Over the last several months, I have heard the career journeys for a couple dozen experienced and successful colleagues. Some have worked their entire careers at one company. Others have changed jobs many times. Most have relocated. Many have faced challenges, layoffs, acquisitions, divestitures, disappointments, victories, and any kind of career event you can imagine. All have had successful careers. So, what is the best advice these individuals have offered? What are those threads that are common to every successful individual? Of course, there is much to be learned from others, but I have tried to capture those most critical elements they offer. Below are seven items of advice I captured from the career journeys of others:
- You own your own career – You cannot expect anyone else to manage your career. Certainly, you can rely upon mentors, bosses, and others to advocate for you. You can utilize their advice. You can lean on others for guidance. But, you cannot take the attitude, “I’ll just do my best and trust that things will work out,” and expect great things to happen. You need to take initiative. You need to take the ball and run with it yourself. The best advice I could give would be to envision what role or what responsibilities do you hope to have in five years. Ask yourself, “Can I get there from here?” If the answer is “yes,” then develop a plan that would make you the obvious choice when that opportunity arises. If the answer is “no,” then develop a plan to either make a significant career shift or begin looking for that next opportunity elsewhere.
- Expect the unexpected – No individual has a career journey that did not involve an unexpected turn or two. You have to expect it… or at least not be surprised when it happens. In my own journey, I once was unexpectedly unemployed when my entire division was eliminated in one day. It was probably the best thing that ever happened in my career! It was that event that led me to the pharmaceutical industry… the best industry possible! So, it is good to have alternate pathways in mind. Make yourself indispensable in more than one area. Become an expert in something else.
- Some risks are necessary – It is almost inconceivable in this day to spend an entire career without being faced with “that risky decision.” Taking some risks is almost synonymous with success. You have to be willing to venture out of your comfort zone… out of that nice, easy rut that you find yourself in. You may have to move into a new functional area. You may have to relocate to a city where you know no one. You may have to take a temporary role. In hearing the career journeys of the individuals I mentioned, almost everyone mentioned a role they had where they knew very little about the job before taking it. Most said they had to sink or swim right away. And, most said those roles were amongst their most satisfying afterward. Don’t be afraid to try something entirely foreign to you! If you can make it with that kind of role, you can make it anywhere.
- Some sacrifices are required – Most individuals agree that sacrifices may be required to advance your career. For some, it means moving your family away from family, friends, and comfortable surroundings to a new area. For others, it means financial and time sacrifices to pursue additional degrees. For others, it means assuming roles you may not have chosen in order to learn something new. In every case, individuals were faced with those difficult decisions that involved tough choices. So, just be prepared… nearly everyone faces that fork in the career road that means making either a safe choice or one that involves personal sacrifice.
- Learn from both the good and the bad – Every individual experienced good situations in their successful careers. However, each also experienced a very difficult situation… a bad boss, bad company, difficult time, high stress, negative consequences, etc. The advice from these experienced individuals is that we must learn from every situation. With a bad boss, learn how to treat others. Learn what you will never do when you are in that role. In a stressful position, learn how to deal with the stress successfully. Learn about yourself. Learn how you thrive. Learn how to survive. Learn from both the good and the bad.
- Your network is critical – Every successful individual develops and nurtures a network of others. Most individuals experienced career advancement because of someone they previously worked with or worked for. Many had career surprises because of someone they met, someone that knew a friend, or someone that had something in common with them. You will be surprised how impactful a good and growing network can be to your career. Nurturing it is essential.
- Pay it forward – Every individual also stated that they eventually came to a point where their greatest career desire was to “pay it forward” — to give back to others in ways that others had benefited their own careers. Making a difference for someone else eventually became a key driver to each one. Giving someone else a hand in the same way they had benefited became a career driver. Service to others actually accelerated careers in some instances. When individuals stopped becoming focused only on their own success, they saw their careers advance faster and in ways they did not expect.
I would have cherished such advice early in my own career. Knowing what to expect and having a chance to formulate my own plans, expectations, and journey with this advice in mind could have saved significant indecision, anxiety, and second-guessing had someone shared it with me then. So, hopefully, those of you in the first half of your career can learn and gain from the wisdom of others. And, those of you in the second half can see what is actually happening to you now and it might allow you opportunities for mid-course corrections. Finally, I hope all of us see, no matter where we are in our career journey, that paying it forward — seeking to add value to the lives of others — brings satisfaction and fulfillment that cannot be attained in any other way.
Thanks to those of you that have shared your own career journey. Have a great day and I hope that this wisdom helps everyone take that next career step.