- Knowing yourself is as important as knowing how to do the job.
- There’s no such thing as work-life balance, only trade-offs.
- Years of loyalty can work against you.
- Listen to your gut—it’s full of data.
- No risks, no rewards.
- Get out of your own way.
- Learn the honest truth about integrity.
- You have to be good to be lucky.
A few years ago, an HR executive at a Fortune 500 company said to me, “Peggy, I can’t believe how many people believe their bosses wake up in the morning thinking, ‘Gee, let’s see what I can do for you today.’” Her point was this: Chances are, nobody will ever care about your career more than you do—except for, well, maybe your parents or spouse. This means you must take responsibility for managing your own career—don’t even think about leaving it to anyone else. I’m not saying that those around you at work aren’t interested in helping you succeed. But their focus is mainly on themselves—their own projects, trajectory, and careers.
And similarly, your focus should remain squarely on you. Even when you don’t work for yourself, managing your own career means wearing the many hats of an entrepreneur. Start thinking like the CEO, marketing manager, sales force, HR director, head of product design, and talent coordinator of your own company—a company of one, which is you.
Why is it so important that you take the reins when it comes to career management? First, gone are the days of job security. Mergers, acquisitions, downsizing, and international competition have done away with that. The average working American will now have between ten and twelve jobs and three to five careers during his or her lifetime. Second, people across the board—including your boss, his or her boss, and the HR director—are being asked to juggle more and more assignments, often combining the responsibilities of two or three people into one job. Most of the folks you assume are thinking about your career simply don’t have the time or the energy, and you certainly can’t expect them to be psychic when it comes to knowing what you want for your future. Third, those who let their careers “just happen” or expect employers to orchestrate them will end up disappointed. Unfortunately, most graduates are completely unprepared for their first encounter with these harsh realities—especially given that some of them have grown accustomed to e-mailing their college papers home for their parents to edit!
Whether just starting out or well on your way, one of the most important things you can do is take responsibility for yourself—your career, your goals, and your own behavior. Doing so begins with a very healthy dose of self-awareness and a commitment to self-management. Indeed, both are at the foundation of soft skills mastery—you’ll see them time and time again throughout the rest of the book. In the lessons presented in this chapter, you’ll find a variety of soft skills at play, including engaging in self-as
sessment on a continual basis, being personally accountable, creating a work life that makes sense, taking risks, listening to your intuition, and attracting luck. I’ll also touch upon another soft skills area that will never go out of style: old-fashioned honesty and integrity.
“Climb every mountain / Ford every stream / Follow every rainbow / Till you find your dream.” Sound familiar? Sometimes when attending professional conferences, I feel like I am in a never-ending stage production of The Sound of Music. Motivational speakers shout from on high, “Follow your passion! If you think it, you will achieve it.” I swear, if I hear one more person say something like that, I’m going off a Swiss alp. Which is probably why I relate so well to people who tell me how they wish they’d realized sooner that being passionate about something doesn’t automatically mean you’ll have the talent or aptitude to be successful at it. And even having all three—passion, talent, and aptitude—still doesn’t guarantee success. One way of finding your bliss, your life’s work, or simply something you won’t mind spending eight to ten hours doing each day is to get to know yourself really, really well.
From my front-row seat, there’s nothing soft about taking a hard look at who you are. After more than a decade of coaching people on all rungs of the career ladder, I find time and time again that the ones who have never taken an inventory of themselves wind up doing things that they aren’t successful at or are miserable doing. They haven’t thought enough about what kinds of tasks they like and dislike, which talents and interests they want to incorporate into their work life, or how their strengths
and weaknesses might impact career choices. It’s pretty simple, actually. Each of us has special gifts that are better suited to certain kinds of careers than others. If you seek out a line of work that’s a good match, you’ll more likely flourish. If you pursue an incompatible line of work, you’ll more likely struggle. In order to learn where you’ll thrive the most, take the time to get to know yourself better. Think of it as buying a special type of insurance that will make you less vulnerable to heartaches, anxiety, stress, and losing time or money.
