent to grow across all areas, including marketing, communications, strategy, customer support and more. The more graduates we have in Australia that can gain experience within these fast moving, high growth environments, the better equipped they will be to drive our workforce in years to come.

Greg Muller, founder and CEO at Gooroo

SuppliedGreg Muller

Keep learning: The critical skills leaders always look for are analysis, strategic thinking, communication (verbal and written) and leadership. Despite what you think, building these capabilities will get you further than most others. If you’re not already a technologist, you’d be very well positioned to also establish a strong understanding of how technology helps solve business problems and how it can add value to business processes and the bottom line.

Learn how to storytell: Telling stories is a much more effective method of getting your point across to teammates, managers and customers. Make the stories genuine and relatable to the challenge or point you’re trying to get across.

Get used to making mistakes: Mistakes are what’s going to make you better and more resilient. Also don’t let your fear of the unknown hold you back from taking on assignments you haven’t done before. Leaders want to see that you are willing to take on projects that are uncertain and risky. Lean on your manager for guidance and coaching.

Commit: Leaders want to see you proactively engage in your work and do what it takes to deliver (against timelines or objectives set for you).

Don’t be too urgent (to get to the top): Leaders know that it takes time to build the skills necessary to effectively manage and lead. Learn your craft, build your experience, demonstrate results and keep yourself open to new opportunities. Do those things and the bigger roles and salaries will come.

Alex Fala, CEO at Vend

SuppliedAlex Fala

I’ve messed up a lot in my career and got a few things right. Over time I’ve learnt a few things that I wish I’d known at the start:

Optimise for learning. When you enter the workforce, the options can be overwhelming. The only thing that should matter to you is where you’re going to learn the most. Find a company that’s growing, a role that will stretch you, a culture where you can be the best version of yourself, a manager who could be a mentor. Those things will have an exponential impact on where you get to in 2, 3,10 years. Don’t worry about a few thousand dollars in salary, how cool the brand is, or how fancy your job title is.

Treat your career like surfing. Make yourself great at what you do, wait for the right waves, jump on them when they come, and enjoy the ride! Or to put it another way, success will come if you live your values, work hard to be the best at what you are doing at that moment, stay alert to opportunities, and put yourself forward when they come. Much like surfing, it’s not easy — it took me a while to learn how to do this in my career – but ultimately it will help you find success and create a sense of purpose.

Focus on your own game. Life is long. Some people have a fast start then plateau. Others start small, build momentum and reach great heights. Still others crash and have to pick themselves up off the pavement, only to find success again. Nobody’s definition of success or their path to reach it will be the same as yours. So why worry about what your friend or brother or sister is doing? Focus on the amazing opportunities that this world has to offer you, and go out and take them.

Mick Spencer, CEO of ONTHEGO

SuppliedMick Spencer

Be present: It can sometimes be hard to separate yourself from your mobile devices, however, while we love that you love tech, graduates also need to remember to show their employees that they can be fully present in the moment without the need to check their phone every time a notification goes off.

Know when to use technology: Instant messaging applications can be helpful, but when using instant messaging services remember to never compromise on punctuation and grammar. Still remain professional. Likewise, while documenting our lives on social media has become the norm, never post anything that will compromise your colleagues or your business. Also, never use emails to convey bad news – be courteous and pick up the phone or tell them in person.

Build strong relationships: Take the time to build and maintain positive relationships. Make an effort to remember the finer details like birthdays or special occasions, and reach out to mentors and peers.

Fail fast and fail often: Success cannot teach you the hard lessons in life. Fail fast and fail often as this is where real learning happens.

Work on yourself: Passion, logic and interpersonal skills are far more desirable than being great on paper. As a graduate, employers are looking for a point of difference and these traits will help you stand out above the rest. Also, no matter how stressed you may get at times, remember to always look after your body, your mind and your sleep.

Start something now – even if you aren’t ready: Set goals, work on them, and don’t wait for the perfect opportunity to start something new because waiting for the perfect time doesn’t exist. Be a go-getter. You are better off walking 15-20 mins per day, than waiting for the right time to start that five kilometre run.

