#GradAdvice: Listen Before You Leap

Graduation. It’s the perfect time to look back, and forward. It’s a time to celebrate all that has been accomplished, and to set goals for the years ahead. Get inspired by the story below, and share your own stories using #GradAdvice. The important life lessons that we’ve all learned along the way deserve to be handed down to the graduates of tomorrow.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

For Nicole Anderson, the answer is simple, to listen. Listen to those who’ve traveled the road before you, and not the fake nod-your-head listening, but the truly active kind.

By simply listening, Nicole says. “It’s like I have my own board of advisors, always giving me guidance and advice.”

Nicole grew up outside of San Francisco. Her parents emigrated from the Netherlands in their 20s and while supportive, couldn’t offer her any first-hand knowledge about navigating the confusing world of college applications in the United States.

Luckily, she had her first advisor living just down the hall. Her older sister, who had no shortage of tough love for her younger sister.

“I was lucky that she’d been through all of it before me. So I watched her, learned what she went through and then formulated my own plan based on what she did,” Nicole noted. “Her advice sometimes took a more…direct…tone. After reading over my first college essay, she said, ‘If you think you can get into college with this, then send it.’ Needless to say I went back to the drawing board.”

Nicole Anderson’s graduation from UC San Diego in 1994

When starting her career, an uncomfortable experience led to an important lesson in listening. One of her first jobs at AT&T was as a network field manager. After an angry call from a customer, she hung up the phone shaken. The manager who was training her, told her calmly to next time simply listen to the customer without interjecting excuses. “I found it was best to let the customer talk through their concerns, to listen compassionately and then try and work together to address the issue. This approach led to faster resolutions and more satisfied customers.”

As Nicole grew with AT&T, she now serves as the Executive Director of Philanthropy, that calm “listen first” advice came in handy again and again. As she took on new responsibilities and graduated on to new roles, she’d spend the first part of her time learning from the previous person’s experience. “I’d hang back for 30–60 days to meet everyone and get a sense of people’s strengths. So learn and listen first, reflect and then propose new ideas and changes. You want to know the situation before you can change or address that. Some of the best pieces of advice were ones I picked up while just watching how others worked,” she said.

This philosophy of being an open learner doesn’t just help Nicole in her career, it’s helped her as she started a family as well. Her son Henry is set to graduate Kindergarten this week and her son Max is in pre-K now. Now, she finds herself thinking about what advice she wants to pass on to them.

“It’s a bit nontraditional to think of offering advice to a graduating kindergartener, but I hope Henry can take a moment to reflect on all he’s learned this year. When he started in August, he couldn’t form many words. And now he wrote his own thank you cards for his birthday presents earlier this month. It’s a lot to accomplish, and I hope he’s proud of his hard work,” she said.

“I want my boys to know that they should keep trying at something, even when that something is frustrating to them. That’s a lesson I learned from my parents’ emigration story, and one that seems to resonate with me at all ages of life and stages of my career. When you’re first learning a skill or are in a new environment, there is a tendency to jump right in and try to be great at all of whatever that “thing” is. But sometimes that’s just not possible. It’s important to take time to learn and then dive in and own it.”

“I want my boys to understand and remember that learning isn’t black and white. That when you graduate from a program or a school, the learning doesn’t stop. Learning is a life-long quest. There is always time to share and take in new things. You can always learn more.”

To celebrate all of the life-long learners this graduation season, Nicole is sharing this #GradAdvice, and hopes you do too. “I’ve been very lucky to find mentors at key points in my life,” says Nicole, “You never know how much of a difference your simple words of wisdom or encouragement can make unless you share them.”