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Building a navigation system for your career

Your studies didn’t prepare you for it. Your boss isn’t going to do it for you. And it doesn’t happen simply by the passage of time, or by running on autopilot. Careers that don’t work out are sometimes the result of decisions made, but more often they are the result of decisions not made.

By: Abu Addae

Your studies didn’t prepare you for it. Your boss isn’t going to do it for you. And it doesn’t happen simply by the passage of time, or by running on autopilot. Careers that don’t work out are sometimes the result of decisions made, but more often they are the result of decisions not made. As we mentioned in the first part of this series, time is one of the most precious resources you have. The goal of this second instalment, therefore, is making sure you don’t wake up one day to the realisation that you’ve hit the snooze button one time too many.

Before you have to make a decision that will shape your career, or before you run out of time and the decisions get made for you by circumstance, you need to develop what we call a Career Strategy. This was the topic of our March 2018 talk entitled Up or Out: Planning your next big career move.

An introduction to career strategies

To recap briefly, your career strategy is a framework for how you make career decisions, big or small. It is effectively comprised of 3 factors: a clear objective (which guides you where you want to end up), a diagnosis (which roots you in reality) and an actionable plan (which covers the set of things you might consider doing and scenarios for how they might pan out).

career strategy framework

If you’ve attended a career strategy session or our talk you will be familiar with the above. Alternatively, if you missed the talk and haven’t attended a career session, you can check out these interviews which formed part of our research for the talk.

The objective is the part that we find to be the easiest, because there is usually some starting point: either you know what you want out of your career specifically, or you know what you want your career to give you in terms of your life goals (as outlined in your LifeCheq plan).

Your career strategy diagnosis together with your career objective comprise what we call your career canvass. This brings together 4 facets:

  • Your ultimate career objective
  • An articulation of your strengths
  • The kind of problems you are passionate about solving
  • The external trends and waves that are relevant for your career

Your career objective expresses where or what you ultimately want to be: whether it’s a successful professional with an established practice, a marketing or finance director of a listed company, the go-to-person in your own specialist niche, an entrepreneur developing businesses or just building a diverse set of career experiences.

Your ultimate goal may not be entirely clear to you in the first draft, and that’s ok. Following career models and case studies, covered later in this series, is a way to spark the imagination and help you connect with your own career goals. Don’t rush it, and don’t feel that you need to arrive prepared with a ready-made answer or pick from one of the options presented. Nor should you feel like if you pick something, you’re stuck with it. It can, and probably will, change over time.

The defining feature of a strategy, as opposed to a plan, is that it should be flexible. You should feel free to change direction, sometimes even radically, based on what you may learn and the experiences that shape you along your journey. You might for a long time think that you want to be a specialist doctor or a litigation attorney, until you actually do it and realise that’s not where your passion lies.

You will need to take many steps along this trial-and-error journey, and it won’t always be plain sailing. Uncertainty is part of the package: your career strategy is like a map you’re reading and drawing at the same time, as you navigate where to go next.

The big advantage of having a career strategy is that you have a way of making these changes without feeling lost or paralysed by fear. Turning in a deliberate direction requires rotating around a focal point of stability. The other 3 parts of the career strategy canvass – your strengths, the problems you’re passionate about and the external trends provide anchoring even as you adjust your objective. And you can adapt any of these as well, as you explore and start to make sense of a world that is changing all the time.

Focus on your strengths, don’t obsess over your weaknesses

The “strengths” part of your career canvass focuses on knowing what you’re good at and building on that incrementally, so that over time your career assets grow in value. The strengths we talk about are built around transferable skills – skills that are useful in any context you work in. We’re not talking about technical skills or what you studied – those things can always be learnt. We’re talking about general areas where you have greater aptitude than others, i.e. we’re talking about innate qualities. Some examples :

  • Being a great storyteller
  • Leading and managing people
  • Good at convincing people
  • Paying attention to detail
  • Being an excellent negotiator
  • Highly creative
  • A maker & fixer
  • Good at solving technical problems

These skills are often there long before you start thinking about what field you want to work in. A good technical problem solver can learn statistical techniques and become very good at building complex algorithms in a short space of time, even if at first they had no background in statistics. A good storyteller can get a brand off the ground even if they have no background in marketing – they can pick up what they need very quickly.

The key is to leverage your strengths, not to obsess over your weaknesses: fixing these won’t necessarily get you closer to your goals and you’re never going to be perfect. Rather focus your development plan on areas that will help you get more out of your strengths. If there are gaps in your skillset that are standing between you and your ultimate objective, work at these, but don’t obsess over them. You don’t have to be the best, you just have to be good enough.

Passion is uncovered, not discovered

The last two parts of the career diagnosis – namely, the kind of problems you’re passionate about solving and the external trends and waves you want to ride – bring us back to the external orientation we spoke about earlier. The whole journey of building and refining your career strategy is about finding the right fit between things you enjoy and things that solve problems for people who are willing to pay you.

