Written by Russell Johnson
In my last article, “Why You MUST Ensure Your Career Supports the Life You Want”, I outlined why it’s vital to your future that your career supports the life you want to live now. If you haven’t read that article, I’d strongly recommend you do before reading this one.
If you have read it, then please read on.
The Right Starting Point – Deep Awareness
All too often, even high achievers “follow the herd” regarding their paradigm of success. Or allow their careers to be about meeting the expectations of others. It’s no wonder. Through the power of advertising, for example, we are continually being seduced into sacrificing things that truly matter, for others of little value.
But the success that counts is found in doing work that we love, and that in turn supports our love of life. Not just through a career that we hope will do so in the future, but one that does now. Anything less is a sacrifice that must be corrected, as soon as possible.
Real awareness, and the clarity that accompanies it, begins with understanding ourselves. Through creating a motivating vision for our lives, based on a valid ‘map’ for successful living, we enhance our clarity.
We need to base this on unchanging principles of success. These are fundamental truths, such as the ‘Golden Rule’, that can provide an underlying level of guidance. Like any good map, such principles can ensure we are moving in the right direction, even when we can’t see far ahead because of the difficulty of the terrain.
Examine Your Sources of Influence
We all base our actions on influences that have become central to our lives. However, we’re often not conscious of them. Many people base their actions on influences such as the drive for security or power, for example. For those unconscious of the effects of these, there’s never a level of either that feels like enough. This can drive a toxic set of behaviours that spread like poison through an organization.
When we sacrifice the fundamental principles of successful living for the sake of short-term results, the harm that follows is always more significant than the benefit.
If you haven’t read the late Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, or his Principle-Centered Leadership, or if it has been a long time since you last read them, I would recommend reading them or rereading them. We can all benefit from at least occasional reinforcement of the sound foundation they provide.
Examine Your Strengths, Skills and Values
Are you fully using your strengths? Which ones do you want to use more of?
What are your transferable skills? If you don’t have the skills for what you want to do, how will you gain them?
What are your values?
Where does personal autonomy fit in your values hierarchy?
What about a sense of meaning in your work? How can you best ensure this finds expression?
And what about financial freedom? How will you measure this, and ensure it doesn’t override other values of equal or even greater importance?
Are you happy with your location? If not, does changing it matter enough to do something about it?
And what about opportunities for your family?
Are you a good role model for your children, and even your grandchildren, when that time comes?
Are you staying healthy?
And do you have the time for the things that matter most to you?
Will you be able to look back on your life, towards the end, and feel that you have lived it well?
The list can be extensive. And there WILL be trade-offs. What matters is choosing these with full consciousness of their implications.
Your Goals Must Be Right for YOU
Without deep awareness, the unintended consequences of our goals are likely to become apparent only when we have achieved them.
Some years ago, I worked with a colleague who in a former career as a medical specialist spent much time talking with people on their deathbeds. He shared with me how many of them spoke of their regrets – usually, for things not done while there was still time to do them.
The awareness he gained from those discussions eventually led him to leave his own career, prestigious and worthwhile though it was, because, for him, it was not an authentic expression of who he wanted to be.
Decades ago, for fundamentally similar reasons, I left my executive career behind. As outwardly successful as it was, I had finally faced the fact that it was not an authentic expression of who I wanted to be.
Procrastination is Dangerous. So are Shortcuts.
If these sorts of changes are necessary, it’s best to make them early, rather than trying to give them due consideration when we are under pressure. Or worse yet, to end up reflecting, in our final years, on the life we wish we had lived.
We are all tempted to seek shortcuts to get what we want. But just as the farmer has to plant and care for the crop before harvesting it, there’s a cycle that we must follow to reap real success.
In such matters, shortcuts are illusions.
Where Do Strategy and Tactics Fit?
As a quote usually attributed to Sun Tzu puts it: Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.
We must develop a strategy that aligns with our deep awareness and goals. We then use the tactics and skills required to implement our strategy.
Why We Need to Understand the Difference Between Career Strategy and Tactics
The terms are closely related since both concern the means for achieving goals. Originally used in military operations, both now also relate to business because, when properly used, they work together to facilitate goal achievement.
For this reason, they’re essential in managing our careers. But to use them effectively, we need to understand their meaning and the differences between them in the context of a career.
What is Career Strategy?
Strategy, in general, is often confused with goals as well as tactics. Broadly, a strategy is a long term, high-level method or plan to achieve key goals. This is notwithstanding unpredictable events and the failure from time to time of more limited, shorter-term plans along the way.
It’s essential to understand the difference between business strategy and career strategy. Business strategy is generally designed to achieve financial goals, and is constrained by the centrality of this focus. Career strategy has no such limitations, unless we choose to impose them.
Your career strategy can be designed to support you in being the person you want to be and living the life you want. It’s qualitatively different from business strategy, at least as business strategy is generally developed and conducted.
Therefore, let me propose a working definition for career strategy: A career strategy is a systematic approach to achieving desired life outcomes through one’s work, notwithstanding unexpected setbacks along the way.
A sound career strategy is a solution to the problem of an uncertain future; a flexible framework designed to maximize the likelihood of getting what we really want, over the longest possible period. It will allow you to continue moving toward your goals when plans fail, as they often will.
With the increasing speed of change, the need for sound career strategy becomes ever more acute.
What are Tactics?
Tactics are specific, short-term, narrowly focused actions undertaken in support of a strategy. They may be as limited as negotiating a pay increase or as large as making a career move. If well-conceived and executed, either of these might achieve a short-term objective that contributes to implementing a strategy.
In the absence of a sound strategy, on the other hand, the same tactics might harm your career. For example, postponing a move that’s necessary for your career growth, in return for a pay increase, could reduce your perceived potential and limit your advancement in the years ahead. And by creating or strengthening an image of a career that’s drifting, or by causing you to lose your way or become demoralized, a career move could have the same effect.
Don’t Sell Yourself Short
As John Stuart Mill stated, One person with a belief is a social power equal to ninety-nine who have only interests.
In the same vein, you have more power to create the future you want than you may currently believe. Don’t start by asking ‘What are my options?’ but ‘Who do I want to become?’, ‘What do I want to achieve?’ and ‘How will I do this?’
Additionally, we must recognize that we do have the power to make and implement choices that will get us what we really want, even if it turns out not to be what we currently THINK we want. All genuine empowerment hinges on this.
Nevertheless, significant change is rarely easy. Hard choices may be required, but they’re worth the trouble. You can achieve true career fulfilment through such decisions.
Further Keys to Developing a Career Strategy That Will Stand the Test of Time
A sound career strategy will support your satisfaction with your life – not just at the end, looking back, but throughout life. Actually, the term ‘eudaimonic happiness’ could be used interchangeably with ‘self-actualization’.
Whichever name we use to describe it, if we base your goals around this, and align our values with unchanging principles, then it’s not difficult to see some elements of a successful strategy.
Here are several more:
Seek Work That Excites You – and that will be increasingly relevant over time.
Seek Work That Uses Your Strengths – and that will give you room to keep growing.
Seek Leaders You Can Respect. If you’re going to work for or with someone else, then look for leaders whose character you admire.
A Final Reminder
Lastly, if you’re contemplating a career move, don’t let yourself focus first on tactics, such as polishing your resume or applying for jobs. It’s the worst way to begin. For your tactics must serve your career strategy. Your strategy must support your goals. And your goals must be based on a deep awareness of what will serve your life.
So start at the other end. What kind of LIFE do you want to live?