Why Some People Get the Careers They Want

I am currently helping a few people with their career development. Most of them are employed in attractive positions, where they are looking to either increase their mobility within their current organization or else to compete for external employment opportunities. Some of them are interested in enhancing their performance skills in order to be more effective and to gain more recognition in their current role. And a few others are unemployed, due to the economic circumstances but, rather than just trying to find a ‘job’, they remain interested in obtaining a real career opportunity as the next logical step in their career progression.

As we all have moved through the assessment, strength identification, career strategizing and coaching process I have gotten to know them fairly well. And, despite the fact that they are all different people, at different stages of their careers, occupying different positions, in different industries and even different countries, there are some striking similarities that I thought would be valuable to share with you. First, regardless of their current employment status, they are all determined to reach their “next career level”. Second,none of them have expected me, or anyone else, to “hand them a job”. And most importantly, all of them have never stopped learning, they understand the connection between performance and career success, they are currently “uncomfortable”, they are proactive when taking charge of their own careers, and they are selective when making career decisions.

1) They never stop learning

Our people are already very good at what they do. And ongoing learning, in various forms, has played a big role in their career success and progression. They all have appropriate post-secondary education, some have a few degrees and some have advanced degrees, but their learning did not stop with their formal education. Their degrees / diplomas have provided support for their subsequent practical ‘on-the-job’ technical skill development, and this combination has translated into the solid technical skill foundation that has contributed to their success.

That said, what distinguishes them from many others is that they have been willing to explore beyond their technical ‘comfort zone’, being open to different ideas and approaches related to their ‘non-technical’ capabilities as well as their technical capabilities. Since it is typical for highly technical people to focus on only technical knowledge and skill development, this openness, and inquisitiveness is somewhat rare. Yet it is exactly this more holistic approach to their learning and development that has provided them with the right tools to meet past and current performance requirements, and it will also be the key to their developing the capability to perform at each next career level along the way. It makes them rare.

2) They make the connection between performance and career success

Their holistic approach to their learning and development comes about because our people have a true interest in further enhancing their work performance. Every one of them understands that the main contributing factor to their career success is in their ability to meet, and exceed, the performance requirements of their current, and future, roles. So they focus their learning on developing all of the performance capabilities that will match their specific career ambitions. And while this performance-career success connection may seem obvious, the reality is that too many people fool themselves into thinking that career success can come from non-performance related means that require less effort (As in “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”). And even more common, so many more people will overestimate their actual performance capabilities, then neglect their further development, and inevitably fall behind their performance focused competition. Too often when someone is good at one thing they start to believe that they are good at everything. Nobody is.

Accepting that everyone can improve, our career development people are interested in understanding both their non-technical performance strengths and their weaknesses. The list of assessment items we use is too long to be presented here, but a short list involves a detailed evaluation of specific capabilities within the general categories of; cognitive / thinking capabilities, concentration strengths, motivational attributes, specific performance traits, communication skills, interpersonal capabilities, emotional intelligence, and various leadership and managerial capabilities. What is significant to know is that, in all cases, their performance success not only comes via the appropriate matching of their performance attributes to their specific roles, but also from their flexibility in adapting their capabilities to changing situations. Having performance capability makes them good, using it in the right way at the right times makes them great. And great performance translates into a great career.

3) They are ‘uncomfortable’

Like all career-oriented people who have put in the effort to learn about and develop their performance capabilities, our people want to actually use their developed skills. If high-performers are not using what they have learned, if they are not feeling challenged, or their environment / manager is restricting their growth, they will become uncomfortable. Current organizations who fail to recognize and respond to this will face a talent retention problem, and performance-focused ‘head hunters’ who do realize this will be able to connect the ‘uncomfortable’ with more appropriate work in new organizations.

But there is more to it. This ‘discomfort’ is very often the result of people’s growing cognitive capability. As people age, their cognitive capabilities grow, at various rates, resulting in an increased ability to solve more complex problems (challenges) and to see the potential impact of our subsequent solutions over longer time horizons. So if a person’s cognitive capabilities grow, while the cognitive requirements of their position and environment do not, they will effectively outgrow our role, manager and team, and the resultant discomfort will cause some people to desire a change. Almost all of our people are uncomfortable because they are ‘transitioning’ to a higher cognitive level.

4) They are proactive when taking charge of their own careers

While average or mediocre performers can better accept and live with an unchallenging role, true career-oriented performers can’t and won’t. They will never be interested in simply changing for ‘change sake’. Rather than accept a similar role in a different organization, they will require a more complex, demanding and challenging role as part of their career progression, either internally or externally, and to satisfy their increasing cognitive needs.

Motivated by their discomfort, their need to perform and their desire to apply what they learn, they will proactively take whatever steps are necessary to acquire their next level challenging position. Because they are change-oriented, they are more able to step out of their ‘comfort zone’ and they will actually do something about their career discomfort instead of accept their situation. While they are always open to suggestions, they are more likely to take control of their careers rather than hopefully wait for some solution to come along.

Their commitment to ongoing learning and self-development is part of a growth-oriented mindset that is not limited to only enhancing their performance. They also learn about themselves and how to enhance their careers in compatible ways with their overall life goals. And it is their increasing cognitive capability that helps them to better envision an overall life strategy, and a subsequent longer-term career strategy, and as well enables them to see things faster, to more quickly decide on the most appropriate action, and to then properly evaluate potential next level opportunities for a suitable ‘career and life fit’.

5) They are selective when making career decisions

So it makes sense that all of our people understand the importance of selecting challenging roles in performance-oriented organizations that are staffed by exceptional managers and peers. While no organization is perfect, those that have a performance culture and offer the most career value are going to receive the attention of the people who take their career development seriously. As part of their career strategy, our people will first carefully identify ‘where they want to be’ and then make selective decisions regarding the managers’ who offer value, provide challenges, ensure additional growth and learning opportunities, will support their cognitive requirements, and will offer future internal mobility opportunities. Above-average performers are attracted or repelled based on the quality of management.

And those attractive managers, who are interested in surrounding themselves with these high-performing, career-oriented people, would be wise to understand that their selectivity will cause above-average performers to reject mediocre recruitment and hiring practices. Our people are not going to trust weak internal or external organizational representatives, nor recruitment approaches that treat them more like cattle than highly desired professionals. They are only going to be interested, and respond, when employers appropriately provide and present next level opportunities that match their career-focused selection criteria.