“Career” is the buzz word – not employment, work, a job. But what does it mean to have a career? A person can be elected to parliament for only three years, and yet their CV will state they have had a career in politics, others may have enjoyed working in the same manufacturing facility for over 20 years, learning new technology and skills as manufacturing processes improved over time, but state their job description when asked what they do.
Some argue that it is a matter of timing and long term perspective, of “paying your dues”, planning and consciously “working up the ladder” – for example, having a career in law until you gain the lofty status of partnership in a law firm. Some think in terms of specialisation and expertise – becoming the very best in a particular field, be it sports, the arts or the business world. Others may consider a career as merely a means to an end – earning a high income or becoming a celebrity in your chosen field (even if you are not the best in that field).
What about the person who starts her working life as a nurse, then as a result of physical injury goes back to university to study law and business eventually specialising in health law and becoming a partner in a law firm, then realising that she enjoys the operational side of business steps away from advising legal clients to become a senior executive in a very large Not-for-Profit organisation, and who eventually works for herself in a portofolio SME. Has this person had four or more careers, or one long life-long learning experience? This is my story, and what I have learnt is that ultimately we work to live (not the other way round).
Call it work, or a series of jobs if you wish. Call it a career, or several careers. Ultimately, there are very few of us that would pursue a career (or employment or work) if we were independently wealthy – we would spend our time doing the things we enjoy the most such as spending time with family and friends, pursuing our hobbies, travel or sporting activities. However, since most of us do need to work to earn income, it is worthwhile investing that time in something you enjoy and continue to grow in(both professionally and personally) – to have a “career” that is emotionally and mentally rewarding.
How you think of your career is mostly determined by your attitude. The first consideration is what do you want from work? With clarity on that point, then you can plan how to achieve that.
The term “career planning” can be limiting as it may inhibit someone from embracing “left field” opportunities and different avenues to achieve what is the ultimate goal. Don’t be so rigid in your approach to a career, that you think you can plan for each step along the way, each being achieved in a specific timeline – life rarely works out like that.
No matter what stage you are in your working life – just leaving school to a mature worker changing jobs after a redundancy – consider career planning an cyclic process of (re)assessing your value, interests, skills and work preferences, capturing learning opportunities, and changing your life and work to meet your current needs. A career plan that is adaptable for life’s changing circumstances is essential.
Don’t be disappointed when you make mistakes, or don’t achieve a goal as quickly as you may have liked – failure is a critical part of learning and an effective way of finding ways to optimise experiences throughout your professional life.
Remember the words of Nelson Mandela who said “glory lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”
Career planning is differentiated from career development, which is what you do to professionally grow your skills and knowledge, and enhance your career prospects. Many progressive organisation invest resources in supporting employees in their professional development, assuming that the personal development will also benefit the organisation. Ultimately, professional development is something “owned” by the individual, and you take the benefits of such development with you to your next place of employment, so any professional development (be it resourced personally or by your current employer) should be valued.
While many of us focus on growing professional skills and knowledge within the sector or project we are currently involved in, expanding your horizons to consider different ways of thinking, experiencing and implementing may ultimately have more benefit – instead of doing that course on project management, how about a course on philosophy? Instead of a Masters degree in the same field of expertise, consider expanding your knowledge of another field that broadens your employability.
Another valuable support along your career path is finding a mentor you can easily relate to and trust, and formalise that relationship, be it for a defined period of time or indefinitely until either you or your mentor believe the relationship has run its course.
Working with a mentor that is not within your current organisation may enable you to more fully take advantage of the knowledge and experience the mentor can offer, without any fear your supervisor or others within your organisation will receive feedback on your performance, and career fears and hopes.
A mentor is not someone who always provides you with positive feedback – or at least, a good mentor isn’t. Your mentor should also be providing you with respectful but critical feedback in areas such as your communication, interpersonal relationships and leadership skills. The role of the mentor is to support you to decide what you need to do to grow professionally, both immediately and in the longer term.
A good mentor will also help you link into relevant networks that may be influential in supporting your professional development and career path. The other role of a good mentor is to act as a “sounding board” for your frustrations, misconceptions, and questions, as well as sharing celebrations of success.
While a mentor can provide advice and support regarding career planning and development, and challenge your perceptions adn progress around career advancement, a mentor is only ever a support person – a good mentor does not make decisions for you, but encourages you to think of the many options available to you, and the risks and mitigation of each of those options, so you can identify which option is best for you.
Faileen James has acted as mentor to many young professionals. Contact Faileen if you need assistance with Mentoring, or Career Planning and Development.