Putting your career strategy into action

To recap, a career strategy is a way of thinking about your career moves so that each move gets you closer to your ultimate goals, even if things don’t pan out as you expect. Identifying the career strategy patterns that resonate with you is extremely useful because it better enables you to envision your career roadmap.

By: Abu Addae

To recap, a career strategy is a way of thinking about your career moves so that each move gets you closer to your ultimate goals, even if things don’t pan out as you expect. Identifying the career strategy patterns that resonate with you is extremely useful because it better enables you to envision your career roadmap.

At this stage, you will have done the following:

  • Outlined your career strategy canvas, covering your strengths, passions and ultimate career objectives
  • Worked through your LifeCheq plan and become familiar with your potential actionable steps
  • Thought through some of the key mindset shifts that have been covered so far in this series, namely:
    • what it means to get paid for solving problems
    • what it means to take control of your own career: the value in trying and experimenting, exposing yourself to career models and learning the right lessons
    • figuring out what your career story could be

In this fourth and final part of our series, we outline some of the small but effective steps you can use to bring your individual strategy to life.

Laying the foundations

When you’re presented with a situation or when you feel like it’s time for a move, the last thing you want is to make a hasty, uninformed decision. Here are some of the things you can do to lay the groundwork for making a big career move:

  1. Build your own learning curriculum: you need to develop the skills that allow you to best take advantage of your strengths and career assets. Ensure that you invest in those that are relevant for your current and desired future roles.
  2. Increase your capacity for risk: in other words, increase your ability to make career moves that involve the potential for failure (and therefore learning, and success). This is one of the biggest areas where your LifeCheq plan will add value.
  3. Stay abreast of trends: identify waves and understand how these create either opportunities or risks for your career.
  4. Create a reflective space: work with mentors, coaches and any other methods of developing self-awareness. Familiarize yourself with assessment tests and how to work with them. HR managers often use these to make hiring decisions – insight into the strengths of your personality is critical.
  5. Map out your next possible career moves: you’re not following a linear path, so you’ll have more than one next potential move.

Your next big career move

In our experience, the single biggest mistake people make in managing their careers is that they only consider their next career move when they need to start making it. Developing a career strategy is a way to avoid this trap. Another common mistake is equating career moves with job moves. There can be many downsides to moving jobs and this is not something that should be undertaken lightly. Rather, career moves can be seen as a set of assignments or projects that will build your career capital and help you pursue your chosen career strategy pattern. This ties in with the discussion of career strategy canvasses and career patterns and stories we covered in part 3: the canvas is the map and the story is the direction you’re moving in.

Your overarching goal is what should guide your decisions regarding which next assignment or project is most sensible. The following example demonstrates the thought process that should happen several months before deciding to make a career move:

Example: Anele

Anele is a 30 year old marketing professional working for an IT firm (read more about her case study in this article).

  • Her current career assets:
    • background in marketing
    • work experience in digital marketing (for a software service provider)
  • Ultimate goal: “I’d like to become a branding management executive in retail fashion.”
  • What is missing? “From talking to someone in the field and looking at job ads, I’ve identified what is required that I don’t have”:
    • knowledge of the fashion industry
    • experience as a brand manager for a clothing or cosmetics line
    • exposure to public relations and strategic communications
  • Therefore, her next assignment: get experience as a field manager in cosmetics or fashion retail.
  • Her curriculum:
    • Keep up with trends in the retail fashion industry
    • Take a course in public relations and strategic communication
    • From keeping up with trends, she learns that the behavioural sciences are becoming more and more relevant in marketing. This content is not yet taught in traditional marketing courses. This is a T-shaped skill: behavioural sciences in marketing
    • If she wants to be a successful exec one day, it would be a good idea to pick up some generalist skills in business
  • From her LifeCheq plan: “It’s recommended that I invest in my career assets and build my capacity for risk.”
    • She will need to spend some money on the course and attend some conferences to network and meet people
    • She might have to take a pay cut to get experience as a field manager in the retail fashion industry – are her plans still going to work longer term?

When it comes to thinking about career development, people tend to start with the wrong questions. For example: should I be focusing on qualifications or getting experience? Should I work on more generalist skills or specialist skills? This is understandable, as we’re constantly bombarded with options of things to do/study/watch and tips for self-improvement. However, a far more valuable use of time is considering: 1) what is your next proximate career move and 2) what are the very clear things that will help you get the most out of your strengths.

