After over 20 years in the “career business” I suppose that I have seen a few things along the way. In my role with CAES, I have been active in career-related performance enhancement, leadership and management development, skill development, succession planning, executive search, recruitment, selection, hiring, career counselling and coaching – offering these services to both individuals and organizations.In the process I have worked with a variety of people who have achieved real career success, and from this experience I have been able to formulate some impressions about why these people have been successful. Hopefully by sharing my thoughts I will help you with your career journey as well.
From the outset I think that it is important for me to state that I absolutely do realize how challenging the current employment environment is, after all CAES has not been immune from it. I do understand the difficulties, on a global scale, currently faced by young professionals, experienced new immigrants, mature downsized workers, the under-employed and the frustrated currently-employed, many of whom are struggling to reach their “next career level” –whatever level that is. Over the years I have talked with many different people, from ‘seasoned’ CEO’s to new graduates looking for their first full-time role, working in most industry sectors, and in many different countries. I am aware that different parts of the world have been impacted more deeply than others, and I also do understand that different people face a variety of career obstacles. Obviously, the global economy really has changed and, as a result, I think that we can all agree that we will be experiencing a challenging employment environment for quite a while. But rather than dwell on the negatives, I believe that it is more productive to focus on how to better cope with these new economic realities.
It is Still a Great Time to Build a Great Career!
On the positive side, perhaps this challenging employment environment may force people to look at their own employment differently – to realize that to be successful in a changing economy we need to change as well. It just may be that you, and a lot of other people, are in fact being given a wonderful opportunity to reconsider the approach that you are currently taking toward obtaining more satisfying employment. After all, if what you are doing is not helping you to achieve what you really want in a career, why would you continue to do it? Perhaps this ‘environmental feedback’ is telling you that now is the time for you to think and act differently.
It is unfortunate that, despite this changing environment, the majority of people will continue to think in the same ways and continue to do the same things despite unsatisfactory results. Rather than find new ways to follow their dreams, a lot of people will put their career aspirations on hold. Many more will continue to scramble, compete for, and possibly settle for whatever ‘job’ they can get, instead of doing a little extra in order to get the career that they want. Maybe it is time to ask yourself … what is the sense in competing with hundreds of people only to possibly make money in a job that you tolerate when instead you could be making money in a career that you love? Perhaps you should let the others continue to compete for the jobs, and instead do some of those things that people with great careers do.
People who have great careers don’t chase jobs – they strategically build their careers. They determine what they want to accomplish, and then focus on achieving their career goals. They are not interested in doing what everyone else is doing, they are more focused on what they need to do to be successful. And most importantly, they do not limit their thinking to only getting their next challenging role, they go farther to ensure that they will perform in that role. Career-oriented people understand that their success will come as a result of their actual performance in every role that they assume along the way. Early on in my career I saw the correlation between people’s performance and their career success, and it was clear to me that, despite challenging times and situations, the people who actually performed were the ones who would continuously move ahead in their careers. Your performance is the key component to your career success.
I have found that organizational personnel who are already strong performers typically want help to become even stronger, whether it be through their own personal development or by selectively surrounding themselves with similarly high performing personnel (via skill development, promotion, recruiting, or selection). As well, those people who are looking for next level career opportunities are also quite selective, since they want to ensure that they are joining organizations that are led by value-adding managers and staffed by high performers like themselves. They all understand that the capabilities of the people around them will greatly influence their own performance success. And in almost all cases, these people were committed to ongoing skill development that would enable them to not only successfully surpass the requirements of their current role, but would also position them to capture their next career opportunity.
Change isn’t always easy. Most people naturally resist change and the need to step out of their ‘comfort zone’. But, for those of you who do embrace whatever change that is required for you to be successful (sometimes minor change and sometimes major change), the return to you will certainly make it all worthwhile - in numerous financial and non-financial ways. Career change begins when you actually decide that you want to have a great career. In doing so you can then develop a positive attitude and a forward-thinking vision that will define what your future can be like. This vision will in turn support you making the necessary changes to your thinking and actions, and will justify your now more focused efforts. Your subsequent career focus will not only present more opportunities to you – it will present more of the right opportunities that will transform your vision into actual career success.