Problems come in all sizes – whether it’s noticing a shortage of Mergers & Acquisition lawyers with a deep commercial understanding, or that 650 million African kids need to go to school in the next 20 years and traditional schools can’t be built fast enough to teach them, or that all the plasters that are sold are for white skins, or that men’s socks are low quality and not very comfortable or fashionable, or that small business owners in South Africa struggle to take card payments, or that 3D printing will change how supply chains are best organised, or that decentralised encrypted registers have the potential to reshape the auditing industry.

You shouldn’t necessarily try and start by thinking about the big issues in your industry or company. You may be wrong about those or they may be a lot more complex than you think. Rather, begin with things that are noticeable to you, that you are sure you can understand, and that you can fix within the spaces you can influence.

You also shouldn’t expect to identify such trends in a bolt of inspiration while you’re singing in the shower. It comes from a habit of thinking about problems, of reading about trends and staying abreast of what is going on. It requires talking to, and listening to, the people around you. We’ll return to this in our final instalment, where we talk about building your own curriculum.

Aligning your passions and interests means that you pick the trends that you are particularly passionate about. You might have spotted the trend for men’s socks, but if you’re not particularly interested in fashion, or it’s not something that really bugs you very much, you’re going to have a hard time trying to muster the determination it requires to solve that problem well enough to get paid for it.

The thing about passion is that it isn’t so much discovered as it is uncovered. It’s not out there, it’s in here.

Chances are slim that an assessment test or self-proclaimed guru will be able to tell you what you’re passionate about. They can help you catch glimpses of it and uncover aspects of it, but ultimately it comes from exposing yourself to experiences and contexts, being in touch with and honest about what is really going on for you, and feeling okay about expressing it. While assessment tests and tools won’t be able to tell you what you’re passionate about, they can be useful in other ways. We’ve put together a comprehensive view of what they cover in this article so you know the landscape and what to expect.

You don’t need to feel under pressure to find your passion. It can take a long time, and if you don’t feel it, don’t force it. The best approach you can take is to engage yourself in what you’re doing and create opportunities to experience things that might help you uncover your interests.

Pitsi Kewana studied medicine for six years, and after qualifying and working for four years she realised that her career as a doctor was never really what she wanted. So she moved back home, studied fashion and launched her own womenswear label, Doctored by her. Her unique narrative as a fashion designer with a medical degree got her featured on the cover of Destiny Magazine and is likely to be a powerful launch-pad for her new career. Her story serves as proof that it’s never too late to find your passion, and that the experience you gain in the meantime can stand you in great stead later on.

Try things. And learn to combine your passions and strengths to solve problems that pay.

An integral part of developing a career strategy is finding ways of aligning your passions and strengths with problems that need solving. When you think about problems over a period of time and persist with being open and honest with yourself, you’d be surprised at where you can find interesting areas that overlap.

Can you combine your interest in technology with that problem you’ve been obsessing about in your work? Can you use your strengths as a storyteller to create better presentations that will win you clients for your consulting firm? Can you combine your passion for fashion with your skills as a marketer to launch fashion brands that people will love?

Later in this series, we explore planning your next career move as a series of assignments. In your actionable plan, you want to set up small assignments that help you uncover your passions, while also practising your ability to solve problems that pay.

Expose yourself to different ways of looking at problems in different contexts – listening, learning and experimenting, even just in small steps. Take that work assignment in another department. Volunteer your time on a project. Help your friend with their business part-time. Go to a talk in an area unrelated to your work. Start a small side hustle where you can play, explore and learn, without necessarily having the pressure to deliver something specific or to make money.

Refining your career strategy diagnosis is an ongoing process of learning, playing, seeing, falling on your face and growing. Small failures actually build your career, as well as your character, so don’t be afraid.

The map is not the territory

Here’s an example of a career strategy canvass for Anele’s case study. You can see all the elements we’ve been talking about reflected here.

Anele slide on diagnosis

It’s important to say this again: your career strategy is always in draft, never final. Once you have the first draft, you’re ready to begin the journey of shaping your career in the direction of your ultimate goals.

In part 3 of this series, we will further unpack how you build a process that, over time, will have you making better career decisions. We will look at:

  • Developing your own career narrative using career models, case studies and biographies
  • Building your own curriculum
  • Setting proximate goals
  • Working with mentors and coaches

Finally, our fourth instalment pulls it all together into creating an actionable plan for your next big career move.

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Planning for your big life goals doesn’t have to be stressful, depressing or even complicated. It can be fun and exciting. Just keep an open mind, and let us do the work. The good news is that we tailor your plan according to your priorities and what you want from life. Let us help to get you there!