The Best Way to Stay Competitive

Photograph by Mark Fortenberry

The Fortune 500 Insider Network is an online community where top executives from the Fortune 500 share ideas and offer leadership advice with Fortune’s global audience. David M. Carroll, senior executive vice president of wealth and investment management at Wells Fargo, has answered the question: What’s something you wish you knew before your first day of work?

The honest answer to this question is that there are a lot of things I wish I had known when I walked in the door for my first day of work years ago. Time and experience are great teachers, and I’ve certainly had my share of learning opportunities along the way.

Today, when I have a chance to talk with young people who are just starting out in their careers, I find I often learn more from them than they do from me. When they ask for advice, though, I tell them that—from my current vantage point—I think they’ll have an edge in their careers if they do these things:

  • Have an agenda: Decide what you want to do, learn, and accomplish.
  • Learn how to make a decision and move on.
  • Be willing to go where others may not.
  • Be impatient with the status quo.
  • Learn the fine line between being recognized for what you do and being humble about your success.
  • Make friends with someone in technology (you’ll be glad you did).
  • Say, “I don’t know” readily.
  • Find time to have fun and laugh.
  • Raise your hand when you have—or see—a problem.
  • Know what you’re good at and what you’re not good at, and develop the skills that don’t come as naturally to you.
  • Remember that you are in charge of your morale.
  • And, finally, don’t make any important decisions when you are tired, angry, or hungry, because your judgment will be clouded.



Over the course of my career, I’ve worked with some great leaders. I’ve also made my share of mistakes. These experiences have shown me that it’s important to:

Ask for feedback, listen to it, and act on it
Great leaders are self-aware. They seek out direct, personal feedback, both formal and informal. Ask the people around you how they experience you. What are your strengths and weaknesses? Where can you improve? Listen to what they say, and then act on what you learn.

Sharpen your communication skills
Everything we do in business involves communicating. You need to be able to convey an idea clearly, crisply, and in a compelling way to sell concepts, motivate people, and accomplish things. Part of communicating effectively is knowing—and reading—your audience as you speak so you can meet them where they are.

Be ready to reinvent yourself

The pace of change in our world today can make your head spin. If you want to stay relevant and competitive over time, you have to be willing to start over, take a different path, and try something new. If you are adept at reinventing yourself, that dead end you think you’ve hit may turn out to be just a bend in the road on your way to a whole new adventure.

If I had to boil all of the advice I have down to one thought, it would be this: While education is important, the details of the subjects you studied in school won’t be that much use on the job. The most important things you can take away from your education and bring with you to the working world are an ability to think critically and creatively and work well under pressure. Once you are in the workforce, your real education begins. Keep your eyes open and pay attention, and you’ll learn a great deal over the long haul.

David joined Wachovia Bank & Trust Company in 1979 and then First Union National Bank (Wachovia’s predecessor) in 1981. From 2005 until the merger with Wells Fargo, David served as senior executive vice president and head of Wachovia’s Capital Management Group, which included retail brokerage (Wachovia Securities), asset management (Evergreen Investments), and Retirement and Investment Products. Mr. Carroll earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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