That said, knowing what you are best suited doing workwise can be tricky. It’s not always clear where your strengths lie from the start, so it can take some time and experience to figure it out. And sometimes we can learn the most from paying attention to our weaknesses. This was the case for thirty-eight-year-old Marta.
In the early years of her career, Marta changed jobs so often that it started to raise eyebrows and make potential employers think she was uncommitted, flighty, or someone who bored easily. In fact, her college friends nicknamed her “Froggy” from watching her leap from one job to another. But once she examined her strengths, she realized something very powerful about herself: she was what you could call a “fixer-upper”—not of old homes, but of businesses. As she explains, “I held a series of management positions at midsized firms. Each time I was hired, I was drawn into spending significant amounts of time finding ways to overhaul and improve the organization. As soon as things were running smoothly, I would become restless and move on to the next company and challenge.” At first this pattern caused her to doubt her ability to stick with a position. The more she thought about it, however, the more she realized that her real passion and talent was not as a manager but as a business development specialist. So before her habit of switching jobs could become a career liability, she decided to launch her own consulting firm,
which has since grown into a multimillion-dollar operation.
Whether just starting out or farther along the path, becoming and remaining successful is dependent not just on knowing who you are and what you are great at, but also on knowing how others think about you—even when the review is unfavorable. This means embracing your annual performance appraisal or 360-degree assessment (an approach that incorporates comprehensive feedback from everyone who interacts with you at work—colleagues, supervisors, team members, clients, and direct reports). Use these as an opportunity to think about your competencies and achievements, identify gaps, and make sure you are staying on track for doing what you want to do. Yes, what you want! Not what your parents, spouse, or bosses have in mind. Additionally, particularly in the early years of work or during a major transition, many people find meeting with a career counselor very helpful and clarifying.
“Peggy, for years I’ve juggled it all between my personal and professional life and I have just one thing to say about work-life balance: There’s no such thing!” said Gabriella, the district manager for a major software development company. “I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that I can’t be perfect or do it all, at least not all at the same time. Some days I’m a better sales manager than mother, other days a better spouse than a boss.” She proceeded to explain that meshing work with life is an ongoing process of making choices and trade-offs, not some static state you achieve called balance.
I couldn’t agree more. As Drew, one of my CEO clients, puts it, “If you keep adding new things to your plate, something that’s
already there is going to slide off.” In his case, he was lamenting over what happened when his wife sent him to the grocery store over the weekend to pick up a few items. She had given him a list that instructed him to “buy a box of Danny’s favorite cereal.” Standing there in the aisle, scanning the rows of colorful boxes, he realized that he had absolutely no clue which one was his four-year-old’s favorite. This got him wondering: When was the last times he had even been home when his son was eating breakfast? Which begged an even bigger question: Was this the life he wanted?
A major part of knowing yourself is making sure the career you create makes sense with the rest of your life. Just like you check the oil in your car, check in with yourself on a regular basis to keep tabs on how your trade-offs are affecting you. While it’s true that certain personal characteristics remain constant, other aspects continue to evolve as we go. Oftentimes life intervenes and the objectives that once drove us, the values that influence our behavior, or our tolerance for risk change. What we were doing when we were younger may no longer suit us as we hit middle age. We get married or we get divorced. Children enter the picture and the circumstances in which we do our work matters more than the actual work we do. Or the business climate alters. The company gets sold. A new boss enters the picture. The firm or the economy hits a downturn. Or we simply become bored and restless from doing the same old thing. The ways in which our lives alter over time are endless. So that’s why it’s imperative to review on a regular basis your values, goals, and objectives to make sure that your work life and the rest of your life are still a good fit in terms of the trade-offs you are making.
One of my drama-school friends from England—a very good actor and director—is the perfect example of someone who was in desperate need of a work-life tune-up. After two decades in “the
business,” he was still earning a marginal income. He had to admit to himself that not only was he never going to become a star earning the big bucks, but there were no signs of him being able to support himself and his wife—and certainly not the children they were hoping to have someday—in the style he had imagined. It was then he realized that during the years, his greatest strength—his talent as an actor—had become his biggest liability by preventing him from having the life he wanted. So, yearning for a steadier paycheck, he put the word out that he was looking for a new line of work, something that would build off his creative strengths as a performer and as a “people person.” Before long, he picked up a temporary assignment with a consulting company coaching business professionals on their presentation skills. Not only was he happily able to use many of his acting and directing skills, but the firm eventually hired him for a full-time position, which he has held for the last five years. And, just last summer, he asked for and was given six weeks off so he could direct a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night
in Sweden. Finally, he’s crafted a career for himself that he finds very rewarding on all levels.
