By | Krish Shankar | Group Head- Human Resources at Infosys, and Hon President of National HRD Network, India.
I was at XLRI Business School last month and met a few students and we got talking about career choices and what was important as they approached the placement season. Given its larger relevance, I have built on my earlier article and tried to capture some thoughts that might be relevant to all who are setting our to build their careers.
At the outset, lets understand 2 key insights regarding careers. First, career growth and development are a function of three things- your Aspiration/ambition, your Capabilities and the Opportunities that come your way. So, take some time to think through this. What is my ambition or aspiration? What do I want to be doing 3 years from now and 5-10 years from now? And follow that up by identifying which capabilities you are good at and what do you need to develop to meet your aspirations? And finally, we have to look for the right opportunities to develop our skills and also to showcase them, and look for the breaks that will help fulfil your aspirations- which is done through many ways. Mastering new skills, building a portfolio of experience, taking on mentors, working on ‘stretch’ projects, identifying roles that you would like to experience etc.
The second relevant insight that is emerging is that with some many changes around us, the new technologies and industry disruptions create new career opportunities. However, to take advantage of those, we have to be prepared to ‘pivot’ and build those appropriate new capabilities. In our career lifespan of 30-40 years, Prof Lynda Gratton (of London Business School) reckons that we have to do at least a couple of such pivots- to build some new set of skills and grow in a newer career trajectory. For instance, one may decide to pivot to an entrepreneurial venture or a social development venture, or to a completely different industry/function.
I think these two ideas are useful to make us think about careers – while the second insight is about more longer-term career inflection points that we should be aware of, the first idea is to help you plan your career in relatively medium term.
In a way, a career can be divided into 3 stages- the Early stage (the first 3-4 years of your career), the ‘CV stage (the next 15years), and then the leadership or maturity stage (the next 10-15 years).
In the Early stage, many of campus graduates are finding their feet, at times deciding what they really want to do, finding out which company culture is their best fit etc. So how do we make this the most productive period?
What should you look for in your early career job? There are 4 elements that you have to choose from: The Role, the Company, the Sector/industry and finally the Pay & Perks. Its important that you give this some thought and clarify your preferences. These preferences will also depend on your broad career direction over the next 10 years (like whether you want to be in Consulting or not, whether you like a particular function etc). My learning is that it would be wise to put a higher weightage on the role and the Company, as you are choosing your first management job. If you choose organisations that have a structured programme for MBAs and a rigorous training, that helps to build a solid platform for future growth. There are start-ups too – these tick strongly on the quality of the role, but you have to make a choice regarding the brand, the investment they may make on you, and the culture to grow and develop, which some start-ups do admirably.
To be successful in your early career, you have to go with a learning mindset, and keep realistic expectations. Most companies and jobs are ‘rosy’ from the outside, but the reality of corporate life, with its inherent checks, controls and people challenges, may hit you. But if you look to learn at every opportunity, you will probably make the most of it.
Try and build a good system to help you with the early stage: a couple of mentors in the organisation, try and learn from peers, stick your neck out and take on projects to learn, at least look for 2 different roles in the first 4 years in that organisation. All this will help you get clarity and build you for the next stage.
The next stage is what I call is the CV stage– here you build your CV. You establish yourself in the organisation, take on different roles that help build your set of experiences for the future. You make some choices here- width vs depth, general management vs specialisation, etc. These choices will be determined by your eventual goal or aspiration.
The last stage is the ‘Leadership stage’– here you are at the top of a function, but have to build on your stature as a professional, deepen your ‘leadership brand’ and scale up to bigger challenges with resilience, collaboration and using your vast reserves of experiences that you have built up.
But to start with, in your Early Career, you have to be good at what you are supposed to be doing. Ask yourself this question- have I mastered my current job? What skills can I learn to truly be the best in this job? And work to be a master of what you are currently doing. A good way to do that is to reflect on each piece of work you did, and derive some learning on how you could improve and then work on it. That I think is the first step.
The second step is to look at your aspiration over the next 5-10 years, as you move to your ‘CV stage’. What future roles will I like to be doing? What skills and experience do I need to be ready for that? And start putting some plan to build these.
The third and final step is to ask yourself- how can I help create more opportunities for myself? Some ideas are to expand the areas you can learn from, experiment, do projects/hackathons, and also talk to a couple of people who could act as mentors. We sometimes underestimate the value of mentors- your own manager would be a very good mentor. In addition, look for someone who can provide you with a different perspective on the industry. There is a term that is in vogue these days, called ‘networking’. I would like to reframe it as increasing the network of people that you interact with so that you start learning something new. If you are meeting the same set of people always, at work or elsewhere, you would tend to limit your learning. Just widen the group that you interact with- someone who can direct you to new technologies, or new opportunities or who might just have a different perspective on your career and development.
We all have intuitive an idea about our own careers- but it helps being more thoughtful and deliberate. Research shows that by just thinking about this proactively, we increase our chances of success. In the end, it is all about what Prof Carol Dweck (of Stanford) calls a ‘growth mindset’ – this is just being open to all experiences to expand our learning and to develop as individuals!
Hope this helps! Happy to hear any comments or other suggestions.