Considering the personal drive involved in climbing the corporate ladder, it’s ironic that plans for continued growth should flicker and fade once the executive’s chair has been reached. But the reality is, most executives have no plan for their professional future. If they do, it’s vague at best.
Why does this happen? In a marketplace where flux is the rule, executives need career growth just as much as entry-level employees—if not more.
But the pressure of executive life has a way of pushing career plans to the background. Rapid market changes bring about defensive styles of leadership. Protecting what you have, or even just trying to minimise losses, becomes the modus operandi. Or perhaps there just isn’t enough time in the day to think about individual growth.
Whatever the reasons, more executives are seeing the positive benefit (and downright necessity) of ongoing career plans. They’re seeing that continual growth is not only helpful to them personally, but to the companies they lead.
Organisations can evolve more easily when their leaders take an evolutionary approach toward their own careers. Executives with career plans also contribute to a culture of learning that makes their companies more adaptive in the market and more attractive to the best recruits.
So—for the executive who acknowledges the value of career planning in their own life, the question becomes one of making and executing a plan. Where to begin? This is a question I’m asked often, and I think the following four steps are a good starting block.
First off, rule out the temptation to fly solo. Executives work at the top of tree in their particular field, and many are drawn to the autonomous approach. Making bold decisions does, of course, come with executive territory—but effective leaders are highly collaborative too. They actively seek input from others, knowing their own perspective will be enlarged.
Such outside input has even more relevance in career planning. Determining your own strengths and competencies, and applying them toward meaningful outcomes, is not always easy. Many executives find that opening a dialogue with an experienced professional—someone who has helped other executives—gives much-needed focus to the process.
Second, change your attitude toward risk. Actively pursuing career goals, when executive status has already been reached, may seem counter-intuitive. Why would any executive bring risk into the very situation they’ve worked so hard to create?
The answer is simple: Taking risks is never as dangerous as skirting them habitually. When the University of Southern Australia worked extensively with CEOs throughout the country to gain insight into what makes companies and careers grow, they concluded that executives need to stay hungry, take risks, and think big in order to perform at the highest level. Stasis just doesn’t fit with the 21st century economy.
Ok, so you’ve decided to seek input from others, and you’ve given some thought to how you view risk in your own career.
Third, broaden your definition of career success. Find out what you really want from your career. Is it merely a dollar amount? What about lifestyle, physical health, social impact? Millennials are perhaps the first generation to put lifestyle first. They equate success not merely with gold at the end of the rainbow, but with mental and physical health along the way.
One way or another, this perspective has value for today’s busy executive. In business, just as in professional sports, feeling good boosts performance. The more you align your goals—professional, personal, social and lifestyle—the more adept you’ll be.
And fourth, focus on specific outcomes and concentrate on small gains. The milestones are bigger and clearer at the beginning of one’s career—an advanced degree, a management position, the rise to executive. Once that high level has been reached, the best way to keep climbing is steadily, a little at a time, with definite goals in front of you. This not only keeps your career moving—it helps you stay on top of trends, inspires and invigorates the mind, and increases your expertise in a given field.
Growing older and more senior may be inevitable, but losing drive and losing touch are entirely optional. Companies today find themselves in a continuum of learning and evolution. The people who lead those companies have a golden opportunity to be fresh and inspired throughout their careers, and inspire those around them evolve. Reaching out to other trusted executives, and to professionals who have helped them, is a solid first step.
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