Stop Planning and Enjoy a Better Career

file0001510889351Late one evening, when we were all sitting around and philosophizing about life, a friend of mine said to me, “you know, you’ve clearly cold-bloodedly masterminded your career.” Through the rear-view mirror, it all looked planned. Hand on heart, none of it was planned. Instead, I developed and adopted a strategy that increased my options – instead of planning, I prepared.

I recently came across an article by the Harvard professor, Robert Pozen which outlines his advice to his students about how to enjoy their career. Reflecting on the article allowed me to review some of my own significant career moments as well as distill the following 7 tips for enjoying a better career.

  1. Give up the idea you can control your career
    Many factors beyond your control can influence the trajectory of your career. You can’t predict the twists and turns that life takes. When I started my Ph.D., little did I know that six months later my professor would become a partner in one of the first European research projects. However, I could jump at the chance to be part of the project.
  2. “Act always so as to increase the total number of choices
    Following Heinz von Foerster’s maxim, if you’re not in control, the least you can do is prepare. One way to do this is to take on additional tasks or projects that provide an opportunity to grow. For example, when I was at ABB, taking over the side job of being organizer of a high-level R&D committee exposed me to the full range of R&D going into a gas turbine and to how top management thinks strategically.
  3. Learn continuously
    This is another strategy that helps to increase choices. It’s important to both deepen and broaden your skill sets. For this reason, an increasing number of researchers are taking business courses, to prepare for the possibility of spinning off their research. I have always looked to keep learning and still take about 25 days a year for my own training and reflection.
  4. Go abroad
    Work is increasingly globalized. Being exposed to another culture helps to increase your flexibility and tolerance for ambiguity (a key quality for working internationally.) It can also help your publishing record. A recent study by Franzini et al, reported in Nature, shows that scientists working abroad publishing in journals with an impact factor 1.07 higher than those who stayed at home. The authors posit that moving abroad helps the scientists find an environment conducive to good work. In most large companies, international or even intercontinental experience is a must for those who wish to develop their career.
  5. Work in different environments
    Some people build a thriving career in one organization and then flop when they move elsewhere.  Working in different environments helps to make your skills more transferrable and to lower the risk for anyone interested in hiring you. More by accident than design, I tasted university, national laboratory, research institute and company environments before I became a leadership sculptor. As each stage in my career, exposure to the different backgrounds helped me adapt more quickly to new challenges.
  6. Expand your web of relationships
    As Pozner put it, “Organizations don’t hire people. People hire people.” By expanding the network of people you know and who know you and your work, you increase your chances to be thought of, when openings arise. Especially when these openings may not be publically advertized. One way is to forge good working relationships with your colleagues. Another is to join your wider professional community through conferences or serving in professional bodies.
  7. Considering networking advantages when pondering your next move
    You can greatly expand your network by moving to a new organization, changing industry or career, or by shifting the focus of your research in a new direction. If such a step strikes you as being too big, you can always look to move within the organization or start a collaboration with colleagues with whom you have had little contact until now.

Fewer academic positions offer tenure and fewer companies offer the prospect of life-long employment. Thus, it is increasingly important to prepare yourself to maximize your chances for a satisfying and productive career. The two main strategies for this are to enhance your levels of professional resilience and to forge professional and personal bonds with peers and colleagues. So, if like me you’re not a cold-blooded mastermind, these seven tips can help you to craft and enjoy a better career.

Photo: click

3 Responses to Stop Planning and Enjoy a Better Career

  1. Interesting read, I have a close colleague who I’ve always admired for being very purposesful and directed in his career planning while I’ve always been the type to try and maximize opportunities and see which one opens up next. In the end, I think my approach is working reasonably well for me, so with that, and your post here, maybe I’ll start admiring my colleague just a little bit less. 🙂


  2. Nice post, CJ! When I hear or use the word career, I almost always think of the other, less commonly intended meaning as well–to move rapidly forward in an uncontrolled manner. Describes my path through life pretty well. Looking backward, of course, it all makes perfect sense! I believe the stories we create about who we are and how we got to be that way are designed to bring meaning to our lives, or at least to make sense of them.

    All in all, expanding options, being flexible, continuing to learn, AND making acquaintances of strangers and friends of acquaintances all seem like good ideas for promoting “success.”

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