“If I asked you to do one thing and you’d get half a million dollars—and by the way, it’s legal and your parents would be proud of you—would you do it?” Ed Swallow asked a room full of students and parents at WashingtonExec’s Education and Leadership event last week. “This isn’t a trick question.”
Most of the hands went up.
“OK,” Swallow said. “Great. Graduate from high school.”
It’s never too early to start planning for success, especially when the choices you make in your teens and twenties are the foundation for your future. But that can be hard to appreciate when you’re focused on studying for your next exam.
That’s why people like Swallow and retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Balan Ayyar think it’s so important to talk to students about leadership and professionalism from the beginning.
Ayyar was the commanding general of Combined Joint Interagency Taskforce 435 in Kabul, Afghanistan, and is the past president and CEO of Sevatec, Inc. Students entering the military or the workforce don’t always have the professional skills they need to succeed in those environments, he says, which are very different from what they’ve experienced in school.
“But all of these things can be learned,” he said.
Both Swallow and Ayyar emphasize that understanding your environment is key. For example, dress for the job you want, not the job you have. Swallow’s career in STEM has spanned more than 20 years. He is now vice president of Vaeros, a division of the Aerospace Corp.
“One of the biggest problems I see is engineers who have never worn a suit and tie but want to be VPs,” he said. From your interview to your last day at work, he says, you should dress the way your peers and superiors do.
“The WashingtonExec Education Leadership Program is very helpful,” he said. “It was reassuring to hear from two accomplished leaders who discussed about critical elements for success and leadership. I wish our kids get more chances to attend such events.”
The power of culture cannot be understated, Ayyar says, which is why it’s important to pay attention to the little things. How you do things is just as important as what you are doing: take pride in your work, whether you’re an intern making copies or the CEO. Ayyar himself is in transition to a new CEO role that will be announced shortly.
“Practicing service to others is another way to be a champion,” he said. “Every young professional I know that has this as part of their life is a high-performing team player at work.”
One other piece of expert advice? “WAIT.” That’s Swallow’s acronym for meetings, interviews and overall success: “Ask yourself: Why Am I Talking?”
Students and parents alike laughed at that one.
“It was a great learning moment for myself,” Laks Prabhala said, senior vice president and chief cyber defense security officer at IP Network Solutions Inc. “I wish we had such great events when we were growing up. Thanks, WashingtonExec!”