Adam Brimo, Founder and CEO of OpenLearning

SuppliedAdam Brimo

Entering the workforce is not the end of formal education. Graduates should look out for lifelong learning opportunities to continually upskill themselves for career enhancement and advancement. Consider taking up online courses or MOOCs as a convenient, flexible, and affordable way to stay relevant and ahead of the curve.

Ankur Kothari, Co-Founder and CFO at Automation Anywhere

SuppliedAnkur Kothari

Technology has seen the workforce undergo a huge shift over the past decade. Not only is it changing the kinds of work we do, but the way we do it – helping us to be more productive, choose our office, and better connect with our colleagues whether they’re on the other side of the office or the other side of the world.

One technology that’s set to completely transform the workforce is automation. There has been a lot of talk in recent years about how automation and robots will take over our jobs. My advice? Most of it is myth. There has never been a time in history when technology has entirely wiped out jobs. For example, when ATMs were first introduced, bank tellers feared for their jobs. But what actually happened was that due to the operational benefits gained from ATMs, banks were able expand their operations, open more branches and hire more people, outside of just tellers.

What will this mean if you’re graduating today? With tech and automation, you’ll see bots pick up the repetitive, mundane, task-based work like managing large datasets (particularly if you’re in banking, financial services, manufacturing, telecom, and healthcare), freeing you up to unleash your full potential in intellect, creativity and talent. It will mean less time working on manual tasks and more time working with people and alongside coworkers to unearth business insights that help your company progress. You have the unique opportunity to be part of the generation which defines the jobs of the future, where you don’t have to just perform jobs that have been defined by others. When it comes to technology and professional life, the only constant is change, so stay flexible and prepare yourself for an environment where working as a team and being human is your greatest asset.

Kylie Watson-Wheeler, Senior Vice President and MD at The Walt Disney Company ANZ

SuppliedKylie Watson-Wheeler

One of the most important things to remember on entering the workforce is that your career journey could be an unpredictable road. It may just run straight as you thought it would or it might branch off in ways you never expected. But that’s the beauty of being at the beginning. There’s no way of knowing where you’ll end up and everything is a possibility.

The transition from studying to working life can also be quite daunting, but it is important to keep in mind that “you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.”

Without question, you should believe that whatever it is you want to achieve, you can. There’s always a way if you want it enough. At the same time, it is important that you are prepared to fight for what you want. Believe in your own voice and stand up for yourself and what you believe in – always. Regardless of what’s going on around you, believe in your own strengths and be true to yourself. Remember, you are the one who is in charge of your own destiny.

Also, be prepared to back yourself, even when others don’t and you’ll be surprised how strong you can be. Don’t trust those people who say you can’t do it, show them that you can. Most importantly, no matter what happens, don’t give up.

Suzanne Steele, MD of Adobe ANZ

SuppliedSuzanne Steele

The integration of cutting-edge technology in every aspect of our lives has dramatically altered the way we work. When we look back, the invention of the PC, the rise of the internet and the explosive growth of smartphones and tablets, completely transformed the workforce. Now, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) continue to change our way of working and while it is exciting to see how these new technologies can reduce the mundane tasks associated with our jobs, it is also a huge shift and can understandably cause some uneasiness when we think about our future careers.

At Adobe, we often get asked whether the rise of AI means we are preparing for a future of mass joblessness. The answer is no. AI and ML will change the nature of many jobs, but it will also create new opportunities and increase productivity. During this time of unprecedented change, technical, digital and specialist skills are still very much important, but our uniquely human skills, those that machines cannot replicate, will remain important to job growth and stability for years to come. Regardless of how technology may or may not impact the workplace, demonstrating emotional intelligence, empathy, creativity, intellectual curiosity, and the ability to adapt will serve you well for building a long, prosperous career.

Whether you are still in school or making your way through a degree, my advice would be to hone into these human skills, expose yourself to different cultures, develop and maintain a diverse network of peers, and challenge yourself to never stop learning by seeking out skills that can be leveraged in the changing environment around us.

Sophia Zhao, CEO of E2 Media

SuppliedSophia Zhao

Seek a mentor: Be pro-active and seek out a mentor if your company doesn’t offer you one. As an individual, simply meeting your work requirements is far from enough. Invest in yourself both personally and professionally as this will benefit your career progression in the long run.

