7 Successful Leaders Share Their Best Advice for Young Leaders

The big overarching goal of the Mountain West Credit Union Foundation is to support the long-term success of credit unions through programs that support leadership development. Many of those programs are focused on developing young leaders. We have an interest in the development of young leaders because they quite literally hold the future of the credit union movement in their hands.

These following short snippets of advice from successful individuals might be directed at young adults, but they are also good reminders for all of us, regardless of where we are in our career paths. So, I urge you to share this post with the young leaders in your life. But also, read up for a refresher coarse.

1. Embrace failure.

Best selling author J.K. Rowling, told Matt Lauer on NBC’s Today that she doesn’t think we talk about failure enough – especially to young people. “It would’ve really helped to have someone who had had a measure of success come say to me, ‘You will fail. That’s inevitable. It’s what you do with it.'”

Rowling, who knows a thing or two about moving on from failure to achieve enormous success, says that failure is a gift if it results in valuable knowledge about yourself and how to persevere through adversity.

2. Just say “Yes!”

When we are just starting out in our careers, it’s impossible to know how important our experiences and growing network of connections will be later on. That’s why this advice is so valuable.

In Katie Couric’s book The Best Advice I Ever Got, she quotes Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, as advising, “Find a way to say yes to things. Say yes to invitations to a new country, say yes to meet new friends, say yes to learn something new. Yes is how you get your first job, and your next job, and your spouse, and even your kids.”

3. Make a decision, and then choose to make it great.

Current Yahoo president and CEO Marissa Mayer, shared some advice she received early in her career while trying to decide whether to become Google’s 20th employee. “My friend Andre said to me, ‘You know, Marissa, you’re putting a lot of pressure on yourself to pick the right choice, and I’ve gotta be honest: That’s not what I see here. I see a bunch of good choices, and there’s the one that you pick and make great.’ I think that’s one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten.”

Having options is a good thing, but often we can get paralyzed trying to make the “right” decision. This is perhaps especially true when we are young. Sometimes it’s good to remember that what we do with our decisions is often more important than the decision itself.

4. Don’t just follow your passion – contribute to something larger than yourself.

As someone who believes deeply in the credit union movement, I know personally the satisfaction of knowing that my day-to-day actions support something larger than my own personal career success.

Steve Jobs’ biographer Walter Isaacson, shared this piece of advice from a conversation he had with Jobs shortly before he died, “Yeah, we’re always talking about following your passion, but we’re all part of the flow of history … you’ve got to put something back into the flow of history that’s going to help your community, help other people … so that 20, 30, 40 years from now … people will say, this person didn’t just have a passion, he cared about making something that other people could benefit from.”

5. View your career as a jungle gym, not a ladder.

Before she was the COO at Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg worked in law, journalism, government work, and tech. She was the Chief of Staff to the United States Treasury and the VP of Global Online Sales and Operations at Google. In her book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will To Lead, Sheryl takes a look at her own history and emphasizes that career paths don’t generally follow a straight line. We might talk about climbing the career “ladder”; but ladders only have one direction – up or down. A jungle gym, on the other hand, allows you to move in every direction. Jungle gyms allow you the space to get creative and explore new options.

 “Jungle gyms offer more creative exploration”, writes Sheryl. “There are many ways to get to the top of a jungle gym. The ability to forge a unique path with occasional dips, detours and even dead ends presents a better chance for fulfillment.”

6. Focus is more important than luck.

As our access to people and information increases, so does the number of distractions. Learning to decide what’s most important and shut out everything else is a vital skill. Serena Williams, who grew up in a rough neighborhood, spells out the importance of staying focused on what you’re doing, even amongst some rather compelling distractions. “If you can keep playing tennis when somebody is shooting a gun down the street, that’s concentration.”

When asked about being lucky, Serena said: “Luck has nothing to do with it, because I have spent many, many hours, countless hours, on the court working for my one moment in time, not knowing when it would come.”

7. Have a timeline for success when you start a new job.

In an interview with Business Insider, StumbleUpon CEO, Mark Bartels says the first thing you should do when starting a new job is to clearly define your goals and create a timeline for their accomplishment. “Mapping out a concrete timeline for yourself should be one of the first things you do when you start a new gig…. We talk about budgets; we talk about planning your finances; but what a lot of people don’t do is plan out the next 12 to 18 or 24 months of their careers.”

Knowing exactly what you want to achieve in any given role gives you a metric for evaluating your success and keeps you from looking back over years of work and wondering if you’ve accomplished anything worthwhile.

So, what about you? What advice would you offer up to young leaders?

About Dan Finerty

Dan Finerty is the Director of Marketing at the Mountain West Credit Union Association, a Credit Union champion, a Credit Union Development Educator (CUDE), and an award-winning marketer. Dan has over 14 years of marketing experience in communications, retail, packaged goods, and, of course, Credit Unions. He believes that Credit Unions have an incredible story to tell and works with some of the brightest Credit Union professionals to help promote Credit Unions to the public. Dan holds two Bachelor’s of Science in Marketing and in Management. He is also a swell guy.


  1. Johnny McCarron

    I like your advice to embrace failure. It is so important to learn at a young age how to overcome failure. However, if you don’t know how to recover from failure, you can really hurt your leadership ability. Do you have any other tips about becoming a leader at a young age?

    1. Dan Finerty

      Thanks Johnny! I can’t say that we often have specific advice for young leaders (although, I probably need a little context – how young are we talking?) but I do think that the topics on this blog are universal, regardless of whether you are just starting your leadership journey or consider yourself experienced. That being said, most of the articles you will find here are written with emerging leaders in mind.

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