Validate your strengths and build transferable skills

Yes, your parents and friends all think you’re amazing. That’s nice, but not objective validation. When it comes to your career, you need to be wary of falling victim to confirmation bias (a tendency to “cherry-pick” information that agrees with one’s pre-existing beliefs) regarding your strengths.

Some of the most valuable guidance you will receive is honest, constructive feedback. Did you deliver on a specific project that was hard or do something challenging that others couldn’t? Did you get an award? Did a paying customer say you were great? Knowing your relative strengths and weaknesses can help you verify that you are indeed building valuable career capital. Find people (bosses, colleagues, friends) who care enough to hold you accountable to higher standards. A boss who is friendly but willing to accept mediocre results can seriously damage your career.

When it comes to building new strengths, it’s a good idea to focus on skill sets that are transferable. By way of an analogy, you want to learn how to build a clock and not just how to tell the time. If you’re just telling the time, then you are only useful when someone else supplies a clock!

What this means is that you should know how to get your hands dirty and be familiar with the basic work in your field. This makes you less dependent on the setup at your current workplace and ensures your skills more transferable. You will also be a greater asset to your current employer as you will have a higher-level insight into your systems and will be able to fix or improve them. Being a clockmaker means you are more useful than a mere time-teller, and therefore get the better pick of assignments that can grow your career.

Update your CV as you go and know how to tell your story

A good CV does not emerge the day before you submit the job application. It also has very little to do with clever formatting and a pretty cover page. Presentation counts for something, but the real content in your CV was written years before you ever sent it to a potential employer.

The reason we have not specifically covered writing a good CV in this series is simple: quite frankly, the piece of paper itself doesn’t matter. A good CV is the output of a career strategy journey that started years ago; all that’s required is to spend a few hours writing it and applying some common sense in formatting it. Your track record, references and reputation should be good enough that your CV serves only as an introduction.

With each chapter of your story, have a clear sense of how this adds to your appearance on paper – how are you building transferable skills? What did you learn? What conclusion will a potential employer draw from reading each section? When it comes to telling your story, being shy or overly humble can be a liability. You don’t have to be obnoxious or arrogant about your successes, but know how to talk about your strengths and accomplishments in a way that allows an employer or customer to picture what you are good at and how you might contribute to their team or help solve an important problem.

Working with mentors and coaches

Self-awareness is the mother of all multiplier skills. In addition to taking assessment tests (read more about these here), an external influence, such as a coach or mentor, can be useful. Typically, those in the best position to add value to your journey are one or both of the following:

  1. Someone who has first-hand experience in the same or similar subject matter.
  2. Someone who is professionally trained to give advice, and is registered with a professional body.

Do be wary of who you trust. There is so much conflicting information and advice out there, and plenty of people will happily take your money and leave you no better off than before. Use the above recommendation as a rule of thumb, and above all, trust your instinct and take the advice that resonates with your own career story.

Working with coaches or psychologists is not cheap, so be sure to only make use of such services when you expect them to have a significant impact. If someone gives you a reference, ask them how this person helped them – simply saying someone is “really great” “so awesome” and “so inspiring” is not a reason to hand over R500 to R1000 an hour just to hang out with them. Youtube videos, Ted talks and clever memes can all have the same effect. If you’re paying for one-on-one consultations, you want to see impact and change. That said, it is not the role of a mentor or coach to make a decision for you. Rather, they should provide advice and guidance that enables you to make the best decision possible.

When seeking a suitable mentor, look for someone who has relevant experience in the industry, business or realm that you are interested in. Identify opportunities to work with people professionally outside your company – professional bodies, associations, client engagements, suppliers, and so on. In addition, you don’t have to meet someone to be mentored by them. You can read about them, read their books and learn the lessons. If you are looking for someone to meet with regularly, ensure you find someone who is approachable, engaged, and has the time – rather than a high-flying mentor you never see!

The mentorship relationship works best when there is some structure to it. After you get to know your mentor, you need to drive the agenda of what you want out of the mentorship relationship: arrive at your meetings with set questions and topics you want to discuss. You should be doing more of the talking after your first few engagements; asking questions and presenting problems you’re facing, and having them share insights and ask key questions in return. Someone who just pontificates about how great they are is not a good mentor, and all you’re really doing there is joining their fan club.

Don’t expect your mentor to transform your career – this is your job. Your mentor should be the person who asks the tough questions that make you uncomfortable; someone who can provide insights into political challenges you might be working through at work, can offer introductions and connections to other people who can advance your career, or can act as a sounding board when you’re considering a career move.

