My LinkedIn followers often reach out to me for career advice. Sometimes, they seek career planning advice. On other occasions they ask for my thoughts on a particular career opportunity. Whether they are searching for long- or short-term advice, my answer is usually very simple: Focus primarily on what you do, not what you want. As the old saying goes:You get what you work for, not what you wish for.
Any insight I might offer is the product of almost 50 years in the profession. I readily acknowledge that I have been blessed with some fortunate breaks along the way. But I also have been consistent in the path I have taken. I often found myself so deeply engrossed in the journey that I wasn’t worried about the destination. By pursuing that philosophy, career opportunities usually found me – not the other way around. In fact, early career decisions that proved the least rewarding were the ones I made simply for a promotion or more money. In those instances, I quickly came to appreciate the axiom, be careful what you wish for.
Each role in my career inevitably positioned me for the next. My early years in internal audit prepared me for the ultimate “tap on the shoulder” to become the chief audit executive and turn around an under-performing internal audit department. My success caught the attention of senior leaders at the Pentagon, who asked me to move to Washington to take the helm of the Army’s internal (audit) review organization. My part-time passion for training government auditors, in turn, caught the attention of the U.S. Postal Service inspector general, who asked me to join her team as a senior executive. My engagement with the Postal Service’s audit committee caught the attention of the chairman, who recommended me as the next IG of the Tennessee Valley Authority, and on and on. I’m not boasting about those career breaks; I’m simply illustrating how it worked for me.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe that some career planning is important. We can’t assume that opportunities will always find us, or that breaks will inevitably come along. While focusing on the journey, you must simultaneously be shaping and pursuing your goals with determination and strategy. Calibrating where you are on your journey at any given point and time with a path to success is important, too. You may find, for example, that the culture of the organization where you work has changed, and no amount of keeping your head down and doing a great job is going to lead to success. I reached that conclusion at the Pentagon when it became clear to me that promotions there were based primarily on longevity. That was part of the reason I took the opportunity for a promotion at the Postal Service.
When pressed for long-term career planning advice, I usually offer the following coaching points:
Understand Your Goals. The first step is to clearly define what you want from your career. Set achievable goals based on what is important to you. If you value a work-life balance that ensures ample time for family and friends, don’t set incompatible career goals. However, understand that while goals give direction, it’s the hard work toward those objectives that brings them to fruition. Wishful thinking might provide a vision, but without action, it’s merely a daydream.
Develop Skills and Knowledge. Identify the skills and knowledge required in your chosen field and work diligently to acquire or build on them. This means seeking out education, training and real-world experience. Remember, the competition is constantly improving, and so should you. Lifelong learning isn’t just a buzzword; it’s a necessity for staying relevant and competitive.
Network and Build Relationships. If I had to identify the most important factor aside from hard work that contributed to my career success, it would be the relationships. Building a robust professional network is crucial. However, networking isn’t just about collecting contacts; it’s about cultivating meaningful relationships. Engage with mentors, peers and industry leaders. Remember, opportunities often come from connections, but these connections must be nurtured through genuine effort and contribution.
Be Persistent and Adaptable. The path to success is rarely linear. I made decisions along the way that proved to be mistakes, but they also were learning opportunities. Be prepared for setbacks and challenges. Persistence is about continuing to work hard even when the results aren’t immediate. Meanwhile, adaptability means adjusting your strategies and efforts in response to changing circumstances and feedback.
Reflect and Evolve. Regularly assess your progress and be honest about where improvements are needed. I don’t mean for you to dwell on what you wish had happened. Rather, strategize how to work smarter and more effectively moving forward.
To paraphrase John Lennon, our careers often happen when we are busy making career plans. Your best-laid plans have to be complemented by a tireless, day-to-day pursuit of excellence. From my experience, the best career breaks are often unexpected. They are not merely the results of a complex career strategic plan. Instead, they are a product of what you do, not what you want.
I welcome your thoughts. Please share your thoughts on LinkedIn or X. Or drop me an email at email@example.com.