Finding the best path forward in your career is, possibly, the most challenging part of success in the workplace. To help with that process, today I am including an excerpt from my new book, Achieving your best day yet!: A more fulfilling career… a more impactful life (available from Amazon.com in either paperback or Kindle version). I hope this might provide encouragement or direction as you consider next steps:
Over the course of the last few years, I have had the privilege of hearing the detailed career journey experiences of over 20 successful executives. These individuals encompass many different disciplines and most covered multiple companies and very diverse experiences. 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. Everyone 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 that either impacted or accelerated their career paths:
1. 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 a downward move. 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.
2. You will face multiple decision points – As with anything in life, your career journey will involve several significant decisions points. For example, all 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.
3. 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.
4. 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 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!
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. 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.
9. Expect the unexpected – No individual has a career journey that did not involve an unexpected turn or two. You must expect it… or at least not be surprised when it happens. So, it is good to have alternate pathways in mind. Make yourself indispensable in more than one area. Become an expert in something else.
10. 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.
11. 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.
12. 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.
13. 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.
14. 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 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.
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 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.