Professor Kevin Sharer, former CEO of Amgen, the world’s largest biotechnology company, shares his thoughts on the five things the Class of 2015 can do to have a successful life and career.

Spring is a time of new beginnings and so it is for over nine hundred members of the class of 2015 who enter the wider world beyond the Charles to begin the great journey of personal and professional life after HBS. They have learned the language, tools, and frameworks of business in their study of nearly five hundred cases; developed critical thinking, analysis, and communication skills in the classroom and beyond; have learned more about themselves and the basics of leadership and
hopefully have developed a lifelong set of new friends. They do not need more instruction, reflection, or coaching. They are ready. How can they best translate the learnings and experiences of the incredibly intense and varied past two years into a life of purpose, success, and happiness? Five thoughts come to mind and each thought has clear action implications for the immediate and distant future.

Be confident

A surprising place to start perhaps for an institution long criticized whether fairly or not for a tendency towards arrogance in its alumni. Arrogance is an isolating, off-putting, and potentially destructive trait we all must guard against. Being confident means deep down knowing you are worthy, have earned your place, can admit mistakes and knowing you can and need to grow and learn. Confidence also provides the courage to take the risks which are necessary to grow, achieve, and thrive. This confidence based courage must be tempered with a clear eyed assessment of the consequences, benefits, and mitigation that might be required as events unfold. Your training prepares you well for this task on a logical basis and as you grow in experience your instincts will become more and more effective complements to the analytic approach we rely upon at HBS. You also know you have already passed many difficult tests which should make you optimistic that you can pass others as they inevitably come. Being confident is also a key trait of leaders. People rally to quiet confidence, and confidence is often infectious.

Be humble

Combining genuine humility with deep confidence is a powerful set of traits. Being humble means you know you do not have all the answers, experiences, or insights and that you are an imperfect human being. Moreover, you do not hesitate to act on that humility by asking, learning, reflecting, and owning your choices. Being confident means you do not fear asking questions, depending on others, and seek continuous growth personally and for the enterprise you lead. You should be confident enough to know that you are fundamentally sound as a person, need to and can embrace risk, and have potential for real growth. You should be humble enough to know you will need the knowledge, experience, advice, coaching, and help of others to succeed. It is really that simple to express but like most powerfully important thoughts not always easy to implement.

Commit to growth

A confident and humble person knows they can and must grow. Grow in wisdom based on experience, observation, and feedback. Grow in skills and knowledge from focus, time, and effort. Grow as a leader by knowing you can, deeply embracing the need to grow, developing a process and support system to help you grow, and know it is a lifelong journey. Grow as a person by becoming less self-centered and more attuned to others, being able to clearly own mistakes and learn, and know that EQ will trump IQ, as long as IQ hits threshold for the task. Short of the most complex and arcane, your IQ is certainly at threshold. Emotional intelligence is both inherent and can be developed. Be sure you do not fall prey to the too common pattern of highly intelligent people thinking that IQ alone will inevitably lead to the right outcome.

Do a superb job

So much time and effort has been put into thinking about how to professionally succeed with the hope there might be a well-trod, clear path that illuminates the way forward. The core answer is simple and enduring. Do the job you have superbly. Know how and who will evaluate you and what will be the frequency, nature, and relative importance of the measures. There is usually a “table stakes” set of measures that are required for success but often other measures exist which could be more subtle but just as important. Say you hit the numbers, closed the deal, made the investment or delivered the pitch. But how did you do it? What do others conclude about your efforts? And how enduring is the result? Do the job well and mentors will find you, opportunities will present themselves, and your responsibilities and rewards will grow. Focus on your career or “success” at the expense of doing the job and most likely you will be disappointed.

Live a balanced life

The last thought might be the most important of all, but the most difficult to implement. Live a balanced life. Balanced means making time and putting real effort into taking care of yourself, your family, your friends, and your career. Later on or even right away it could also mean giving back to your school, the community, the nation, and those less fortunate. Living a balanced life is a big idea that at the limit will demand the best of you and provide the biggest life rewards. This is so hard because career demands so much in time, energy, and mindshare and we are often more than willing to give. We further rationalize this behavior by saying we have no choice, and we will get to the other stuff later. Sometimes work is unforgiving and that is the way it is. However, if you find this the norm, do something! Schedule date nights, protect time for children, plan and take vacations, make fitness paramount, read a non-business book, and the list goes on. The big idea here is to not just acknowledge that living a balanced life is a good idea but to have the focus, will, and courage to make it so. The rewards will exceed the size of any bank account.

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