So based on my experience with people who have been successful at building great careers, here is a list of some impressions that hopefully will give you some ideas to help you to start moving forward to what you really want in your career.
1) Think bigger. What is the sense of following a path that will lead you to what you do not want? Take some time to define what you want in your life, and then try to define your career as a part of your life. Envision some future life and career stages, and generally imagine what you would like your life and career to be like at each stage. Try looking back from your retirement. What have you accomplished? Similarly, try looking back from twenty years in the future. Ten years. Five years. One year. What is your vision for each stage? Try not be too rigid in your vision for your longer-term stages. Just strategically outline a logical progression of stages that are congruent with what you really want in your career. And yes, life will evolve and present unplanned circumstances that are beyond your control. But, at least by identifying what you really want in your career, you will be more able to adjust, adapt and make decisions that will keep things on track to your ultimate goal when the unexpected occurs. Do some thinking and some basic planning.
2) Create a shorter-term action plan that fits with your long term vision. As compared to thinking bigger, this approach is more concrete than abstract. What are you going to need in order to satisfactorily achieve each of your identified career stages? What are the educational requirements, the technical skills, the industry experience and the non-technical personality traits (‘soft skills’) that you will need to be successful at each level – and in order to get to each level? Initially, it will be easiest to define the nearest term skills - for example right now or in one year. But if you want to be a CEO in ‘x’ amount of years, you would be wise to create a basic plan that will ensure that you are both headed in the right direction and that you will meet the needed requirements when you get to each level.
3) Evaluate your current capabilities. Items 1 and 2 define where you want to go, but this item is about where you honestly and realistically are now. It just may be that you are not getting to the next level because you do not have the capability to perform at that level, or perhaps your competitors have more capability than you do. Don’t expect to be offered your next level career choice if you do not have the capability to perform at it. In some instances it could be that you actually have the required performance capability, but you are failing to effectively present this to next level decision-makers. In any event, you need to be accurately aware of your real performance related strengths and weaknesses – both technical and non-technical. Without identifying them it will be difficult for you to reduce whatever gaps exist between your current capabilities and those that are required to perform at your next level, you will struggle to get to that level, and you will have difficulty explaining your value. People’s lack of self-awareness regarding their performance capability is the main reason why they neglect to actively develop the critical skills that are required for them to move forward. Career development is a life-long activity that begins with honest self-understanding – make sure that you are as good as you think you are. Top performers always think that they can get better – that’s why they stay ahead of the pack.
4) Do something about the performance gaps. It is one thing to know about your performance deficiencies – it’s another to actually do something about them. Career success is not built on excuses or self-justification. People with great careers invest time, effort and money into their ongoing development in order to get to their next level. If performance gaps exist, you will have no choice but to take some form of action to reduce them - don’t expect other people to do it for you. Sometimes a current employer will help, but you can you really expect them to invest in someone who will not invest in themselves? Nor should you ever expect a new employer to invest in skill development in order to help you to fit into their open position – it is easier for them to hire your ‘better fit’ competitor. If decision-makers are telling you, in whatever way, that you don’t have what they want – it is your responsibility to take the initiative to get what they want. And remember, when you do, balance your skill development activities between both the technical and non-technical – in most cases meeting their technical requirements will get their attention, but it is your personality fit with their culture, manager, team and the work that most often will separate you from your competition and ‘win the day’.
5) Actually perform. The people who hold your next career opportunity will allow you access if you can prove your past performance and your potential to meet their performance requirements. ‘Stretching the truth’ on your resume, in an interview or when answering assessment questions will not work with careful performance-focused decision-makers. Even if you do manage to get through that door, you will be held “career accountable” when you fail to perform in your new role. I have seen too many resumes which confirm previous poor decisions, by either the decision-maker or the employment candidate, and these mistakes do impact a person’s future opportunities. People with great careers do not have very many past ‘blemishes’ in their histories, simply because they have actually performed successfully at each progressive career stage. New graduates with limited employment experience will need to focus on their potential to perform, and this is most often evaluated (or should be) by decision-makers on the basis of their non-technical personality characteristics rather than real-world technical experience. Again, knowing your performance strengths and weaknesses will help you to competitively present your performance capabilities to next level decision-makers and show them how you will solve the challenges that they face.
