Crafting your dream career

Should you think of your dream career as a vertical ladder, or a string of pearls? Explore the advantages and disadvantages of both.

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On a long flight back home, I am reflecting back on a conversation I had with a young, bright, early career, talented individual. She had been in her current role just under 18 months and felt that she had learned everything there was to learn and was ready to move on. Her impatience and laser focus on the next level, impacted her ability to see her growth as a journey, an opportunity to learn and grow, and hampered her ability to understand and address gaps that would help her get there.

She is, by no means, alone in her quest. Her predicament resonates with all of us to some extent. We all want to know that we are working towards a dream career. I get asked this a lot, at employee roundtable meetings, by mentees, by the coffee machine, and everywhere else – How do I navigate my career?

Over the years, I’ve realized that people look at careers in one of two ways:

As a vertical ladder

In this approach, the objective is to get to the top in the fastest way possible. The advantage of this approach is the speed of ascent. The disadvantages could be; a) since this is the most traditional sought after path, the ladder could be pretty crowded and it becomes a waiting game, or b) in your ascent, you prioritize depth in a function over breadth of experiences, and that becomes an obstacle in dealing with the widely varying situations that have to be managed at the top.

As a string of pearls

In this approach, the objective is to chase diverse experiences that give you a career path that is so uniquely yours, that the blend of experiences sets you apart as a candidate for a desired role. The advantage here is clearly the breadth of experiences, especially if they even mildly mirror the ones you might face in a top job. The disadvantages could be, a) the speed of your progression, or b) you could lose sight of your destination. It is worth considering that most accelerated development programs, offered by organizations, are built on the paradigm of diverse experiences, typically outside of one’s comfort zone.

Many individuals successfully use both these approaches to craft their dream careers – for e.g., using the vertical ladder approach earlier in their career, and choosing to layer skills and experiences through the string of pearls approach, later on.

As I reflect on my own career, in hindsight, I suppose I used a blended approach. But in reality, reflecting back on the point in time when I made decisions, I realize I chased excitement (combination of challenge and fun!). The more complex, more turnaround the situation, the more exciting it was, and the more ‘first-ever’ moments it led to, for both the organization and me. And while some of the moves I made raised more than a few eye-brows, I think it was worthwhile.

Here are 4 insights that might help you as you craft your dream career:

Be a multi-specialist

Whether you choose the ladder approach or the pearls, be a multi specialist (someone with reasonable depth of knowledge in more than one area), and invest in building your leadership.

Agile talent is rare

If you are working for a large , growing conglomerate, you can be sure that they are looking for talent that can get into either tough, unyielding situations and turn them around, or get into challenging environments to deliver accelerated business growth. And these, more often than not, turn out to be high visibility projects. If you are working for a small organization, they are even more hungry for this talent as everyone has to wear multiple hats, in order to set the organization up for success.

Keep an eye out for accelerators

Accelerators are concentrated immersive experiences that step change your learning – for e.g., start ups, divestitures, accelerated business growth, mergers & acquisitions etc. Understand the fundamentals of the business and leverage your network to figure out the biggest pain points. Choosing roles where you have a direct impact on solving a business problem, gives you a great foundation for challenges you will face in future roles.

Talk to your manager

Ensure that you are talking to your manager and helping them understand how you want to navigate your career, what you enjoy doing and the kind of contribution you want to be making. Many organizations have talent review and succession planning processes, where this information is very helpful. 

As you embark on your journey, here are 4 questions to ask yourself: 

What do I enjoy doing?

It is easy to focus on positions and lose sight of whether it involves work that you truly enjoy.

What will I miss if I don’t have it in my life anymore?

Are there aspects of your work that inspire you –  for e.g. Leading a team, or being hands-on with technological innovation, etc.

Will I learn and grow?

If the role makes you somewhat uncomfortable or anxious, that is probably a good sign that you are likely to learn – for e.g. When you become a first time manager or a manager of managers or take on an overseas assignment, take over a department or business unit, work in a different industry, manage diverse teams, etc.

Do I have a support system?

While it is good to have one, sometimes you might have to be the pioneer. Having a robust support system is a good reason to take on a challenging role, however, not having one provides a good reason to plan your transition even more effectively and helps you figure out how to build one. 

I would love to hear your experiences on crafting your career, and which approach you chose and why.

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