I have to start with an apology. I tried so hard to avoid using the (over-used) phrase ‘Fail to Plan, Plan to Fail’ in this blog but it sort of snuck into the title. 

Anyway.. back to the Blog…

I read with interest Robbie Bach’s piece on ‘Avoiding the Career Plan Trap’ 

Robbie talks about his career at Microsoft and particularly his life beyond. He talks about how people will grab him about their career aspirations and whether they should invest in further education like MBAs or doing extra-curricular work to bolster their CV in a bid to develop the perfect plan. 

Robbie states his belief that taking time to develop a road map for your career development is “extremely important” I am sure for the right people it is. He then talks about serendipity and this is the bit that I want to develop. 

Career serendipity

I have to say straight off that I am not a Careers Advisor but get asked a lot of career questions.

The perfect job has to be one that would be your hobby i.e. you would do it even if you didn’t get paid. Golfer, Archaeologist, Cook, President of the USA. I think these are a little bit different from vocational careers like a nurse or a teacher but probably not that much. You jump out of bed each morning donning your whites to get another soggy bottom on your flan. 

Jobs like this are the exception rather than the rule and to earn an acceptable income you have to be genuinely gifted like Andy Murray or Delia Smith. A frightening statistic is that the chance of making it as a professional footballer is 0.012% or put another way of the 1.5million children playing organised football this weekend, only 180 will make it as a Pro. So do the odds, they are wildly stacked against you. 

My parents always thought I should have a trade, so in that post-apocalyptic world, I had a break-glass. I could install an S-bend, do double-entry book-keeping or arc-weld something. This was never me though.  

So back to the real world… I worked for a large global organisation and my career was mapped out for the next 10+ years. Joining at 26 I could expect a promotion every 18 months from Junior Consultant through to Managing Consultant and maybe on to Director. I thought this was great, I had something to measure myself by and I knew that if I did well the promotions would come. I was lucky as the promotions did come, sometimes slower due to a poor year or a new market we had to open up or sometimes down to external factors like a slump in the economy. However, by year 8 I had got my first director’s title. Well done me. Then what? I took on more responsibility and at one time had three director’s jobs (but one salary as I tell people). Looking back i can see my progression had stopped.  I took on new projects for the firm like revitalising their training and development programme and looking at sector development.. interesting yes but progressive, no. 

I look back at my time at the firm and I wouldn’t have done what I did subsequently and what I am doing today without my 11 years there, I am eternally grateful for the opportunity. However, should I have left a few years earlier? Possibly, maybe even probably. 

5 Common career questions

As i mentioned having been in resourcing and recruitment for a number of years, I get asked a lot of the same questions put to me around career development, some of which Robbie mentions in his article. I will touch on those, but here is my top 5 

Should I have a written career plan? 

Tough one, the title of this says Fail to Plan, Plan to Fail. I think having a path to where you want to be is a good thing. I had one that looked a bit like, work for a large generalist plc (tick) work for a large specialist firm (tick) work for a small entrepreneurial company (tick) Think about setting up own business (tick) Set up own business (tick x 3)  However, it wasn’t written down and I might at times have struggled to articulate it beyond a vague narrative but I always knew my next move. The mistakes I made would be not putting dates against this and not spotting early enough when I had over-stayed my welcome. 

I also think that in the last few years and definitely in the upcoming period a plan doesn’t really count for much. Adaptability, re-inventing yourself and flipping from contract to permanent to fixed term contract to self-employed will be more key. Have a plan but build in lots and lots of flex. 

When do I become less marketable? 

A couple of years ago someone said to me in an interview that she thought she had “gone past her sell-by date”  Is there such a thing? 

I think there is. It is really hard to spot yourself because it doesn’t happen overnight, it’s gradual. I used to say to interviewees or people asking for my advice that after 5 years in the same firm, you should put a critical eye on where you are. I think this probably still holds true. In the first couple of years in a new firm, the timeline is just too short because you want to look at trends and that only starts (I think) in year 3. (Ask Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool, now in year 3). 

The aspects you should measure yourself against are; personal development, additional responsibilities, where your next move is (internal/external) how you feel – are you enjoying your job, the people and increasingly do you believe in what the firm is doing? If you want to get scientific, create a grid and grade all of this 0-10, see how you get on. 

I can’t see my next career move! 

I worked for a firm where you had to create your next job hop. My MD would state this when I would say I can’t see my next move. I found this frustrating but he was right to an extent. In my view the firm failed to present the platform by which I could ‘create my next move’ conversely I should have had a bit more about me to test the boundaries of what I could and should do. I rose through the ranks until there was only 4 progressive roles that I could take on, two of which would mean that I would need to go overseas, this wasn’t something I wanted to do at that stage. Looking back I think that the four roles were not going to come back to me anytime soon and I probably didn’t have the experience to make that jump. So leaving was the right thing to do but it took me 2.5 years to realise this. 

You have a few options open to you, decide what is attractive to you; 

  • STICK – no decision is a decision but decide for how long 
  • TWIST – leave for a better job 
  • EVOLVE – can you adapt your current job, take on additional responsibilities or give stuff away to focus on a core area 
  • SHIFT – stay with the firm but look at a ‘special project’ Could you take a secondment to build your cv, revitalise you and make yourself more marketable?   

Should I get (more) qualified? 

I had a conversation last week with someone in the FM world who wants to move to a main contractor. Clearly you can’t create experience you haven’t got. The challenge for her is that her CV won’t get the interviews against individuals from that market. Rock – Hard Place. I suggested that she might want to look at qualifications that relate to either the main contractor sector and/or look at specific project management qualifications like Prince 2. Whilst a piece of paper won’t be a passport to the job you want (despite what the MBA colleges say), it will add an extra 1 or 2% to you application by showing that you are investing in yourself, you are committed to your career and will probably give you additional skills and insight that you won’t get from you day job. Do you know what? It might also re-energise you, who knows?  So yes, think hard about more qualifications, there’s tons out there and a lot are free or near-free cost and maybe your current employer might fund it. 

I am just not excited about my next project 

This can often just creep up on you. Your next project should be the most exciting thing. My experience of working with project teams is that if they aren’t motivated and possibly just going through the motions, then the quality dives, mistakes occur and poor client experience spikes. Excitement can quickly become resentment and that is toxic. My advice here is to work out whether this is a blip connected maybe to what’s going on at work or home or is more of a longer-term malaise. If you utter the immortal phrase “I could do this with my eyes closed” You are probably on a hiding to nothing. 

Once you start to lose interest in what you are doing, it will be obvious to others, you might get into spats with your manager. It will negatively impact your performance and ultimately your career. 

I would think seriously about an internal move or getting out. 

Ultimately all these relate to that rare situation in your life when you have to be a bit masochistic and think about yourself, be a bit selfish for a bit. 


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