4 career lessons you should learn in your 20s

Courtesy of Piazza

MPW Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: What is one piece of advice all millennials should take before entering the workforce? is written by Pooja Sankar, CEO and founder of Piazza.

I grew up in the traditional Indian town of Patna, where I was the first woman to attend IIT (the Indian equivalent of MIT). Despite the significance of this accomplishment, being the first also meant mapping out my entire career on my own. This was extremely difficult considering I had no role model or mentor to turn to for advice. Luckily, after a lot of painful mistakes, I finally found my calling five years ago when I founded Piazza, a social collaboration and recruiting platform. I often hire junior employees, usually right out of college or graduate school; fortunately, my company is able to provide the kind of mentorship and guidance that I never had. Here are some of my best tips for those just beginning their careers:

Seek out professional mentors. I realized early in my career that feedback at large companies was infrequent and often based on project outcomes, not on career aspirations. So, when I started Piazza, I sought out my own mentors to help me establish a long-term vision for my company, rather than short-term objectives. I recruited the smartest engineers, salespeople, and entrepreneurs I could find and I enlisted their expertise. I was astounded by how many successful people took the time to get to know me and to understand my vision. Their advice was always specific to my unique situation and priorities; this helped me develop a more sophisticated thought process and long-term career plan. Five years later, I still refer to many of them when I encounter new problems I don’t know how to solve.

Work in an entrepreneurial environment. If you know your desired career path in your twenties, congratulations! You’re definitely in the minority. For the rest of you, this should be an exciting time of discovery. You’ll want to find an organization where you’re not pigeonholed into one type of role and where you get to work on many different projects to help find what you enjoy most. It doesn’t have to be a startup – it should just be an organization where you can identify your strengths and passion.

Focus on your strengths. In my opinion, too many millennials just beginning their careers focus on trying to overcome their weaknesses, instead of discovering where they can leverage their strengths. For example, one of my product managers is an expert at bringing new products to market. And she does it incredibly quickly, which is critical when you work in a small company. Rather than putting her in a position that didn’t play to her strengths, she works in an area where she’s stronger than almost anyone else at the company and has become an invaluable team member.

Accept feedback. I get tough feedback every day as CEO. Admittedly, I’m doing many things for the first time and can make mistakes. I think of feedback as a gift; if I didn’t accept it, then I would never grow as a leader. Early in your career, it’s tempting to refuse to admit when you need help because you think it makes you look weak or incompetent. Instead, I encourage you to embrace your vulnerability and to proactively seek out as much feedback as you can from your peers and network. But be judicious about the advice you take; don’t be afraid to follow your own path.

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Can millennials revolutionize business? by Erica Dhawan, co-author of “Get Big Things Done” and CEO of Cotential.

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