It would be great to be one of those people who knew, from an early age, exactly what they wanted to be when they grew up. Neither a fighter pilot nor the “poster child” for a clearly mapped out career plan, I just passed twenty years of what was supposed to be a three-year working visit to the US from England. Descending from a long line of British optometrists, I first studied Law, then business and have now worked back and forwards in Sales, Finance, Marketing, Ethics and Compliance, Customer Experience and Capability Building.  While it may seem rich that I am writing on career management when clearly, I had little idea or control over my own, I wouldn’t change hardly a thing and have seen and experienced enough lessons to feel somewhat qualified to discuss the topic. During all of this somehow, I retain a strong faith and at least some humility that it is never too late to learn something missed in all the tumult of experience.

Some of the most challenging discussions I can remember as a manager were when someone came looking to me for career advice, or in certain cases, for career promises. In some situations, it felt as though the expectation was one, to quote from Berne’s “transactional analysis” theory, that of a “Child to Parent” discussion where I (the Parent) was almost expected to have all the answers to the questions or frustrations being raised by the employee. This could be a very pressured place to be, especially if someone was unhappy with where they were, or even unknowingly, if that person was trying to put ownership for that unhappiness, somewhere else. Even with a caring, interested boss or even external career coach who can make a big difference, no one is going to care as much about an individual’s career progression than that individual. The reality is that these types of discussions are always much more effective as an “Adult to Adult” discussion, where the employee has attempted to map out what is important to them and how that translates into career goals. The supervisor or mentor gives feedback on the probability of that happening and suggestions to accelerate the likelihood, close the gap or adjust the goals.

Perspective is best gained from experience and I now understand and believe the following things. Every career is unique and different, and some careers are more linear than others in the pursuit of the goal. Career management can be more art than science and the growth and personal value may come as much from participating in the journey vs. arriving at the destination.  Work is just work and having an integrated career where family and interests are taken care of as much as the task will most likely be the things you are most proud of when you look back on your life. Finally, there’s a real danger of disappointment and disillusionment in the seeking of promises.

Short of unbridled sponsorship from the CEO (and even that is not always definite)  there are so many variables at play that it is almost irresponsible for a leader to attempt to be definitive with an employee about future career positions unless discussing their absolute next role and there is consensus from the key decision makers. Un-foreseen circumstances (such as the domino effect in re-organizations, retirements, repatriations )  as well as strong competition for a dwindling number of top positions, combined with the employee’s potential, their track record , their personal constraints and the willingness of a senior leader to expend capital in supporting or sponsoring them (as well as lady luck of course,) can all play a part in the outcome. To be clear, this is not meant to advocate that a supervisor or mentor should be a dream killer but that potential career paths are discussed as “scenarios” and in “probabilities” to enlighten as opposed to commit to distinct promises and defined plans (that may not happen with subsequent frustrations.)

I recognize this may not always what people coming from college, in a hurry and with big ambitions, want to hear, and I see my twenty-three-year-old self when I say that.  A normal distribution curve and limited upward opportunities dictates that not everyone will progress at the same pace or achieve the same heights , which is okay, but having been educated by some great mentors and the development policies of an awesome company myself, I have learned there are some foundational approaches that an Individual can leverage to heighten their chances of eventually achieving their goals. Here they are:

  1. PERFORMANCE, PERFORMANCE, PERFORMANCE! It should be blindingly obvious but those in a real hurry to progress sometimes under-weight the importance of outstanding performance to their career advancement.  It’s hard to sit down and help someone for the first time when their immediate focus is on their next role (what, when and where?) or what the company should do to fully appreciate their value. I always wanted to hear first how the employee who wanted my help was performing in the work they were doing, how they were dealing with challenges and failures, what they were learning, where they felt less prepared and how their performance was being viewed by others?  Were they successfully blooming where planted or looking for an out? This provided a sounder foundation from which to invest in that person’s development and career aspirations than only reacting to their career concerns. Performance is, in a highly competitive environment, an absolute table-stakes for career management and is minimum wage to more varied opportunities (e.g. overseas assignments). It also creates a much better career progress impression.
  2. SELF REFLECT, EARLY AND OFTEN. I have always enjoyed it when mentors of mine held the mirror up and asked me “ So Julian, if you don’t know where you are going, how will you know when you get there?” I have been guilty of it myself, so I know from experience that if the employee themselves won’t put the work in to truly think about and document what they want from a career prior to a career discussion, they are not setting the Coach or Mentor up to enable a good outcome. Career dimensions to reflect upon include technical knowledge, skills, special interests, transferrable skills, location, work environment, salary, pressure , responsibility and growth areas. Finally, consider work you find meaningful, enjoyable and which you are good at. The benefit of prioritizing and documenting these annually is not only will you keep track of how they change as your career progresses, but you will also stand out and give your coach the best possible platform on which to help you.
  3. BE THOUGHTFUL ON WHERE YOU CHOOSE TO WORK. I remember a conversation with a fairly new employee who confided that work was going well and management was really pleased but that they were not sure if this was the company for them. Obviously, I wanted to understand why but I also remember telling them that I respected their views, that people didn’t join companies for life anymore and that their thought process in demonstrating real and proactive ownership for their career decisions to date was very impressive. Employees should study the learning and coaching culture of the company they are joining or have joined, to gain a sense of the growth opportunities that exist alongside the opportunities to contribute. Much can be learned from observing leaders, successful employees, key colleagues, accessing competency matrices, reverse mentorships, training curricula, to name but some. Employees should be intentional about drawing a picture up and if they don’t feel that the environment will be conducive to their growth, should seriously consider whether they wouldn’t be better off somewhere else.
  4. MAINTAIN YOUR EXTERNAL CURRENCY. I say this to everyone I meet with when coaching. Make sure you periodically and consciously, investigate your value in the open market. Perhaps it’s counterintuitive to retaining top talent but not to me. This often elicited a surprised reaction when I said it, but good managers want what’s best for their people, and for them to own their own careers, while working hard to keep their best people. In this time of short role tenures and constant movement across companies, it is critical to stay up to date and constantly look for opportunities within and outside of your current company to invest in yourself, upskill and remain competitive. Resumes and LinkedIn profiles should always be up to date and optimized for differentiation. Active engagement and broadening of networks on LinkedIn and in LinkedIn Groups (including scheduling regular time to like, share and publish articles in line with your brand) is eminently sensible when considering 500 Million people are on the Platform. This will also elevate your profile in the LinkedIn recruiter algorithms which helps drive demand  for your services and assists in “bullet-proofing” your career.
  1. STAY FLEXIBLE, UPBEAT AND OPEN. A positive attitude, self-honesty, flexibility , and a large dose of grit and determination will be big determinants in the pursuit of your goals. These goals and those things important to you may change over time and produce additional constraints though it makes sense to try and narrow down personal constraints to the most critical ones, as the more constraints you have, the harder it could be for a company to align with your needs and ambitions. I have even observed enlightened employees get stuck at a level in a company which doesn’t match their ambition and rather than leaving, bet on themselves to regain momentum by first, being willing to take a sideways or even a downwards move into a different area in order to free themselves up again. To quote American author and speaker, Zig Ziglar, ‘it’s your attitude, not your aptitude, that defines your altitude’.

Luck is clearly a factor in any career though focusing on your performance, being clear and honest with yourself on what is important, being generous with your time to help others and  being a model of life-long learning are key enablers. Two pieces of advice I received early in my journey were, firstly, to “find something in every developmental opportunity that you will both be really good at and will really enjoy, or don’t accept it”  And secondly, attitudinally to “ seek to learn as much on the last day of your career as you did on your first one” and, by inference, every day in-between. I believe these pearls to be even more relevant in the fast-paced environment of today than they were when I first received them and if you take nothing else away from this article, take these.

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Julian Harrison
Julian Harrison spent over two decades as a Commercial Leader at Eli Lilly and Company, launching and reviving Brands in multiple geographies all over the world, establishing a new US Sales division, leading the Ethics and Compliance function for the Emerging Markets and overseeing the development of the Global Customer Support Program capability to support a new wave of critical launches. He recently left Lilly and currently mentors Start Up companies as he pursues his next full-time challenge.