Network: Making connections big or small is always beneficial as you never know where they could lead you. Be proactive and attend social events and don’t be shy to approach high level executives and introduce yourself where possible.

Be eager to learn: No-one is perfect but when you make mistakes, learn from them, take responsibility and figure out how to avoid making the same or similar mistakes in the future.

Maintain your confidence: It is inevitable that at one stage or another you will encounter setbacks. Don’t let these get you down. Being the youngest, newest or most inexperienced in the workforce is not always a disadvantage, use this to learn what you can from the people around you and set great habits from the get-go.

Trevor Townsend, CEO of Startup Bootcamp

SuppliedTrevor Townsend

Many jobs that exist today didn’t exist 10 years ago. Right from day one businesses are thinking globally and catering to customers with diverse needs, therefore their workforce must too. For graduates this means; you must look globally for you career to thrive and you must have a range of skills which could arch over several business functions. A well-rounded person is able to see the whole picture, build a better product and recognise patterns for better decision making.

The three most marketable aspects of a young professional would be:

1. Having a growth mindset. A degree is no longer enough, you need to constantly acquire new skills and knowledge to stay relevant. Invest your time on learning something new every day. With so many online resources and courses from the best universities around the world learning is accessible, anytime, anywhere.
2. Can do attitude: Learn as much as you can, gain experience via internships, exchange programs, volunteer programs. This will give you a breadth of experience on whether the job or industry is right for you or not.
3. Now is the time: Lastly, remember you don’t need to have all the answers now and most of us don’t. However, what we do today makes who we can be in the future so invest your time wisely and put yourself out there for opportunities. What you did in the past doesn’t determine who you will be in the future, but your actions do.

Sonya Stephens, CEO of Choovie

SuppliedSonya Stephens

The best advice I was given was from my father at a time when I was first entering the workforce. He basically said, don’t burn your bridges, the world is a lot smaller than you think and people you meet and work with now will definitely reappear down the track. So I’ve never left a job or a meeting on a sour note – I’ve resisted the temptation to get in the last word or fly off the handle when things haven’t gone my way. As a result some of my best breaks have come via people who could just as easily have become enemies if I’d let my ego get the better of me years before.

Gareth Gumbley, CEO of Frollo

SuppliedGareth Gumbley

Do all the little things 1% better than everyone else. We tend to look for one thing to make a huge impact. In reality, it is often many smaller, seemingly less-significant choices which add up to a successful career. For example, you could wait until the next day to send that thank you note, or, you could send it within an hour of leaving your interview. You could assume your boss will send that calendar invite, or, you could take one little task off their plate and send it yourself. Marginal differences when added together really do make an impact.

Peter Cook, CEO at Novatti

SuppliedPeter Cook

We are building new financial services offerings – our five graduates and interns have brought new digital skills and thinking. Blending that with 20 and 30 year veterans has created a great team with a lot of new digital thinking. Our graduates are being encouraged to bring forth their ideas and then learn how to justify these ideas so that they are commercial. Then they can be incorporated into our new services.

Tony Wu, CEO of Weploy

SuppliedTony Wu

First, go travel as far as you can. Forget about buying the flashy car, or trying to pop bottles in the club. Go to the weirdest places, eat the weirdest things and open your eyes to what the world truly can be. Get it all out of your system, you have plenty of time to be an adult. Experience cultures, and really connect with people from all different walks of life.

The successful businesses of the past, and the successful businesses of the future have one thing in common: they solve real human problems. This is something that no AI can solve by itself. If you can understand that early on, then the world becomes your oyster.

Fadi Geha, CEO of Simble

SuppliedFadi Geha

Graduates need to be open-minded, inquisitive and able to highlight what their passion is to a prospective employer. Speaking to people that they know is important as this can also open doors for them. When I finished university my first job was with an international technology and business consulting company, which was not a traditional path for an Engineering graduate back in the late 80s.

People hire people rather than a skill set, so potential employers want to know what your interests and aspirations are. Also make sure you do some research on the company before you go to the interview, as this shows initiative. Don’t expect to land the perfect job immediately, but once you start your first job, it’s really what you make of it that sets you up for the journey ahead.

