When I was growing up a family friend gave me two pieces of career advice: be likeable and never forget that what goes up will come down.
The first piece of advice was given in the context of going for my first job. Their suggestion was that to secure the role it was essential to ensure the person interviewing me liked me. I always found this advice held up – throughout my career.
The second piece of advice was to remember that while it’s easy to focus your energy on advancing and getting promoted, never forget that your career will at some stage shift and decline.
This was reinforced mid-way through my career when a career development expert shared their perspective. She found that people always focused on what their career looked like as it grew and advanced and paid little attention to thinking and planning for their career when it plateaus and potentially slides. That slide, for example, could be a smaller role, a lower position in the organisational hierarchy or working in a role with less decision-making power and authority.
Now you may be thinking ‘Focusing on decline sounds a little defeatist’, or perhaps ‘I am still early in my career, why should I think about this now?’
This isn’t about focusing on the negative. Instead, it’s about being strategic. Actively planning your career choices, rather than just letting it unfold. Thinking long-term and always keeping your eye on the prize. The prize is the life you want to live and the person you want to be.
No matter what stage you are at in your career right now, here are some ideas to consider so you are ready for the ups and downs of your career.
In Zen philosophy they focus on the ‘Four Limbs of Leadership’. The four limbs are: enlightenment and virtue, speech and action, humaneness and justice, etiquette and law. In the book Zen Lessons: the Art of Leadership, the writer uses the metaphor of a tree:
“Enlightenment and virtue are the root of the teaching; humaneness and justice are the branches of the teaching. With no root, it is impossible to stand; with no branches it is impossible to be complete”.
This approach reminds us that to lead a full life we need to understand and embrace our whole selves. This is about balancing and nourishing all aspects of ourselves – spiritual, physical, physiological and sociological. If we ignore one aspect, the whole never operates as effectively. Embracing this approach encourages you to be clear on the person you want to be, and to then live according to those principles and values.
Roles come and go. Careers change. But what always stays with you is your reputation.
I’ve seen people (and no doubt you have too) who as they gain more power at work treat people less respectfully and become entitled; thinking that rules no longer apply to them and believing they need to be treated better than anyone else. They expect a lot from others, and yet are far less willing to give. At some stage, when their power starts to fade, and they need help they turn around to find very few people who are willing to do so.
How you manage your career on the way up and how you treat people, will determine how you get treated when it has hiccups or experiences a downward slide.
Weigh up the trade-offs
A career choice often means there are other things you give up, with these trade-offs coming in all shapes and sizes.
Sometimes the trade-offs are worth it, and perhaps at other times they aren’t. In my corporate career I regularly sacrificed my health for work. Thankfully, there were no long-term impacts, and I’ve since learned the benefit of prioritising my health and well-being. While during the early days of the business, I regularly worked long hours to get it up and running successfully. That approach was a deliberate decision, which meant I missed out on certain social engagements and other activities because of the business. However, that hard work paid off and the initial sacrifice was worth it.
The question to always ask yourself is – Is the trade-off you are considering making worth it?
You need to know whether you are willing to forgo leisure time on the weekend to learn a new skill that will help you progress your career. You need to be clear on whether the status of the role is more important than having a role that’s flexible. The clearer you are on what you are willing to trade, the easier it is to identify and plan each career step in a way that best meets your long-term needs and goals.
Smooth out the bumps
Careers have bumps, u-turns, the occasional roadblocks, as well as some fantastic routes – many of which can be unexpected. While you can never fully map out your future because no one knows exactly how things will play out, what you can do is be prepared for the unexpected.
To smooth out the bumps that will come your way keep your skill level high and never stop learning. Always look for ways to broaden and deepen your network, so you have a strong support base to turn to when you need advice and support.
And lastly, navigating those twists and turns is easier, when you are clear on what you want your life to look like, and what a fulfilled life looks like for you. Remember, more often than not, a fulfilled life is about experiences and people, rather than materials and possessions.
As the remarkable Eleanor Roosevelt said: “Happiness is not a goal. It’s a by-product of a life well lived.”