Isn't it time you had a strategy for your career?

Author: Brendan O'Donovan, Group Data Marketing Director, Hays

Some people don’t have a strategy for their careers at all, content to drift where events take them, or choosing to invest their energy and focus in something outside work; but it’s likely that an even greater number of people think that they’ve got a strategy for their career, but don’t really. They might say something like: “I want to work my way up to being CFO of a FTSE 100 company” – but that’s a goal, not a strategy; or “I’m going to train myself to code in Javascript by the end of the year” – but that’s a plan, not a strategy.

In a career, just as in business, goals and plans are important components of a strategy, but they’re not the whole story – a goal says where you’re going, but a strategy talks about how you’ll get there; a plan says what you’re going to do, but a strategy explains why you’re doing it.

What is a strategy?

Strategy matters to business because it’s the framework for achieving complex and difficult goals in a world of competition and uncertainty, and there are valuable lessons to be had in applying those principles to the equally complex, competitive and uncertain world of developing our careers. Before we learn from business though, we need to be really clear about what strategy is – just as many people misuse strategy when they’re thinking about their careers, in business it’s not unusual to see strategy, goals, visions, targets and plans all getting used semi-interchangeably, giving rise to the “Bad Strategy” talked about by Richard Rumelt in his excellent book “Good Strategy, Bad Strategy”.

There are many different frameworks for business strategy, but all good business strategy shares certain underlying features:

1. An ultimate goal: To give direction to the strategy, defining success in terms such as shareholder returns, market share / position, or long term commercial sustainability. For example, “become the #1 airline in Europe.

2. Clear insight into context: Based on understanding the current situation and history of both internal factors (company finances, product sales, staff capabilities, etc.) and external factors (competitors, customers, legislation, technology, etc.). For example, “we are a small challenger airline flying out of a country dominated by traditional carriers who have a focus on business travel”,

3. A clear choice of how to succeed: To focus energy and effort around only those actions which will make a difference, and deliver a competitive advantage. This is a meaningful choice to focus on specific product attributes, customer segments, operating models or commercial terms – a useful acid test for “meaningful” being that the opposite of the choice doesn’t sound stupid (for example choosing to focus on delivering “the best price/performance ratio” is a choice not to deliver the worst price/performance ratio, and less helpful than a choice between “the best price, with compromise on performance” or “the best performance, but at a price”). Continuing our airline example, the view on how to succeed might be “we will focus on the leisure traveller by offering the lowest possible fares to European destinations, which will be possible because we have the lowest cost base”

4. Plans and actions: Which are consistent and all support the choice of how to succeed. For example “to minimise our cost base we will have maximal seat density, fly from unfashionable airports, operate a single type of aeroplane, discourage checked baggage and not serve any food that could increase cleaning costs or turnaround times”.

How can we apply business strategy to our career strategy?

So, if that’s business strategy in a nutshell, how can we apply the same framework to thinking about our careers?

1. An ultimate goal: This is a very personal choice, and there are a huge range of possible goals for a career – I’m not going to try to guess what is right for you, but here are a few ideas to consider:

  • To reach a specific role / job title
  • To work for a particular company
  • To earn a certain salary
  • To have a particular impact on society at large
  • To leave a particular legacy that will outlive you
  • To avoid compromising a given level of work/life balance throughout a career
  • To attain professional or public recognition

2. Clear insight into context: In career strategy, this is about asking yourself questions and answering them as honestly and objectively as you can. Here are a few questions to start you off, but try to think of (and answer) as many more as you can:

Personal (internal) context:

  • What skills and capabilities do I have?
  • What are my strengths and weaknesses?
  • What types of work have most energised me over the last year?
  • How have I grown and developed professionally over the last 5 years?
  • What professional network do I have (mentors, colleagues, contacts)?

External context:

  • What are the typical intermediate career steps to get to my goal?
  • Who are the people whose career I’d want to model my own on?
  • What are my strengths and weaknesses compared to people I compete with for promotion or a new job?
  • How are technology trends changing the types of opportunity available to me?
  • How are my potential employers performing in their market?

3. A clear choice of how to succeed: Hopefully, the questions you’ve considered under ‘context’ will already have planted some ideas of what your route to success would be:

  • An action or attribute which everyone who has succeeded at your goal has in common (and which sets them apart from everyone who has tried and failed at the goal)
  • Something that nobody you’re in competition with is doing, but which would be highly valued by an employer of choice
  • A new area of employment which is emerging or growing, which you could get established in before anyone else

Remember that a strong career strategy needs to be built around a meaningful choice of how you focus and develop your career. Imagine two interviewees for a job, one who tries to convey that they are the best leader, quickest trouble-shooter, deepest expert and most creative innovator; and then another who focuses purely on positioning themselves as a leader, talking about innovation, leveraging expertise and troubleshooting all from the perspective of leadership. Even if the first candidate genuinely was an all-round superstar, and just as good as a leader, the second is more likely to get the job due to the clarity of their position, and coherence of their examples.

4. Plans and actions: Now that you know what you want to achieve in your career, and what the central focus for your success will be, it is important to translate that high-level concept into concrete actions you can start taking in 2017:

  • What skills do you need to develop? Can you develop them at work, or do you need to learn outside?
  • What is your ideal next career step? Is there scope for promotion at your current employer, or do you need to look elsewhere? Is it realistic to achieve it this year, or if not, how can you begin to take on those responsibilities early?
  • Imagine yourself at the end of the year, talking an interviewer through an example of something you’ve done in 2017 that makes you perfect for your ideal next job. What is that project or performance, how can you ensure you’re involved and able to make that example a reality? What are the barriers you’ll need to overcome?

Good luck with your career strategising for the year ahead. We hope you found this article useful. For more career advice and insight about the world of work, visit our dedicated blog page here or click on one of the links below.