Read widely to guide your curriculum

Setting aside a couple of hours every week to read is an excellent investment of time. Your curriculum should focus on a few distinct areas:

  • Learning the skills that you’ve identified as important in your actionable career plan. In addition to books, you can also look out for online courses, YouTube videos, and conferences. Be sure to cover specialist skills (specific to your area of work) and generalist skills (broader, transferable skills).
  • Improving your understanding of areas outside your skill set. This helps you build T-shaped skills: skills considered part of another specialty but which can be applied to solve problems in your area of work. For example, are you in finance? You should really learn more about technology (outside of buzzwords you pick up in the news). Are you in marketing? Learn more about the behavioural sciences.
  • Reading the biographies of people you’re interested in, bearing in mind what we discussed about career stories in part 3 of this series.
  • Reading actively. Google things that you find interesting and explore those further as well. What you are really doing here is practicing the art of being curious, another very handy multiplier skill.

Here’s another article on LifeCheq Exclusive that relates to bridging the gaps in your skill set. It’s part of our theme on bootstrapping your idea, but is relevant here too.

Invest in multiplier skills

Multiplier skills are skills that help you get good at other things – it’s sharpening your saw as a woodcutter, to paraphrase Stephen Covey (author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People). The first and most important multiplier skill is deliberately making time to invest in and proactively manage your career.

At the end of this series, if nothing else, the one thing we hope you will do is to set aside time once a week to focus on developing and refining your career strategy. Your weekly sessions should take no longer than an hour each, at a time when you know you’ll be well rested and not feeling under pressure. We suggest a morning on a weekend or any other slot that you can commit to. This is part of your “me-time;” a block of time that you are setting aside to focus on your own goals.

Stop reading for a bit, put that slot in your diary right this moment and set it to repeat every week.

Done? Ok.

Here are some multiplier skills that you can develop during your weekly sessions:

  • Manage your time and energy efficiently. By doing the exercise we mentioned above, you’ve already taken a big step in this direction. The idea here is to be intentional about where your time goes. This starts with using part of your designated weekly hour to set aside time for things that are never quite urgent yet critically important, for example: thinking about your career, getting a handle on your finances, assessing and improving your health, spending time with family, and anything else that can add to your quality of life. Two good books on the topic of time management are Put First Things First by Stephen Covey and The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker (and no, you don’t have to be an executive at work to read it!)
  • Learn how to learn better. Upon finishing a book or an article, what do you do with it? Have you ever considered jotting down some notes on your key take-outs, writing your own summary or review, and trying to teach it to someone else? This is a highly effective multiplier skill and will consolidate what you have read into your memory for further reference.
  • Learn from failure. Our society has become so focused on celebrating success that we have become terrible at understanding and valuing failure and the learning that comes with it. As part of your weekly hour, write down and think about things that didn’t go well during the week. This is not a self-flagellation session – try to objectively analyse each scenario and upack the lessons that will help you to do better next time.
  • Learn how to negotiate. A negotiation shouldn’t have to be like a wrestling match or a battle of wills. There is a common misconception that negotiation is an aggressive or antagonistic endeavour – far from it! If an employee says that they want a raise, the correct response from a good manager is to point out what they have to do and the level they need to perform at in order to get one (as well as support them to get there). If the employee can do those things and add to business results, then the employer has gained a more productive employee without having to go through the pain of advertising, hiring and worrying about culture fit. Knowing how to see things from both sides is the key to good negotiation – that’s how you find something that works for everyone whilst framing it in a way that makes the win/win outcome clear to all. William Ury and Roger Fisher, two Nobel prize winners who helped negotiate the Camp David Accord, wrote an excellent book entitled Getting to Yes. It explains the ideas behind this enlightened approach to negotiation. Another book by the same authors entitled The Power of a Positive No. which is also worth reading.

In conclusion

Your career is not a rocket launched once and destined to either hit the right mark or miss completely. Your career strategy is the 4×4 all-wheel-drive that will help you navigate the rugged and complex terrain of an uncertain working world – complete with reverse gear and the ability to get unstuck if you find yourself in muddy terrain. This series provides the metaphorical tool box and map that you should keep in your boot in case you need it along the way.

And remember, there’s almost always more than one way to get to where you want to be. So don’t stress too much if you end up taking the scenic route – it’s a roadtrip! Happy exploring and enjoy the ride!

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