There are many people out there who want to provide you with advice on how to have a successful career. There are teaching professionals, mentor consultants and professional coaches who offer their services to help guide you on what to do to maximize your potential.
Many of these individuals have limited experience in terms of living in a real organizational environment where politics, personal bias and subliminal discrimination are alive and well.
And to advance in such conditions requires much more than an academic perspective of what it takes to achieve a rewarding career.
I was never educated on the theory of career advancement; on what the text books said was the right things to do.
I had a basic university education with mathematics as my major with computer science as a minor — if you consider batch processing of Fortran IV, COBAL and ALGOL programs a meaningful foray into the digital world.
The point is, my academic background didn’t help me prepare to take on corporate life and figure out how to more than satisfy my career ambitions (to confess, however, it did teach me how to solve problems which I quickly learned was an asset that was extremely valuable but was one that not everyone had).
I began my career journey at age 23 working for a telecom company and by 39 achieved a VP Marketing position in an engineering dominated culture. From there I was fortunate to earn several executive positions culminating in the president’s role for our data and internet company and CMO.
I left the company when I was 54 years old after a very interesting ride through changing markets, regulatory upheaval and a corporate merger.
My journey was an amazing teacher about how to achieve what you want to in your career.
These are my highlights.
1) Say “yes”
Show an open willingness to take on whatever you are asked to do even if you’re trepidatious about the task. It demonstrates you want to experience (and learn from) new things which broadens your value to the organization.
From “yes” a component of my brand evolved to being a fixer, someone who could be called upon to go into an organization in distress and fix it. At first I found it terrifying but once I had my rhythm it was exciting and an amazing source of learning.
2) Learn off-line
Determine what expertise is needed for your organization’s success and go acquire it on your own time. Show that you understand what competencies are needed and that you have the commitment to learn them.
Early on in my career I figured out that the telecom business was going to rapidly move from a monopoly to an intensely competitive market and that marketing was going to play a critical role in the organization’s success. I decided to become an “expert” in the discipline which was a challenge since my formal education was in mathematics. But I learned and practiced all I could on the subject from a variety of sources. I believe this was a tipping point in my career that led to my appointment as VP Marketing.
3) Find one mentor who believes in you
There are many individuals who will be willing to serve as your mentor, and you should do everything you can to assemble a diverse team and use their counsel and advice to help you navigate through your career journey.
But try and discover that gem of a mentor who is all in with you. Someone who believes in you so strongly they stop at nothing to see you succeed. And in fact they will put themselves at risk to back you in situations they perhaps shouldn’t.
I had such a person look out for me. He was a VP who came to our organization from the retail sector and for some reason he adopted me — I was his director of marketing. He supported me to everyone inside and outside the organization. He praised me. He took chances for me. He was my loyalist without whom I would never had succeeded.
Find a believer and watch the magic.
4) Take a punch and keep the long term in perspective
Bad stuff happens to everyone their career, but the deciding factor is what you do after the moment. Once the dust settles and you have finished licking your wounds what action do you take?
It’s easy to have a knee jerk reaction when you are in pain, but the right thing to do is to take a deep breath, step back and consider your options with the long term in mind. Make your decision based on long term possibilities not on a short term emotional response.
When we merged with another telecom company I found myself outside the new leadership team looking in. My previous direct report was given the role that I believed should have been offered to me — I was demoted.
Amidst the clatter of advice around me telling me I should quit, I decided to stay and see how the new guy played out. Good call. Within a year he performed below expectations (as I suspected he would) and I was asked to take the job.
Be thoughtful when sh** happens. Think beyond the next hill.
5) Never lose sight of your goal
Keep your eye on the prize. Regardless of the chaos around you always keep your personal end game in front of you. You will find that This focus will subliminally guide you to make the right career decisions. You may not be aware of it until you reflect on your journey and be struck by the fact that things just seemed to work out — your plan was somehow successfully implemented.
I had an audacious objective to become a VP by the time I was 40 in an engineering dominated organization that was slow to promote younger people. I looked at every opportunity that came my way through my “VP by 40” lens and make a decision that was consistent with that target. It led me to leadership positions in operations, startup divisions and eventually the CMO.
6) Learn how to be an inspirational communicator
Public speaking doesn’t some easy to anyone; it is an acquired skill honed by constant practice. But incredible careers are made by being brilliant communicators — layered on competence in a relevant field of course.
Being that person who can talk about a subject and get others excited over the prospects it has for them is an amazing gift that gets you noticed and prepared for greater leadership.
My career path was studded with communication moments. Although at first I stumbled through presentations, I found that through relentless practice and listening to feedback from my audience I increased my competence in getting my message across and triggering an emotional response from my listeners.
My suggestions for you — be informal, really know your topic and be passionate about it, talk in simple language, lose the podium and inject some humour along the way.
7) Be different
Successful careers are built by people stand apart from the crowd, who make the conscious decision to display a needed skill or competency in a way that is different than how others perform. This approach is based on the fact that it’s difficult to notice an individual in a herd; everyone looks the same and they act the same. And if a person isn’t noticed, they will miss opportunities that come their way.
You need to find a way to be different and it doesn’t require a silver bullet. Look for little things you can use to differentiate yourself from your colleagues who are all vying for a limited number of jobs.
My be different career strategy has these elements — unique communicator, customer service expert, the champion of front-line people and marketing practitioner.
If you’re not different, you’re dead (or soon will be).
If you are to have a successful career, it will not be based on your schooling — not every MBA makes it; not every PhD can reflect on an illustrious past.
The tipping point for success is what you learn “out there” in the real world with dynamics that can’t be formularized. Find people who have made it by navigating messiness not preaching from a pulpit. Add THEIR experiences to your dossier, practice them and let them be your guide to a successful career.