Entries in Career Exploration (12)


A winning “Success Formula”

One of the games I liked to play as a kid was Careers from Parker Brothers, which prepared me for such typical jobs as astronaut, uranium prospector, and Hollywood star (though I’ve noticed that today’s children, playing the latest edition of the game, have to make do with conservation, teaching, and entertainment).  The game’s twist is that before starting, each player secretly chooses their “Success Formula” – some combination of money, fame, and happiness.  You win the game by being the first player to achieve success as defined by your formula.

Though not a terribly accurate portrayal of adult life, Careers does capture an important truth: everyone has their own idea of what it means to be successful, and you can only “win” if you are successful on your own terms, and not someone else’s.  One person may measure success by the size of her house, while another person measures it by how many hours he gets to spend with his family.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to forget what’s most important to you, and mistakenly feel like a failure.  Our society, and especially our business culture, tends to emphasize measures of success related to money and power, so that many people put undue emphasis on their salary and job title, ignoring other equally valid measures, such as the number of times they smile each day, or how many books they read.

Figure out your personal “Success Formula.”

One of my clients felt like a failure when he came to me.  He and his best friend had both started their careers at the same time, but while his friend’s career had really taken off – he was already a vice-president with a large salary – my client’s career was stalled, with little prospect of advancement.

To help my client get some perspective on what was most important to him – what his “Success Formula” was – I used a favorite exercise of mine, and asked him to write the eulogy for his own funeral.  Reading the eulogy, I noticed that nothing in it had anything to do with his career; it was all about his family.  I pointed this out to him, and it helped him realize that for him success at work wasn’t really about having a big title.  Rather, it was about being able to provide for his family, spend time with them on vacation, and put his kids through school.  Far from being a failure, by his own formula he had already won his personal game of Careers.


Plan your next step now

The story of Macbeth is often presented as a warning against the dangers of ambition, but I see it as an instructive case study of how to succeed in today’s business environment.  Macbeth was vice-president of a major Scottish corporation.   He was a good worker, and his good work was recognized by the company’s CEO, Duncan.  Because of Macbeth’s  impressive handling of the Glamis account, Duncan took the floundering Cawdor account from another vice-president and gave it to Macbeth as well.

Despite this apparent success, Macbeth was dissatisfied.  He didn’t particularly enjoy being a vice-president, and had no interest in taking on the Cawdor account.  Like many of us, he had simply drifted through his career, taking whatever job was offered without thinking about where he really wanted to be or how to get there.  With such lack of planning, it’s not surprising that he didn’t like where he ended up.

But then Macbeth took the positive step of meeting with a trio of career consultants, who helped him figure out that his ideal job was as a CEO.  With that clear goal in mind, he started looking at what steps would be required to achieve the goal, and when the opportunity for advancement presented itself, he seized it, urged on by his supportive wife.  If Macbeth had not had his career goal clearly in mind, he would never have recognized the opportunity.

Ultimately, Macbeth’s story ends badly because of his involvement in a couple of minor ethics violations, but we can still draw a useful lesson from his career.  Few people are lucky enough to work in their ideal job, yet most people have no plan on how to move from their current, unsatisfactory job to a job that better meets their needs.  They simply take whatever job is available, and accept promotions or new assignments as they are offered without considering how the new job will help them reach their goal. Similarly, many sole proprietors take whatever clients come along without planning ahead for what kind of work they would like to be doing

Don’t drift through your career; figure out what you want next and prepare for it.

Figuring out where you want to end up can help you get there, because you can start seeing opportunities to move in the right direction, and you will also recognize obstacles that need to be overcome.

I had one client at Core Allies,LLC who had held a number of marketing positions in the food and beverage division of a multinational corporation, but had not taken charge of his career or made any conscious attempt to guide it.  Working with him, I helped him discover that the position he really wanted was as a brand manager in a foreign office. 

With that goal in mind, he began to observe the other overseas brand managers at his company, and noticed what skills they possessed, and what made some of them successful and others less successful.  This observation allowed him to realize that he needed more knowledge of foreign languages to secure his ideal job, so he took night classes in Spanish.  By identifying a goal and working towards it, he was soon promoted to the brand manager job he wanted; if he had continued to drift, it would have taken much longer, if it had happened at all.


Go where your skills are valued.

When I started working in the business world, I quickly learned that one thing I loved doing was mentoring my co-workers, both those who reported to me and others in the company.  I would help them develop their skills, advance their careers, and generally increase their contributions to the company.  I quickly became quite good at it.  The only problem was, the company I was working for didn’t put much value on developing its employees, so when it came time for my performance reviews, all the hard work I had done mentoring wasn’t taken into account.  My mentoring skills were helping the company, but the company didn’t recognize their value.

Once I realized what was happening, I began to take this problem into account as my career progressed, and steered my future job searches towards companies that valued and rewarded mentoring.  And eventually I founded Core Allies LLC, which is all about mentoring and helping people with their careers.  Finally, I had found a company that put a high value on my strongest skills – even though in my case I had to create the company myself.

Find a company or client that values your skill set.

Different companies and clients value skill sets differently, even in the same industry.  Consider your own position, and ask yourself what skills your company or customers value.  Look at the people being promoted, and observe what got them the promotion.  Examine who is being hired, and figure out why.  Does your boss and other people in management respect or value your skill set?

If you find there is a disconnect between what you contribute to your company, and what your company values, you might be happier finding a new company that puts a higher premium on your skills.  And certainly when you are looking for a new job, you should find out if a potential employer really values all your skills before accepting a position.  Even if you don’t go as far as creating your own company, if you can find a good fit you will have a happier and more successful career.