So whenever your circumstances significantly change or you are feeling dissatisfied about work, do a “trade-off assessment” of how your career choices are impacting your overall life. Pay attention to gaps between the kind of life you want and the life you are actually living. If there are any big discrepancies, consider how to better align the two spheres and construct a career that makes more sense.
First and foremost, assess your employer’s policies (flex time, part-time, etc.) and think about where you might be able to stretch them, like proposing a job share when there isn’t already a program for that. In other words, don’t rule things out just because the company or someone in your department has never done something before.
For instance, Lorraine, a fairly senior manager at a pharmaceutical company and mother of two young children, was going through a difficult divorce and had reached her wits’ end. “I just can’t do this anymore. I’m going to march right in there and resign,” she announced to me.
“Whoa! “I said. “Sit down and don’t do a thing until we hash this out.”
With nearly full custody of the children, she really needed more time at home instead of traveling so much. Lorraine longed to walk her kids to school and meet them when they got off the bus, at least one day a week. For several months, she had been thinking about asking her boss if she could work from home on Fridays. But Lorraine was afraid to broach this, especially since she was worried about how the team of twenty people she manages—many with children themselves—would react.
“If you don’t ask, you don’t get. What’s the very worst thing that could happen?” I asked her. Together, she and I role-played various scenarios, including possible responses from her boss. The next day she approached him. She said she felt like she was facing a firing squad.
Apparently, her fretting had been a total misfire. Her boss was incredibly understanding, “I didn’t know you were going through all of this. Why didn’t you mention it earlier? Of course you can take Fridays at home. Figure out how you can stay in touch with your group on that day and what you need to do to shore things up to make it work out as well as possible. In fact, if you need to work from home for two days for a while, then do that.”
Sometimes we work ourselves up into such a dither that we box ourselves in and fail to see the possibilities. While Lorraine finally calmed down, she realized that when it comes to most things in life—including your career—everything’s negotiable.
Start off by getting clear with yourself about what you want and what trade-offs you are willing to make and live with. For instance, are you willing to take a new job or lesser position within your existing company that you might not enjoy as much, but that offers a more flexible schedule? Can you afford earning a smaller salary for a job that better fits your current needs? Once you determine what will work best for you, strategize how to make it happen. Identify people who have been successful navigating through the company to get what they need and ask them for advice. Then go for it. Bottom line? While it’s true that if you ask for something you may not get it, if you don’t ask, you definitely won’t get it!
In recent years, the revolving-door model of gaining job experience has taken root. I get whiplash just looking at Gen X and Y résumés and seeing how much they jump around. One thing’s for sure: The number of years you stay with a company, which used to be a big selling point, is out the window. The world of hiring has been turned upside down. Now when HR looks at someone who has worked at the same place for ten years, all sorts of alarm bells go off—she can’t be much of a risk taker; he’s not cutting edge enough. Translation: old school. Dead weight. Dinosaur.
Today’s organizations value people who are versatile. Presumably, if you’ve moved around from job to job—within reason, of course, and with good recommendations—you’ve been exposed to a wide range of situations and have demonstrated your ability to succeed in a business climate marked by constant change. Now, this doesn’t mean that you need to start job-hopping or become a generalist. The key is to strike the right balance between taking on new positions and roles to increase your range of
skills—which, by the way, can often be accomplished while working at the same company—and at the same time developing a reputation for being really good at something.
Don’t wait like Sam did until it’s too late. Sam had worked his way up in sales and marketing for one of the largest sporting goods manufacturers in the United States. Although he had been approached by competitors throughout the years, Sam loved the firm and had no intention of ever leaving. Then the comp...