Pritchett, CEO of Shootsta

SuppliedMike Pritchett

I believe a large part of career satisfaction comes from the people and the culture of the organisation you work with. People generally spend a lot of time choosing a career path, studying and becoming equipped for a career path, then when it comes time to get a job, they beg and plead to anyone, or simply take the highest offer.

Cultural fit is so important. It’s my belief that there may only be a handful of companies that you would find truly satisfying to work for in your field. At Shootsta we place a very high priority on cultural fit when bringing on new team members.

You should research everything there is to know about them and make it your sole goal to work with them, rather than taking a shotgun approach and hoping someone will accept your resume. I’ve held countless interviews where I have asked the applicant if they have any questions for me and they’ve stared at me blankly, or even worse, their only question is pay related.

Research, research, research and go to your interview equipped with everything you could possibly know about the individuals and the company you will be working for. Show the interviewer that you are not just looking for a job, you are looking for that job and will do whatever it takes.

Andrew Joiner, CEO at InMoment

SuppliedAndrew Joiner

Approach a job like you would a relationship. Evaluate whether you’re compatible and what kind of partner you’ll be to each other. In order to do this, ask yourself the following:

Does the business promote from within? Companies with this approach will help you grow fast and contribute to a larger spread of the business. If you crave structure and sticking within a specific job description, this type of culture is unlikely to fit your needs.

Who is successful? Every company has its rockstars — once you find them, use their insights and expertise to help shape your career. Most leaders are happy to talk about their own experience, and share tips on how to navigate the corporate landscape. This will clarify what success looks like for that particular business and help you build your own professional network.

What type of boss do you have? A boss can be a catalyst for your success, or send your career down a dead-end road. Look for people who have influence, and thrive on elevating those around them. The best way to identify these leaders is by looking at their team. Are they fearful or inspired? The latter reflects bosses who make sure their success are yours, too.

Nati Harpaz, CEO at Catch Group

SuppliedNati Harpaz

Prove your worth through hard work, dedication and differentiated thinking. Find a leader you enjoy working with and that you feel that you are learning from. Stick with them for better or worse so that you learn how to navigate through the easy and the hard times because at some point you will encounter both.

Nathan Airey, co-founder and Head of Ops at Bookwell

SuppliedNathan Airey

It’s invaluable to build up technical skills early in your career, because in the current job market, the demand for technical prowess far outweighs supply. Companies such as Goldman Sachs are now hiring more programmers than Facebook! Whether your interest lies in coding, Photoshop, hardware or programming, focus on building up your technical knowledge in your chosen field.

It’s also important to look for roles that support your career aspirations. Graduates looking to develop quickly should prioritise working somewhere that rewards talented and hardworking individuals – don’t be afraid to move on if this isn’t the case!

It’s worth keeping in mind that it’s easier to advance in a small but fast-growing company, as positions are continuously opening up through the ranks. Those looking to build a wide skill-set in a particular industry should aim for larger organisations that support employee movement and training.

While foundational knowledge can help get your foot in the door, it’s just as important to adopt a ‘lifelong learner’ mindset. New technologies such as AI, machine learning and automation are constantly being developed, and it’s going to be critical to your employability to stay on top of these technological trends.

Mike Rosenbaum, CEO at Spacer.au

SuppliedMike Rosenbaum

I would recommend favouring job opportunities that offer/include mentorship towards your career goals. Also don’t expect to stop learning after University – it’s a forever game.

Matthew van der Linden, MD at Flow Power

SuppliedMatthew van der Linden

I’ll be honest, I never finished my studies. A lucky combination of family and opportunity intervened and saw me start my own business instead.

Now I have six children, some have finished degrees while others are still working on graduating.

Despite being motivated by different things and pursuing very different goals, my advice has remained the same: Career trajectories can change and taking a step away from the beaten track can reward you with opportunities to grow and test yourself. Don’t be afraid of bringing new ideas to the table or challenging the status quo.

Trust your instincts but keep them grounded and do your research. A well researched and considered decision will protect you against any curve balls thrown your way.

