CEOs tell new grads what they wish they’d known from the start

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It’s time to don those caps and gowns, and with college graduation, many seniors are set to begin their careers, certainly a daunting thing to consider. To help recent grads — heck, anyone — navigate their path forward, we tapped CEOs for the wisdom they wish they had already tucked away in their pocket when they walked off the stage with their degrees.

Remember that your career and life happen at the same time

Above all Outlook calendar holds and “urgent” e-mails, remember this: to thine own self be true.

Cathy Decker, principal and co-founder of the Decker/Royal Agency, an NYC-based communications company serving clients in the travel, tourism and hospitality industry, wishes someone would have clued her into this one at the podium.

“In my experience, the most successful people (and probably the most privileged) compartmentalize less and integrate their work, families and passions more; so that regular exercise, eating well and attending to relationships for example, are as necessary as professional achievement,” she said.

“I wish I had understood this better as a young person, especially as a new mother pursuing a career, because I would have resented less, prioritized joy more and brought a healthier, more capable person to every task I took on.”

It’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission

“If I’d had this piece of advice in mind, it would have been a game-changer for me,” said Gabriel Dungan, CEO and founder of ViscoSoft, which makes high-quality, affordable mattress toppers.

The Charlotte, NC, entrepreneur has followed this advice — which originates from Yale graduate Grace Hopper, a computer pioneer (and Navy rear admiral) who was born in 1906 — from Day 1 of founding his biz, and it’s yet to lead him astray.

“And to be clear: This piece of advice is not about doing things that are illegal or immoral,” he said. “It’s about not waiting for approval before doing what you need to do. It’s about acting rather than hesitating when opportunity presents itself. I missed out on many memorable career moments because I hesitated rather than forging ahead because I was too worried about waiting for permission.”

Develop your etiquette for asking questions

“One thing I definitely underestimated when I was younger was the power of a well-phrased question,” said Weston, Conn.-based Michael Sitver, founder and CEO of Letterjoy, which mails weekly historical letters or telegrams along with a postscript section explaining its context.

“Learning how to phrase good questions and follow-ups is something I always work on,” he said. “Well-phrased polite questions are great for learning, guiding employees and negotiating.”

The small biz owner notes that the best questions are short, direct and end with a question mark (“this last part is ignored way more than you’d think”). Sitver also emphasizes the importance of not folding too many sub-questions into your inquiries and instead, framing each question as one thing you want to learn.

“You can always follow up,” he said.

Don’t waste time worrying about your peers’ career trajectory

“It’s easy to look at those around us that we perceive to have more success than we have, but it’s much more beneficial to channel that energy into your own growth and your own progress,” said Mike Nemeroff, the CEO and co-founder of Philadelphia-based custom apparel company, RushOrderTees.

Seriously, stop the LinkedIn stalking now.

“In all honesty, it would have saved me a lot of time comparing myself to others and feeling like I’m behind in my career,” said Nemeroff. “As an entrepreneur, I traveled off the beaten path, and seeing my old classmates get corporate jobs and progress in their careers left me feeling inadequate and constantly doubting myself. If I had known that the journey I was on was simply different and there was no point in comparing myself to people with different goals, I wouldn’t have [had] those negative feelings, and I would have been even more committed and motivated to reach my own goals than I already was.”

Be a nerd

“Love something enough to dive down endless rabbit holes learning more about it. Talk to other nerds about it. Become an expert in whatever it is you love,” said Margit Detweiler (right), founder and CEO of content strategy agency Gyrate Media and a collective for Gen X women, TueNight.

“I haven’t been paid to write about music for 20 years, but I will never regret being an expert on ’90s Riot Grrrls. Go search them out on Spotify — you’re welcome,” she said.

Making the wrong decision is better than indecision

As a former Wall Street attorney turned entrepreneur, Jessica Dennehy, founder of Pivot & Slay coaching, would have made this the earworm for her post-grad self.

“Be confident enough to take a risk and follow your gut instincts,” she said. “You have to be a decisive action-taker in order to succeed in business. Willingness to take a risk and suffer the consequences is far better than waiting for a perfect solution. It took me a decade on Wall Street before I had the courage to ditch my corporate life and go all in on my business venture. If I had the courage to start that journey sooner, my companies would be even more successful now.”

If you’re toying with the idea of starting your own business, “start starting,” urged Dennehy.

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