Choosing a Career Direction, and Managing Your Career Throughout Life
As I began my college journey, with all the intimidating life changes that come along with it, one over-riding question always loomed: what will I choose as a major?
My father had a strong influence on how I developed my criteria. He basically told me that I needed to select a major which would ensure I could obtain a job versus choosing a major that was non-specific and non-technical.
But I also began to be influenced by my student peers, who would talk about ‘following your passion,’ or ‘finding your true mission in life.’ It was concerning to me that I had no idea what my passion was or what my mission was going to be. My main concern was finding a job and being able to support myself after college. So, in an attempt to find my true passion in life, I sat down at age 18 and jotted down the few passions that I seemed to have:
1 - Playing golf
2 - Eating
3 - Music, both listening to music and playing guitar
4 - Hanging out with friends playing sports, or at bars, etc.
For the life of me, I could not figure out how to earn a living doing any of these fulltime, just because I was not good enough at golf or music or eating to consider any sort of career in these areas, although I did play division I college golf.
So, I went back to the ‘finding a job’ criteria as the best one at the time. That turned out to be computer science for me, given the explosion of technical/computing careers at that time.
After reflecting after thirty-five years in the business world, I look back now and realize, at least for me and what I have learned, that ‘following your passion’ and ‘pursuing your dreams and your mission’ were pieces of advice I could not follow at age 18 or 20 or 22. Not only was I unsure of my passion and mission at that age, but I found that those mantras were all too individualistic and self-serving, given that most careers are spent being paid by employers who have different goals and missions than anyone’s individual goals.
I encountered several of these ‘pursue your dreams’ people throughout my career, and what that philosophy did to them (not FOR them) was to make them focus all too much on their own careers, their own compensation, their next steps that they wanted to pursue, and their own view of the world. They were not able to operate as well as a team player, were not able to appreciate the big picture as well, could not or would not embrace the important mission and plans of the business they worked within, and could not make sacrifices for their employer if they did not see those sacrifices directly helping their own careers and plans. They seemed to lack the flexibility in thinking about their career steps that others had.
I saw time and again where a peer executive would talk privately about an employee that reported to them, and how that employee would share how frustrated they were that their career was not moving forward fast enough, their compensation was not high enough, that their friends from college had bigger titles and pay packages, that they had a family to support and needed more compensation, etc.
In the majority of those cases, the employee developed a reputation of being focused on themselves to the detriment of the team and the larger objectives of the company. It seemed that many of those employees would spend a lot of time developing a detailed career plan, outlining the specific job titles they wanted to obtain over the next ten or fifteen years. Many had a goal to become the CEO in a relatively short timeframe as well.
In hindsight, those individuals had an outlook that served them and their company terribly, given what happens in the business world. In the white-collar world, good-paying and rewarding jobs are not the goal of the company; rather, they are a side benefit of a successful company. Success for companies comes via hard work, clear strategic goals and direction, teamwork, execution, and employees that are driven to help the company succeed in their mission as well as financially.
Companies cannot succeed if key employees are mainly focused upon their own individual success. Instead, those sorts of employees gradually, or quickly, lose out and eventually depart the organization because they develop the reputation as someone who is not a team player and someone who cares more about themselves than the company and its success. Usually, their expectations for promotions do not match the reality within the organization, and they depart out of frustration and impatience.
Success in the white-collar world can be enabled if you de-prioritize your own career goals, and replace them with company goals and needs. I always tell high school and college students that they should not listen all that much to those who tell them to ‘pursue their dreams’ and to ‘find themselves’ through their jobs. Rather, I think it is more important to ‘lose yourself’ in a larger mission, a larger goal, a larger organization that you believe in. Having a fulfilling career usually means achieving team success over a longer period of time. While doing that, you develop friendships, you develop respect, you become a role model for newer employees, and you learn patience and humility.
I recall hearing about a meeting in the board room with a top group of executives at my company, and during a break, a senior leader stated that ‘you are all here because you care more about the company than you do about yourselves!’ They apparently looked around the room and realized that he was right. They all knew enough about each other to know that they had all sacrificed over time and that they all truly cared about the long-term success of the company.
Just as an example, during my career, I was promoted into a role leading a fairly small independent subsidiary. I was quickly thrust into a role where I had to sink or swim, and had to make decisions about functional areas I knew little about. In those 4 years, I learned so much about new areas, but the position was low profile and few in the company knew much about my role or what was happening in that organization. I found the role extremely challenging, and to say I lost a lot of sleep during those four years is an understatement. I was frequently frustrated, but muddled my way through.
A few years later, I was promoted into a global P&L leadership role, one that again had responsibility for a lot of new functions and responsibilities. Had I been thrust into that role without the prior job, I would have floundered and failed, without question. Clearly, the sacrifices I made during the prior assignment enabled success in the new larger role.
Other peers had similar experiences. We could all relate to those assignments which were difficult, when we felt less than appreciated. Little did we know how quickly we were developing during those challenging times, and what new skills we were learning.
Over a long career, I began to appreciate the value of ‘losing myself’ in my company, recognizing that the products and services of our company truly made a difference in the quality of the lives of millions of people around the world. With a few exceptions, we conducted business ‘the right way,’ meaning no shortcuts, minimal politics, just working to achieve common and important goals for our customers.
Clearly, there are those fortunate souls who know at an early age what they want to do, be it a doctor or a politician or a lawyer, and that is fine and great. But for the majority of students, during teen years or in their early twenties, there is so much life ahead that it is unrealistic to assume that you know exactly what you want to do throughout your life. There will be so many twists and turns and unanticipated discoveries about life and about yourself that it is virtually impossible to know for certain what you will be doing throughout your life. I tell students to stay flexible, to make career decisions that need to be made, but to realize that they will likely be more fulfilled if they ‘lose themselves’ in a larger goal or mission rather than an individual one, and to remain patient that their sacrifices are in some way enabling them for future challenges.