Over the course of the last couple of years, I have had the privilege of hearing the detailed career journey experiences of over 20 successful executives. These individuals encompass many different disciplines (quality, manufacturing, HR, commercial, R&D, procurement, EHS, finance, and others) and most covered multiple companies and very diverse experiences. Each individual has a unique career journey, but I have learned that each of these individuals experienced similar defining moments along the way.
The experiences of these individuals can help each of us better understand our own journey or at least anticipate what might occur and how we can prepare for them when they do occur.
Here are those key learnings shared by these successful individuals:
- Don’t expect your career to be a straight line – The traditional thinking when you begin your career is that you will spend a few years at one level, then move to the next logical progressive position each few years in orderly, step-wise fashion. However, that is simply not the norm. Careers more often have several points when progress might involve a step sideways or even back down temporarily. Of the 20 or so career journeys I heard, probably half of them involved taking a lateral or downward moves out of necessity or as a result of another defining event. Be prepared for multiple career detours as you progress.
- You will face multiple decision points – As with anything in life, your career journey will involve a number of significant decisions points. For example, all of the executives I reference faced career-defining decisions. One had to decide whether to stay in research or move into more business-related areas. Others moved from Operations into areas completely outside it. Most had decisions about knowing when to stay or leave a company. Anyone starting early in their career must understand that key decisions will arise and you need to begin now considering what values you hold, what work you are most passionate about, and what risks you are willing to take to advance your career.
- You will have to take risks – Speaking of risks, every successful executive took significant risks more than once in their career. By significant risks, I mean moving to a totally different discipline, relocating, taking a difficult stand, leaving a great job, or just stepping into the unknown. Success, to a large extent, is a function of how great a risk you are willing to take. It is rare that an individual will have profound career success by always “playing it safe.” Be willing to take that measured risk that could mean all the difference in your career.
- You will have setbacks – No successful executive has a setback-free career journey. All 20 of the executives faced adversity, such as a job loss, devastating defeat, or other seemingly crushing event in their career. However, each one took that event as a learning opportunity and moved on to something even better. In some cases, the executive mentioned that they would never have taken a risk on their own without the “push” they received by their unexpected event. So, when those events do occur, look at them as that push you need to do something different or go where you would not have otherwise. Learn from it and be better as a result.
- Other individuals will impact you – Each executive mentioned the importance of other people in their career journey. Some talked about mentors, others about a boss that took a chance with them, and others talked about the immeasurable influence that a particular leader had on them. The point is that you cannot do it alone. You need to network, you need to have relationships, you need to open yourself up to what you can learn from others as you advance in your career. When you find such a person, don’t let them go!
- Chasing a title or salary is a mistake – Each successful executive talked about their motivation. They talked about why they did what they did. None of them talked about chasing a title, except in the context in terms of how that sidetracked their career. No one benefited by taking a position merely for the title or merely for the increased salary. Learning what motivates you… learning where your passion lies… learning what is important to you will drive your career in positive ways that you’ll talk about decades from now.
- You will feel completely overmatched at some point – Every individual mentioned a time when they assumed a role that they honestly felt they were not ready for. They all were in a position that felt overwhelming or too much. Yet, each talked about how much they learned from that experience… how much they learned about the job and how much they learned about themselves. Taking a role that seemed too much, taught them their limits. Had they never assumed a stretch position, they would have remained in their smaller, more confined place. Stretching taught them about thriving when they were uncomfortable.
- Eventually, you will define career success in ways you never expected – Early in my own career, I defined success as the right job, with the right salary, in the right location. However, as I progressed through my career, I began finding greater career fulfillment in helping others achieve their own success. This same conclusion was true for most of the executives I know. Their career focus seems to change from a focus on their own personal success to the success of their teams and individuals around them. When you begin seeing the success others experience, you begin defining your own career as complete.
A career journey is perilous. It can be filled with risk, unknown pathways, detours, and, sometimes, fear. However, as you watch it unfold over the years, you’ll see that your own story, though unique, will mirror what others have experienced. You will see that you had to make career changes as conditions dictated, you were forced to make sometimes uneasy decisions, you took risks, you survived the setbacks, other individuals played a major role in your success, you found fulfillment in unexpected ways, and, despite your education and training, you had to thrive in unfamiliar surroundings at times. Your journey will likely include all the things that most successful executives face. Your ability to achieve ultimate success may depend on how you handle these events and situations as they occur. Don’t be surprised. Don’t be afraid. Charge forward with confidence. And, don’t forget to have some fun along the way.
Have a terrific day! Thank someone else today that made a difference in your own career!