By | Dave Ulrich | Speaker, Author, Professor, Thought Partner on HR, Leadership, and Organization
I have the privilege of meeting, training, and coaching hundreds of business leaders and HR professionals every year through the University of Michigan, RBL HR, and other assignments. In these interactions, I am constantly “listening” for what’s next for these leaders personally and for the value they will deliver to their organization.
In the last year, one of the dominant personal themes I sensed concerned careers. Business leaders and HR professionals are interested in how they can manage their career choices (“How do I know if I should stay or go?” “How do I deal with work/life issues?” “How do I continue to learn, find meaning, and build relationships from my career?”) In addition, business leaders and HR professionals need to help employees throughout their organizations deal with the same questions. Let me offer four suggestions I believe will help with these career choices. If individuals don’t define these four areas of their career, others may do so for them, and often not in the individuals’ best interests. So let me pretend I am coaching “you” through these four recommendations.
1. Be clear about your personal brand.
For products or services, a “strong” brand often increases the value of the product by 20 to 30 percent. A hotel recently changed its brand from a local name to a reputable national chain. After the change, the same location, rooms, staff, and services charged about 25 percent more per room. Brand equity creates value for customers who pay and use more of the product, investors who increase intangible market value, and employees who gravitate toward positive brands.
Similarly, a good personal brand (one’s identity, reputation, or what one is known for by others) can add value to your career, increase opportunities, and shape expectations. In establishing a personal brand, you first need to identify your strengths and passions/values. Your personal brand should result in a succinct statement about your values and strengths and answer the question: “What do I want to be known for by others?” For example, my personal brand is to deliver value to others through my and others’ continual learning.
2. Define the criteria for realizing your brand.
With your brand articulated, you can then find career options that significantly match both areas of the brand (see figure 1). A career choice that scores low in values and low in strengths is not viable (cell 1); a career choice ranking high in values and low in strengths is aspirational but not likely to succeed (cell 2); a career choice scoring high in strengths but low in values becomes sterile; and a high-values/high-strengths career (cell 4) is one that offers a positive future.
I have identified four criteria and questions (and you can add to them) that will help you determine if a career choice enables your brand and falls within cell 4.
- Growth: Where will I have opportunities to grow my brand? Brands evolve and the right work setting should enable your brand (strengths and passions) to expand.
- Relationships: Where will I have relationships that support and enable my brand? We often become more like those who surround us as colleagues, peers, or friends. Relationships not only help us belong to a community but shape the community we belong to.
- Values: Where will my brand and the company purpose overlap? When a personal brand and the company purpose align, both move forward.
- External: What are the external realities that shape my ability to live my brand? Inevitably, constraints shape a career with specific choices and timing, including family support, geographic commitments, lifestyle choices, and so forth. Consider these realities in addition to the work environment.
These criteria and questions help define the career options that might enable your brand.
3. Review your alternative pathways.
Laying out alternative career pathways (what we call a career mosaic) is generally helpful. These pathway options lay out what career direction you can take. Often they start with two high-level choices:  stay in the company or  leave the company. Then within each choice (stay or go), you can define alternative paths (see figure 2).
While this decision grid may oversimplify and prescribe how to navigate your career, it gives you a starting point for making decisions. For example, if an externality (commitment to a geographical area or to a partner’s career) is real, it may limit pathways from five or six options down to one or two. Or if someone is a couple of years away from retirement eligibility, the option to leave the firm becomes much less attractive, at least until actual retirement. Mostly, this decision grid clarifies considerations for making a career choice.
4. Manage your decision processes.
When faced with a major choice (where to live, what relationships to nurture, or what career to pursue), almost everyone has a personal process for making the decision. As you make your career choices, consider some of these reminders:
- Create realistic expectations. We sometimes see a career move as a huge opportunity with no downsides. Any career choice should be moderated by realistic expectations: Are you able to do the new job? What will it require (e.g., travel, new skills), and are you able to accept those terms? What are the possible downsides? Can you live with them?
- Recognize risk. Staying the course might have risks of ennui, boredom, or lethargy, but taking on new work assignments may have risks of failure. What are the risks of your career stay or move? How much risk are you comfortable with (boss, setting, company, industry, role, etc.)?
- Set a deadline. Living with the ambiguity of moving or not moving to a new job may become a major distraction. Set a decision deadline and do the hard work to meet the deadline. Too often people obsess, reflect, ponder, and evaluate and never seem to make a choice. If you need more information to make a decision, source that information, then decide.
- Seek counsel. Who knows you best? What advice would they give you about the career choices? Do not rely only on counsel from others and take ownership of the decision but do accept input.
When business leaders and HR professionals take themselves through these four suggestions, they are more intentional about and successful in their career choices. When they take others through these steps and help them clarify their career options, employees throughout the organization have more personal confidence about their professional future leading to a better experience at work.
So how do you manage your career?