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Graduation is upon us, and it is a time of year I reflect on the promise of tomorrow’s leaders. This year, I am especially thoughtful as my son will be graduating high school and starting his first year of college in the fall.

There are so many wonderful memories to ruminate over, but instead, I am drawn to the possibilities that lie ahead. I am optimistic about both his future and the future of tomorrow’s leaders.

As we know, every diamond needs some polishing, so here are a few pieces of advice I have for this year’s high school and college graduating classes.

Play to your strengths. Target a career you enjoy…and that others tell you that you’re good at. Ask your parents, teachers, and friends which strengths they think you have. Go out and meet people in the fields you are interested in and ask them what it’s like. Ask if you can shadow for a day. You will quickly learn what path you are more interested in following.

You don’t have to listen to every piece of advice. This may seem like a contradiction to my first piece of advice, but it’s important to balance the first and second concepts. You may receive encouragement in one field or another, but you need to have an internal barometer to know what feels right to you.

Inspiration should go hand-in-hand with realism. The nuns that taught me at my all-girls high school were, in my opinion, the quiet force behind the women’s movement. They were less formal than you’d imagine and would encourage us every day by ingraining the outlook that there was nothing we couldn’t do. Without their balanced encouragement and inspiration from my parents, I may have doubted the extent of my abilities.

There is nothing wrong with trying and failing.  Skinned knees build grit. One of the Northridge Group’s consultants had the amazing ability to share with the client her capabilities by describing her own mistakes, and ensuring she would help the client not make the same ones. Making a mistake once is fine. Don’t waste the opportunity to learn from it.

Put in the time. Part-time jobs and internships are the perfect opportunities to get your sea legs in a professional environment. Worry less about recognition and moving ahead and more about gaining a variety of skills. Build your confidence by learning what’s required for the business environment – it can be a key differentiator when you’re competing against other recent graduates.

Challenge Preconceptions.  Globalization and technology have allowed us greater access to information. But, data can be framed with bias based on many factors including culture and end-goals. It’s critical to keep an open mind, consider the data, but think for yourself. Keep the conversation going and ask the tough questions. Don’t follow blindly.

Keep a fire in your belly and take initiative. As you graduate and enter the workforce, you will need that fire in your belly because you won’t have all the necessary experience that affords leadership credibility. Your colleagues and managers will listen when they see the initiative and dedication in your work. And it is the people who retain that fire – long after they have grown and developed in their careers – whom I find, are most successful.

Never forget where you came from.  Whether a charmed life or a rough and rocky road, where you begin can teach you volumes about where you are going. Remember the people who helped you along the way and pay it forward when you have the chance.

I’m optimistic for tomorrow’s leaders. I think my son, along with the other sons and daughters taking their first steps towards their careers, will work together to make a brighter future for the next generation. Good luck to the class of 2014.

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