I had one client at Core Allies LLC, a software engineer, who came to me after constantly being passed over for promotion.  As we reviewed her fit at her current job, it became apparent that her company did not value her greatest strengths.  She was highly talented at tackling difficult programming problems and coming up with elegant solutions.  Unfortunately, her company just wanted her to write code quickly, even if the result was sloppy – they valued speed over quality.  With this insight, she researched other companies that would value her abilities.  After a hard search, she found a new position in a company that didn’t put a short-sighted value on speedy coding.  In her first year at her new company, she earned a valuable employee award.


Is Consulting for You?

I love to take photographs.  Where ever I travel, I always carry my camera with me, and take pictures of everything – Masai warriors, Haitian shanties, Jamaican beaches, and  Serengeti wildlife.  There’s a real joy for me in taking the pictures, and that joy comes through in the pictures themselves.  So when a friend asked me to take the pictures for her wedding, I leapt at the chance. 

But when I started photographing the event, a funny thing happened.   Usually when I’m taking pictures, I lose myself in the process, shooting intuitively without conscious thought, creating photographs with a strong sense of composition and content.  Now that I was taking pictures for someone else, I was constantly worried about what my friend wanted, as if there was another person looking over my shoulder through the camera’s viewfinder.  The resulting pictures lacked my usual joy and spontaneity, and in the end pleased neither me nor, I suspect, my friend (though she was too polite to say so).  I learned that just because I’m good at something in one context doesn’t mean that I’ll be as good (or as happy) using the skill in a different context.

The same principle applies to business.  Many successful business people decide to take their considerable business skills and become consultants, making their skills available to a variety of clients.  For some, becoming a consultant is exactly the right decision, as it constantly exposes them to new challenges (and can be quite lucrative).  But others aren’t cut out to be consultants, and soon become dissatisfied with their careers.  As with my photography, the problem usually isn’t that they don’t have the necessary skills to be consultants.  Rather, being a consultant forces them to use those skills in a different context, one they don’t find as satisfying.

Clients bring in consultants when they have a business problem, and once the consultant has provided a solution, that’s often the end of the consultant’s involvement.  The client may shelve the consultant’s solution in favor of an inferior one, or may implement only half of it, or may implement it fully.  In any case, it’s out of the consultant’s hands.  Some people aren’t bothered by this lack of involvement and control, but for others, who are used to following through and overseeing the implementation of their ideas, it can be a rude shock.

If you are a person who likes to see your ideas carried through to their successful conclusion, consulting may not be for you.

I had one client at Core Allies, LLC who had been the CEO of a successful start-up.  Looking for new challenges, she decided to try consulting.  However, she was unhappy with her first couple of projects as a consultant.  At first, she thought the problem might be that the subject areas of the projects were outside her previous experience, or that she didn’t have quite the right set of skills.  But in going over the projects with her, and also looking at what had made her happy as a CEO, we discovered that a key ingredient for her was seeing her ideas come to fruition.  Not having that ability as a consultant was incredibly frustrating for her, and resulted in her dissatisfaction with consulting, and it wasn’t going to change if she could just find the “right” project.  So instead, she started a new venture, where she is successful and happy.


Track Your Accomplishments

It’s easy to tell what a baseball player has accomplished.  Baseball fans love statistics, and everything a player does on the field – every hit, every strikeout, every walk, every stolen base, every run, every catch, and every error – is recorded.  When the Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz comes up to bat, the bottom of the screen will show his batting average, total home runs and RBI for the season; much more information is easily found in reference books or online.  All this data must be a great help for Ortiz when it comes time to negotiate a new contract; he can easily demonstrate how much he’s contributed to the team.

It isn’t so easy for the rest of us to measure our accomplishments, and most of us don’t even try.  Because we don’t record them, our accomplishments can fade from memory over time, as we turn our minds to new challenges and forget the details of what we’ve done in the past.  Where a baseball player has a permanent record of exactly how many hits he got two seasons ago, we may only remember the broad outline of the big project we worked on two years ago, and have a hard time recalling everything we contributed to making it a success.  And if you can’t remember your own accomplishments, you can be sure your boss and co-workers won’t remember them either.

That’s why you should start keeping a running list of your accomplishments.  Start the list today, and every time you accomplish something, add it to the list.

You can keep the list in a day planner, a notebook, a Phone, or a computer – whatever you find easiest.  Write down not only what you accomplished, but the measurable result for your employer or client, the more specific the better.  How many “runs” did you bat in?  How much money did you save for them?  Exactly how much did you increase their return on investment?

Accomplishments can be big, special projects – your home runs – but they can also be your normal, day to day work – your singles.  For those, just keep a running record of what you’ve done (“balanced company check register to the penny – 5th month in a row”) and how it’s helped the company.

This list of accomplishments will be invaluable during your next performance review, or when you seek a promotion, or when you need to convince someone to hire you, either as a consultant or employee.  It will give you a huge head start when it comes time to write or update your resume.  And when you’re feeling overwhelmed and useless, you can read your list to remind you of how much you’ve done.

One of my clients at Core Allies followed this advice and maintained a list of his accomplishments.  Three years into one job, a friend called to tell him about an opening in another company that would be his dream job.  The catch was that he needed an up-to-date resume by the next day.  No problem.  Using his list, he quickly updated his resume by adding three key accomplishments.  He got the job, but still maintains his list.  As he says, “You just never know.”