Monday, October 15, 2012

Your career is an accident. Don't make a plan, get a helmet.

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We are driving our careers. That’s what we are told. We are sitting behind the wheel, looking at the road ahead, changing gear when we want to, making decisions about how fast we want to go and ultimately which direction we take. Mirror. Signal. Maneuver.

It’s a comforting metaphor. It’s a pity it’s bull.

So often, the mistake we make as professionals is to look back on our career path and see a logical progression. It’s easy to do this when you look back on things in retrospect. It’s easy to believe that this led to that, which led to the other and so on.

But this is all post hoc ergo procter hoc. Seeing a thing as the result of something else, simply because one followed the other.

Let’s call me John Q. I was working as an assistant manager at Circuit City from 2005-2007. I was made the manager in 2007 and held the position for two years before moving to join Best Buy as the regional sales manager. Obviously I’ve done well for myself; my career shows a clear progression. A consistent, linear progression from junior to senior, from low wage to middle management.

Well done me.

I’m leaving some things out of the story though, things that have been edited out of my career history. These were random catalytic events that shaped the whole thing. Because they’re not on my resume, they’re not part of the accepted narrative of my career – but they change everything.

Firstly, I became assistant manager at Circuit City almost against my will. I was young and ideological. I’d only taken the gig so I could get the rent paid while I was trying to get a job in music. I reluctantly accepted the extra responsibility for an extra five bucks an hour. It wasn’t a career decision. Nor was it a career decision a couple of years later, when the manager I worked for suffered a heart attack and retired early, effectively disappearing in a puff of smoke on a Tuesday morning leaving me to take over. I took the job and I did it well, I expected to retain the management job for a few more years. But then, as we all know only too well, Circuit City went to the wall. Suddenly facing the prospect of redundancy, I was forced to put myself out there again, talk to a recruitment company and put my resume online. The result was a great offer from rival Best Buy, to effectively take the level above the one I was working in. I wound up with 20% more money and some stock. It turned out to be a great thing for me. ‘Turned out.’

Now my sensible linear career progression looks like what it really was – a series of random and uncontrollable events that bounced me around with no care for my plans.

Because the truth is that there is no such thing as career management. There is no such thing as ‘planning your career.’ From the time you first walked into the career councilor’s office at school and were told you should be a chef because you admitted to being slightly hungry, through to this morning when you surfed the internet for jobs for ten minutes because one of your colleagues annoyed you. Your vague intent to push your career in the right direction combined with your occasional decision to act when you were unhappy or undervalued, do not constitute a career plan.

Your list of companies you would most like to work for and your sense of what job title you probably ought to have, and in what time frame, are worth nothing to you.

We spend too much time trying to shape our careers and not enough time trying to create the rounded professional identity that will increase our chances of making progress when the inevitable random catalyst presents itself.

Instead of sucking up to your boss, make an effort to be respected by everyone around you. When her kayaking vacation down the Nile ends in tragedy, it will be your peers and reports who are asked what they think of you as a manager, not her.

Instead of surfing for jobs and blasting out your resume, build a strong relationship with a good recruiter. They can be your eyes and ears while you focus on your job.

Instead of chasing the money, chase responsibility. The more you take on, the more qualified you become for more advanced jobs and ultimately more money. Especially if nobody sees the vacancy coming.

You can’t know what will happen, and you can’t control when or where fate will strike. But you can create a solid foundation that will see you right no matter what happens.

Strategy is not about predicting the future, it’s about having a sensible framework around you so that you can respond to anything. Experiences, references, training, qualifications – there’s a reason these things tend to be headings on the resume – it’s because they’re things you actually need. Take these things off the resume, and think of them as real things that you arm yourself with to create a promotable, hirable human being, it won’t be long before you’re adding another level of advancement – whatever it is you want.

Richard Spragg writes on various subjects including global engineering jobs, staffing and marketing in the technical sector.