Paul Gaffney, SEBA advisory board member, entrepreneur and Harvard graduate spoke during a School of Economics and Business Administration Executive Speaker Series event on February 24 to a group of students and alumni interested in how to impress future or current employers in an era of rapid change and globalization.
“A career is a collection of happy accidents,” Gaffney said at the top of his address. “It’s how you cultivate and nurture the relationships you develop along the way that matters.”
Gaffney’s “collection of happy accidents” began when he took a consulting position for a software company. Taking the job at the beginning of the tech boom, Gaffney ultimately spent 15 years in technology and retail, and racked up accomplishments like launching Officedepot.com—the third largest eCommerce site—and holding executive positions at Staples, Desktone (since acquired by VMWare) and AAA Northern California, Nevada and Utah.
Gaffney told the audience that at the start of any career, “be prepared to get a lot of ‘Nos’ and embrace them.” In his dormitory at Harvard they had a wall of rejection where everyone posted their rejection letters. Seeing a wall of rejection was a cathartic process, and it helped him move from feeling rejected and disappointed to becoming more aware of the perspective of those employers.
In preparation for his keynote, Gaffney met with a number of executives in leading organizations and asked them to provide their perspective on the current generation entering the workforce. The common opinion was that the next generation of workers are entitled, flighty, lazy and lacking knowledge of professional basics.
Rather than take offense at this perception, Gaffney encouraged the audience to tackle it head on. He challenged them to cultivate the ability to develop perspective and address those prejudices in four different ways: demonstrating curiosity; showing signs of emergent leadership by engaging in thoughtful conversation and asking more questions; becoming comfortable while establishing connections; and developing concise story-telling skills.
The globalization and rapid change of technology that is happening now is both good news and bad news for those entering the workplace or changing careers. It means there is now more competition for positions than when Gaffney started out his career.
“You are no longer just competing for position with others in your 3-digit area code, you are competing with individuals across the globe,” said Gaffney. This is a new challenge to the emerging workforce, but it is also an opportunity, as individuals can also access resources across the globe. “Take advantage of this,” he added. “Because executives who did not have such luxuries when they were entering the workforce see this lack of utilizing all the resources at our finger tips today as lazy.”
The event concluded with a vibrant question and answer period, and Gaffney ended the discussion with one last piece of advice. “The best strategists have the best questions,” he said. “Be intentional, be thoughtful, be curious and nurture your connections.”