The MPW Insiders Network is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: How important is it to know where you want to be in five years? is written by Gloria Larson, president of Bentley University.
As the president of a business university, I am often asked by students and parents about the importance of selecting a specific major and having a career path carefully mapped out. While this may surprise some people, I am a firm believer in being open to change. In fact, I see tremendous value in not always having a plan. What I tell those students and parents, and even those who are already in the working world, is that it’s far better to follow your passions, not a predetermined career plan. Know what you love to do and what makes you happy, then use that as a guide in going after that first job, and the next one, as you continue in your career.
I can’t underscore enough the importance of being open to change and embracing new opportunities and challenges. Most successful career paths come with unexpected curves. And, each new job does not need to be a step up to the next rung of the ladder—as Fortune’s Pattie Sellers says, think of your career as a jungle gym, with multiple paths over and up. I tell students that if they are interested in exploring another industry or position, lateral moves may open up new doors and a whole new career.
My own trajectory emphasizes the benefit of considering new career paths. When I graduated from law school, most of my classmates joined well-known law firms. But I had the opportunity during school to work on pro bono mental health and environment projects, which fueled my passion to serve the public interest. After graduating, I took that route and ran a statewide program that provided legal services to low-income elderly. The job was incredibly satisfying and I gained tremendous confidence from the responsibilities and opportunities that came with it. From there, I was selected to work for one of five commissioners at the Federal Trade Commission in Washington. Having one of the few women serving at the time in a high-level government post act as my mentor helped affirm the unorthodox choices I was making. This job further clarified my passion for civic service. Through a combination of hard work and taking on the most unexpected of roles, I’ve since had the good fortune to work as the secretary of economic affairs for a Massachusetts governor, as a partner at a leading national law firm where I focused on regulatory and business development issues, and now as the first female president of a global business university.
As I gained levels of responsibility throughout my career, I honed critical skills like collaboration, public speaking, working with diverse personalities, and problem solving—all of which helped me succeed. I’m a firm believer in merging these so-called “soft skills” with professional or technical knowledge. For me, it was combining soft skills with my passion: legal expertise. For someone else, that passion might be data analytics or application design. The integration of these hybrid skills will allow any talented individual to get ahead in their field of choice.
Whatever the combination is, the need for a deep and varied skill set is in demand. A study recently commissioned by Bentley University found that employers today are looking for candidates who are versatile and possess multiple talents. More important than having a set plan, think about the competencies you will need to master in order to continue following your interests and the next phase of professional growth. Each position I held allowed me to develop new skills that led to my next career opportunity, all while staying true to my passion to serve the public interest.
As someone who came to higher education leadership via a less traditional route, mine is a strong case for keeping an open mind about your career. For me, a personal turning point happened while working at my law firm. That’s when I first had the opportunity to work with millennials and experienced first-hand this generation’s holistic way of thinking and their optimistic approach to finding their way in the world. I soon learned that Bentley was looking for a new college president, and although I never planned to work in higher education, I took the plunge. That was 10 years ago and I could not be happier with my decision.