10 things I wish I’d known about… career management
1. Careers are not linear
Many of us leave university and feel the weight of planning out our entire lives on our young shoulders. Where we’re going to work, for how long, ultimately what we’re going to be when we ‘grow up’. But it doesn’t really work like that, which is both good and bad. Many things in the world will be outside of your control, and the change that they create could be ‘bad’ and throw you off course or could be ‘good’ and open up opportunities you never would have considered as part of your ‘life plan’. Knowing how to navigate and respond to all these types of changes is a key part of progressing and maintaining resilience.
2. There is no such things as strategy
Or at least how you might think of ‘strategy’. I, like many junior colleagues I work with, decided in my twenties that what I would be really good at was ‘strategy’. I’m good at processing information, solving problems – strategy sounded perfect. As my career has progressed and I have got closer and closer to the ‘strategic’ part of organisations it’s not the pinnacle of deep intellectual debate that I expected. It is instead usually a group of smart people who have the depth of experience to be able to understand the dynamics of an organisation and the implications of a chosen course of action. This only comes with time and patience and can’t be accelerated.
3. Everything gives you experience
When I see people who are early in their career journey debating at great length whether they should take an internal move or try a different skill I always tell them that at this stage no experience is bad experience. Everything you do early in your career is about learning – I learnt just as much from being a part of things I hated or working with people I didn’t think were great because it helps you understand what you will enjoy and shows you what not to do.
4. Your options get more limited over time
The flip side of the above is that the further you go along your path the less options are open. Not that you can’t decide aged forty that you want to completely retrain and become a brain surgeon but it’s probably going to be more difficult for any number of reasons. Your brain isn’t quite the bouncy energy filled sponge it was twenty years ago and you’ll be competing for jobs with fresh new talent. You might have family commitments that mean you can’t afford to take the risk or the reduction in salary. Make the most of the time in your life when all doors remain open.
5. You will rarely look back
Even though all of the above is true I don’t think I have ever looked back and regretted a decision or wished I’d done something different. We naturally adjust to where we are in our lives and reframe our vision to our new reality. If you have a decision to make about your career and you’re thinking “but what if I am rubbish / hate it / totally fuck it up” the chances are if any of those eventualities did happen you’d be far more focused on what you need to do to fix it rather than thinking “oh, I shouldn’t have made this decision”.
6. You can’t predict the things you will find the most rewarding
The danger of having a rigid idea of what you want to do with your life is that you won’t discover some of the things that you least expect to enjoy. For me, managing and developing people and teams has been incredibly rewarding, but honestly if you asked me fifteen years ago if I wanted to manage a team of people I would not have been interested. There is a short term versus long term impact where you have to do some things which in the immediate term don’t seem fun, but in the long term will contribute to something greatly fulfilling.
7. There will be people in your career who will leave
As you go through your career, if you are lucky, you will pick up mentors and sponsors. They will advocate for you, support you when you don’t know which way to turn, or just be a shoulder to cry on why you’re having an awful time. These trusted people can be incredibly valuable and nurturing those relationships, both with your own mentors and sponsors but with people who rely on you in those capacities is a crucial pillar of career progression. But, when you least expect it, sometimes these people leave and are no longer in your life. You will need to know that you can stand on your own two feet and what you stand for without those people to be able to adapt and recover.
8. There will be people in your career who will stick around
There will also be people who stay in your life and support you far longer than you ever imagined. Someone who was once a nightmare boss might turn out ten years later to be a great advisor and someone who helps you see a different perspective on things. Someone who was a key sponsor for you who leaves your organisation might stay in touch and think of you for new opportunities which you otherwise wouldn’t have heard about. Those special people will reveal themselves over time and it is your responsibility to look after those relationships and to in turn identify people to grow and nurture.
9. Your health is the most important thing
Your well-being underpins everything – if you don’t look after yourself you will not perform at your best. Physical and mental illness can be incredibly debilitating and can take months or years to recover from. Working long hours can be manageable when you’re younger and you get drawn in by the allure of seeing the results of all your hard work in payrises and promotions. But ask yourself as your life changes over time what balance you need to be able to make your greatest contribution. Is it hours and hours of slogging it away at your desk or is it giving yourself the space and compassion to create space in your life which will likely give you the energy to come up with those amazing ideas. As you become more senior your impact becomes less about the hours you put in and more about the value that your contributions create. You need to be healthy to be effective.
10. Some fundamental things will never change
When I was expecting my daughter I had no idea whether this unknown being coming into my life would completely change my perspective on my life and my career. I thought it was possible that I would suddenly never want to go back to the office and stay at home for cuddles permanently. But whilst I love my daughter greatly I very quickly realised that I needed the challenge and stimulation of my job because it is a fundamental part of me. As the years have passed I’ve come to realise and accept more of the aspects of me that are never going to change and I try to align my priorities to focus on those core values and drivers.