Dan Ross, MD ANZ at Optimizely

SuppliedDan Ross

New grads, in any field, must approach their entrance into the workforce with openness, curiosity and humility. Every job is different and few fields are predictably uniform. Therefore, as you’re getting started in the workforce, pay close attention to your assumptions, convictions, and most importantly, what gives you energy.

Once I had got to a stage where I was able to figure out the areas of each job that excited me and I excelled at (usually they go hand-in-hand), I was able to focus on steering my career closer and closer to roles that were primarily made up of those things. While it’s not likely that anyone will find a job that is entirely comprised of tasks they love, doubling down on your strengths and mitigating your weaknesses is a solid strategy.

Education opens the door but work ethic, curiosity, and integrity propel you through it for the whole of your career.

Rachel Riley, co-founder and CFO at Ansarada

SuppliedRachel Riley

Give good consideration to the company you step into. Find a business that celebrates and fosters your diversity, creativity, and individuality. Find a business that has a purpose and actually believes in that purpose and mission for the customers it creates products or service for. The better we are at encouraging growth and potential, the better the impact on the business, its customers, and our wider communities.

You also want to pay attention to the people you’ll be working with and find a business with diverse, passionate employees striving for both collective and self-improvement.

Another big pointer is to recognise early on that you’ll never have all the answers or know everything. When you embrace this, you open yourself to constant learning and bettering your skills, knowledge, and expertise. Ask questions often, speak up, and chase opportunities to learn from others around you.

A word for female graduates, who are more than wired for success, but also wired to question themselves and think that they need to be perfect. It’s incredibly important women take steps to break through the voice of doubt that can ring so loud and know it’s about doing your best, not achieving perfection.

In short, find your passion and a mission that gets you up every morning. When you feel like you are making a difference, or when you have purpose, it becomes more than a career.

James Wakefield, co-founder and co-CEO of InStitchu

SuppliedJames Wakefield

Don’t worry about the remuneration of your first job. Get your foot in the door, into a business where you can gain experience and transferable skills. Typically people have very little understanding about what is involved day to day of a career that they think they’re interested in pursuing. During the early years of your career, you will get a better understanding of what different careers involve and you will be able to make a far more informed decision about what is best for you. If after a few years you determine a career change is what is best for you, then make sure you have developed a strong set of transferable skills. Oh and most importantly, dress for success.

Detch Singh, co-founder and co-CEO at Hypetap

Detch Singh

Don’t let your degree pigeonhole your career. Just because you studied one particular area at university, doesn’t mean this should define the rest of your working life. I studied a double degree in commerce and information systems, and when I graduated, I worked in mergers and acquisitions at an investment bank. Now I run an influencer marketing company — very left field for someone working in finance.

Life is full of surprises so don’t be afraid to take risks and discover where your passions truly lie. Always keep learning new things outside your “field” after university. After all, our jobs of the future may look very different to what they look like today. Don’t be bound by your degree.

Rob Newman, CEO at Nearmap

SuppliedRob Newman

There has never been a more exciting time to join the workforce. Australia is changing and as new graduates you will shape our future. We will rely less on our traditional industries of manufacturing, mining and agriculture. Instead we are turning to industries based on artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles and biotechnology. Seek out companies and industries that are changing rapidly, you will have a much better chance of creating the future you want.

Get excited about careers in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields – even if that is not your strength, be part of these industries. These disciplines are the bedrock of deep tech innovation and will drive Australia’s long term economic prosperity, setting those who pursue careers in these industries up for success.

On a more practical note, pursue your passions. There is no better time than at the beginning of your career to chase your dreams, you will be surprised what you can achieve. Surround yourself with like-minded people and never stop learning.

Mark Hawthorne, CEO of Guzman y Gomez ANZ

SuppliedMark Hawthorne

As a graduate you often have limited professional experience so at GYG, it’s values and brand affinity that sets graduates apart. Our culture is critically important to us — we make every decision based on what we believe in. We’re obsessed with our food, keeping it real, and making sure each customer loves us. If your personal goals align with the business vision and you’re prepared to learn every aspect of your role before moving up the ladder — it’s hard to go wrong. Start there, experience will come with time.

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