Cathy Engelbert, CEO of Deloitte LLP
Photography courtesy Deloitte LLP
By Cathy Engelbert
October 14, 2015

The MPW Insider network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question: What should every 20-something do to set themselves up for success? is written by Cathy Engelbert, CEO of Deloitte.

As the mother of two teenagers, I can say with certainty that giving career advice to millennials is more art than science. So let me start with this: Success often comes from one thing – failure. Or more correctly, learning from failure and the hard work and reinvention that follows. And while the whole failure-is-good theory has attracted some debate, I do think there is merit in it, especially for 20-somethings more accustomed to being entrepreneurial.

For example, many of our leading technology companies have seen their biggest successes come directly out of failed concepts. They build entire research and development budgets knowing that winning ideas don’t always start out that way. Obviously, there are non-negotiables in all businesses – areas where the job always has to be done right. But there are also areas where it’s safe for people to try new approaches, innovate, and, yes, take risks. Young professionals shouldn’t have to let a fear of failure hold them back; they should feel emboldened to take on challenges in creative ways.

But here’s the thing – we as business leaders have to do our part. It’s wrong to just assume young people are eager to take risks. Many of today’s 20-somethings are used to being high achievers; they rarely failed in school and they certainly don’t want to start now. I believe that 20-somethings would be more likely to embrace experimentation – and provide additional value – if they felt safe to do so. A 2015 Deloitte survey of millennials shows that only 28% feel that their current organization is making full use of their skills. We can tap this potential by letting younger professionals know that we don’t expect them to have all the answers, that we want them to experiment – take appropriate risks – and that we will enthusiastically support and counsel them when they need it.

In addition to encouraging failure, I would also encourage companies to broadly create a culture of innovation. That should mean more than just technology and invention, it should mean something millennials know well: Ingenuity. Being able to see and recombine existing assets and know-how in new ways, allows us to take an “ingenious approach to innovation” – one that creates even more value from what we already have and know.

And while innovation is risky, not innovating is even riskier in today’s fast-changing marketplace. When companies move beyond the fear of failure and get more comfortable with managing and taking risks, the possibilities and potential benefits of innovation grow. Moreover, we can create innovation-friendly environments without jeopardizing established success practices. This is where ideas like labs and other ingenuity efforts come into play. Such initiatives can provide professionals with the flexibility they need to experiment, while also ensuring they protect the integrity of the core business – whether they are 2o-somethings or not.

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