These days I occasionally have younger professionals say to me: “Bob, you seem to write from the level of the CEO and often it is not applicable to us. Can you give some advice to people in mid-career?”
OK, here it is: Don’t believe the propaganda of your company’s human resource department relative to their interest in your career development. They are there only to serve the immediate needs of the enterprise, not your career. If the two interests coincide, it is accidental. In good times, they might spend some money on their employees’ development, but in any financially stressful times, they will stop all programs. For example, too many times I have seen great corporate universities opened with enormous effort and cost only to quickly close based on temporary economics. Your career development must be tenaciously selfish, not waiting for better economic times.
That means that the best career advisor or developer is YOU. Don’t delegate or expect it. Take charge of your own career. Plan it and work to make it happen regardless of the stop-and-go interest of your employer.
I do recognize that I have a generational gap issue on what is considered “success” today. My generation was taught that success was striving to be the person in charge, so excuse this article if it does not match your goals. I’ll continue with my lessons learned hoping those who don’t want to be the ultimate leaders of an organization will still find ideas to glean.
In any organization I have been associated with, there is a ladder hierarchy. In service organizations the job roles slowly move from content orientation to business process. For instance, the lowest level of an accounting firm is an accountant (content) while the management progression is in the business (process) of managing accountants and the future business platform. Most in accounting firms have an education degree or two in accounting, but not an education in business process or leadership. Those that can make the transition get ahead and those who can’t, get stuck. For content specialists, making the decision to go back to school mid-career in business process and get an MBA, makes a lot of sense to gain the foundation of knowledge.
You need to plan your progression tied to the needs of the organization. If you add value, you will be recognized. Those that are able to help in times of need are especially highly regarded.
Let me explain: In the company I spent my career, the ladder of progressive roles went like this:
- Project professional
- Small job project manager
- Large job project manager
- Vice President of a group of projects
- Senior Vice President of a group of offices
- Executive Vice President of a division
- President/COO of the company, and
- Chief Executive of the enterprise
When I was 30 years old at the level of a large project manager, I made a confidential plan to spend no more than five years at each progressive level. It was a personally held secret because if I talked about it, people might work to prevent it. At age 55, I was the CEO…it had taken me 25 years to progress five promotion steps…exactly on plan. How?
My journey was successful primarily because I had a personal plan and drove for it. I did not wait for the company. If the plan could not to be facilitated within my company, I was committed to move to another company to do it (which turned out, I did not have to).
At each level, I studied what the next level position was doing, questioned my superior in what it took to do their job and then worked to build the skills or accomplishments necessary. I also told my superior that I was interested in their job and was willing to move laterally in the organization to find a future promotable path. When my superior selfishly did not want to lose me to another part of the company, therefore blocking my progression, I delicately went up the ladder to politely express my desire. Having relationships one tier above your boss is critical. These relationships are created by personal effort also. I volunteered for difficult and challenging assignments that no one wanted in order to obtain more responsibility. At times, I also volunteered to start new endeavors to get freedom of responsibility. I took risks to move away from the power center of the company to gain more latitude of action and less rule-based scrutiny. If I failed in the risks I was taking, my plan was to move to another company.
Mid-career, I pushed to go back to re-tool myself at business school. I knew I needed a formal education in strategy, organizational design and competitive positioning. I needed a sound philosophy that matched my vision.
As I moved higher in the organization, I realized the company was siloed into geography, services and client types (three dimensions). To lead the company, I would have an advantage if I knew something about more parts of the company. I also would need a broad set of constituencies that would accept me. I mentally built a set of 3×3 cubes across the company for each silo, like Europe-Program Management-Public sector clients or U.S.-Construction-Private sector clients. I would then work to learn that sector cube by travel or assignment or volunteering marketing assistance. I knew there were too many cubes to complete fully, but I felt the more the better. Before I was CEO, I was engaged or experienced in 11 cubes out of 15. I moved my family three times to seek opportunity and ‘learn the cubes.’
During this whole journey the company did not plan for my career development. Yes, they had annual reviews that gave me pointers on how to lessen my sharp edges. They provided a few skill courses. But more to their credit, they said ‘yes’ often when I volunteered or requested outside training. Over time. I found that I could stand in line behind someone until they retired or I could move laterally by self-initiation. My self-imposed schedule created an urgency to get accomplished all I needed to for my secret plan while the company was busy solving problems. By volunteering to solve their problems, my plan progressed and I was well rewarded and exposed.
Not everyone wants to be CEO, nor should they be, but they should have some vision of their career end goals and the same principles I outlined in this article still apply. I had an exciting career and was grateful for the opportunities provided me in my progression. I learned an enormous amount about many parts of the company three inches deep. But as I look back, I did not fit into the company’s plan, they fit into mine.
Moral of the story: have an end vision and a plan. Few companies care about your career path over their economic survival. If you know where you want to end up, plan the journey starting tomorrow.
© 2016 Robert Uhler and THE UHLER GROUP. All rights reserved.
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