My podcast colleague teaches introductory marketing to his MBA students, a class offered in their first semester when their energy is high, and their enthusiasm is, too. Inevitably, these same exuberant students will appear at his office hours wanting career advice.
Of course, my podcast colleague is an academic, so while he has never steered anyone wrong, he has a limited frame of reference for his counsel. He appealed to me on a recent podcast to help him refine and focus his advice. I am sharing it here, too, since many of you probably have the same question.
So, without further ado, here are my insights gained from a decades-long career:
Watch Colin talking about this on YouTube:
Subscribe to our YouTube channel here to see all the latest videos!
Have Long-Term Goals
Hopefully, your working life will also span decades. You have likely worked some in the world and, in doing so, have determined there are some things you want to do and some things you don’t. However, flexibility is essential.
When I look at business today, change is ubiquitous. For example, jobs that used to be a thing don’t exist anymore, while jobs that didn’t exist are now abundant. Preparing for the next thing (and getting out of the last thing before it disappears) are essential skills for a long career.
Also, most of us have an immediacy focus on our short-term goals and rewards. However, your career has a longer trajectory than the here and now.
I’ve managed many teams over the years. I’ve always sat down with my direct reports and asked them effectively, “So where do you see yourself being in five, ten years’ time? I’ve done that with my kids, too. It surprises me how many people can’t answer that question.
Therefore, I would suggest that instead of thinking about it right now, focus on your career long-term. By thinking ahead, you can remain flexible, consider your changing options, and use your roles in business like stepping stones that lead to your career goals.
Take Control of Your Direction and Be Deliberate in Your Efforts
Too many people leave their career path to fate. However, what happens when fate hands you a lay-off or, worse, sacks you?
So, it’s essential to consider your role in your career path. Are you heading in a direction that you’re choosing, or are the winds of fate buffeting you one way or another? For my part, I would instead choose; one is better off aiming toward a target deliberately. It’s hard to hit a target accidentally or by counting on fate.
For example, when I was in corporate life, I set my sights on becoming what was at that point called a general manager. It was like a CEO of an organization but for an individual area of the business. I was in sales then, so I knew I needed to learn some new skills before I got there. So, I worked on getting some training for team development, marketing, and customer service. I planned my route, and it worked!
Also, you have to do a good job. My dad once told me, “If you want to get on in business, you’ve got to do a good job because everybody will want you.” So, have a plan, learn the skills, do a good job, and use experiences as a stepping stone.
There is an important distinction here, too. Hopping around from job to job isn’t the goal. The goal is to develop new skills in each position that move you toward your career goal. Then, you have the experience you need for the job you want. Just like hitting a target by accident, it’s hard to build expertise for the job you want by job-hopping without a strategy.
Consider Which Areas Have More Opportunity.
Going along with this long-term vision is the idea that the skills needed for general management were broader and more in demand than sales skills.
Don’t get me wrong; sales skills are essential and in high demand. My point is that for my goal, general management and sales skills were too narrow a specialty. Having multiple areas of experience besides sales was crucial to my plan.
This decision of generalist vs. specialist is a choice you need to make in your career. Usually, one starts as a specialist. Then, as they gain experience working, they become a generalist.
So, start by specializing; show your worth. Then, choose to continue to specialize or branch out into new areas. Both have their advantages.
What I would caution against is not choosing to be either thing. Being neither a specialist nor a generalist is the problem. It’s these workers that get left behind.
Have a Mix of Skills
Today’s employees need to have a mix of skills. Some are core skills, while others are the “latest tools.” In some ways, this advice parallels the bit about generalist vs. specialist.
Sometimes business schools get knocked for not focusing on whatever the latest hot-button tool or topic is. Some of that criticism is valid. Academic institutions are somewhat slow to move their curriculums to adapt to new business ideas. However, today’s workers need a mix of classic areas that business schools like and some of the latest tools.
For example, understanding people is essential. Despite all the change that happens, human nature does not. Social media and AI are also great tools, and knowing how to use them is essential. However, understanding those tools in the context of understanding people and having experiences with people makes those tools useful and valuable to your career.
Remember, Sometimes the Way Forward Involves a Step Sideways or Even Backward.
Sometimes your career path involves making a lateral move or even moving backward in your position. It can be hard to do this in the short term, but it is essential.
For example, when I was in sales and decided to move to general management, I was making a salary plus commission. However, my strategy to acquire new skills meant a job in training—and a substantial pay cut. I had a young family then, which was the wrong time to earn less money. However, I did it because I knew it would pay dividends. I never regretted doing it.
Building a portfolio of skills may require lateral moves or even sometimes stepping back a bit. It’s not a demotion; it’s strategy. Similarly, the pay cut is not so much earning less as it is an investment in your future earning potential. Moreover, as you go around to these different positions, you quickly find what works and what doesn’t.
On this topic of different jobs, there is a chance you could end up in a bad position or with a lousy manager. However, through the lens of acquiring new skills, you can use the bad experience just as much as you can a good experience for your career goals. It will teach you what not to do.
Cultivate Your Social Network.
During those difficult times, you need to call upon your network. So, cultivating those ties is essential.
LinkedIn has made it easy to keep in touch with people and grow that network. Also, many of your connections are weak ties. However, by connecting on LinkedIn, you can strengthen those ties.
The research shows that a significant proportion of career success can be attributable, at least indirectly, to the size and quality of our social networks. It is where you tend to hear about opportunities and get information. It is where you’ve got cheerleaders promoting you behind the scenes, and so manage your reputation among your social networks.
If you’ve got a reputation for doing a good job, working hard, and all the rest of things, that will carry. And you’ll be surprised at the sort of conversations that people will have about you.
However, avoid being predatory or disingenuous about this. Being a good person who uplifts other people and is generous with their time (within constraints) pays actual dividends in your career. It would be best if you did not neglect these opportunities.
Understand the Politics.
No matter what size of the organization, there are politics. Also, the higher you rank, the more critical politics becomes.
Politics may have a negative connotation, but it isn’t always. There are also politics that are more like protocols or ways things are done. For example, some people respond better when approached in a certain way. So, you still have an advantage when you know which way that is. There is value in knowing which way the winds blow and the most accessible paths to take to get something forward.
Politics also teach you the importance of a network and human nature. For example, junior colleagues have approached me saying, “Hey, I want to get this thing done. Do you think I should talk to this person about it via email or face-to-face?” Senior colleagues do it, too, and this happens even when it’s not a toxic political organization.
My organization was political, and, to a certain extent, I immensely enjoyed it. There’s something satisfying about getting something done in those situations.
In the context of your career success, you should think about politics from the perspective of how to get your next job. For example, ask yourself who are the people that you need to convince in two- or three years. How can you spend time meeting these people over the next couple of years or getting them to notice you? Your goal is to leverage politics to make these people think that you are the natural successor to move into whatever job you have as your goal.
My goal here is always to be helpful. These are the things I learned over my career. What would you add? I’d love to hear your suggestions in the comments below.
We can help improve your Customer Experience and Marketing and gain growth. Beyond Philosophy has been recognized by the Financial Times as the leading management consultancy for four years. Why not talk with Colin and his team about how we can help you gain growth? Click here.