6) Define the details. With some consideration for both your long term objectives and your short term plan, you need to define the details that you would like to see at your next level. Here you need to be as specific as possible regarding such items as: industry sector, organizational location (relocation / commute considerations), organizational type, the culture, the team dynamic, the managerial approach, the position responsibilities, the tasks, salary, benefits, working conditions, upward mobility opportunities, challenges, technical growth, etc. – as much detail as you want regarding whatever is important to you. And take the time to rank your ‘list’ by item importance. It may be unrealistic for you to satisfy all of the criteria on your list. But by completing one you will be more likely to identify which career opportunities will meet most of your expectations, and therefore to make better decisions regarding which potential managers and organizations are offering opportunities that best fit with your current, and long term, career aspirations. It is crucial for you to ensure that what you have listed is in alignment with your planning and is congruent with your actual performance capabilities – be realistic.
7) Target. Research and identify organizations that are most likely going to meet your next level criteria, both in providing you with what you want, and in providing the conditions and environment that will support your ability to successfully perform (it may even be your current employer, in-house or in another location). Don’t do what almost everyone else is doing – reactively responding to ‘cattle-calls’, widely distributing resumes, or waiting for THEM to find YOU. Be assured, your career-oriented competition isn’t. Proactively approach appropriate targets that you have identified based on your next level criteria, and who may also fit into your longer-term career objectives. If you have evaluated your capabilities accurately, and properly researched each organization, they will be open to hearing from you because of your strong potential fit.
8) Stop listening to the wrong people. There’s a whole industry based on telling people how to search for work, how to write noticeable covering letters, what to put in a resume (and what to leave out), what to say in an interview, how to network, how to use social networks, how to use referrals etc. etc. etc. Some may be helpful, but many are offering easy quick fix solutions that are more applicable to unsophisticated ‘job-seekers’ than they are to career people. If at any point you feel that you are “selling” yourself you are in trouble because, at best, all you will accomplish is to fool the unsophisticated decision-maker who will only offer you a job – not a career. Career-offering decision-makers do not want to be sold! Your high-performance competitors are honestly discussing their past performance results, not giving a sales pitch, and for those of us who are focused on quality hiring, your ability to perform is really all we care about. Take the time to understand the differences between getting a job and building a career, and always use methods that best fit with you, your level, and what you want to accomplish. There are no ‘tricks’ or short-cuts – simply be yourself, be honest, and distinguish yourself by maintaining a focus on your performance capabilities in all aspects of your approach.
9) Stop doing the things that are not working for you. Albert Einstein said … “insanity is doing the same things over and over while expecting different results”. If what you are doing is not helping you to achieve your next level expectations, stop, evaluate, and change your approach. Take the time to realistically identify whatever it is that is restricting your success, and then focus on ways to eliminate, or reduce, the impact. Career success will come as a result of your adaptable persistence, not from persistently doing the same ineffective things.
10) Take action. Since economies are going to be challenging for a long time – it would be unwise to try and “wait out the storm”. I can guarantee that your career hungry competitors aren’t. What happens in the employment environment is beyond your control, but regardless, many people are still experiencing career growth and success by focusing on solutions that are within their control. The key is to go beyond only thinking about what you want, and to actually take action in order to get what you want. If you need help – get help. There is enormous value in utilizing additional advice that will help you clarify your direction, to provide suggestions and feedback, and to keep you committed and on track. And there is no comparison between the short-term cost of obtaining help and the long-term cost of missed career opportunity. I often compare people who achieve career success to professional athletes. Rarely do people experience success on their own, and professional athletes are the first to gratefully admit it.
Simply put, the people who achieve career success truly want career success, and they take control of their careers rather than expecting a great career to be handed to them. By thinking about what you really want, envisioning where you want to go, planning the steps, committing to performance, evaluating your capabilities, reducing your performance gaps, focusing on quality, and willingly taking action – you can have the career that you want.
Plan, Prepare, Perform, Target, Present, Evaluate, Adapt, Repeat … Succeed