Some time after a series of meetings with my mentee, in which we established her values and goals, she rung me, scared that she was making a wrong career decision. She was concerned that she was not going to be good at the role she decided to pursue. It was one of those rare cases when it was a good idea to tell someone the story of my life.
Eva, I said, do you know that my first career decision was the worst I could have taken?
At school I loved writing, I was a regular at the regional literature contests and later won one of the top awards in a major poetry competition. Yet when it came to choosing university, I followed advice of my well-positioned uncle and ended up studying economics. Then, quite miraculously I got a role with one of the top consultancies, auditing financial statements.
Obviously, I did not embark on a career in accounting because I thought this was my calling. I picked a direction because I got a job. I had artistic inclinations and was an utter disaster around numbers. I spent the next decade studiously avoiding talking about my job. Becoming an accountant looked like the worst career move I could have taken.
Funnily enough, the quality of that decision did not matter. What mattered was that I made a move. Instead of endlessly optimising my career plans, I took a reasonably good opportunity and moved forward. The ship started moving so I could steer it. During a decade of mediocre journal entries and reconciliations that would not tie in, I got two accounting qualifications. Those helped me to get into more complex assignments and build experience in project management and process improvement. Then I got a role that allowed me to learn about financial systems and ultimately develop into business transformation which I deeply enjoy doing and am rather good at.
Our culture loves linear models of success that are based on early discovery of a skill and its consistent development – with some obstacles added for the dramatic effect. However, those stories are usually about the statistical outliers. They tend to downplay the huge role of luck and the amount of early work the protagonist put into the development of his or her special abilities. Messy labyrinths of non-optimum decisions don’t make a good story. However, they are bound to be much more prevalent in the real world – if only because our world becomes faster and more complex. Many excellent career options cannot be learned through conventional universities. I owe a huge amount to my degree from the London Business School but they still do not teach information systems to their MBAs. On the other hand, in ten years’ time my database knowledge will be long obsolete and my experience of process automation will have long lost its competitive edge. I am unable to plan now for where I will be in ten years but my ship is already moving there.
The only way to deal with the big, scary decisions is to take them. The worst career moves will still teach you about what you need to learn, or provide focus to your career, showing you what to avoid. Yes, you should still strive to take your decision with at least a bit of structure, planning your career and setting well-defined goals. Putting together a specific, thought-through plan with the full awareness of your strengths and weaknesses, your preferences, the ideal industry, the name of the position, milestones, and salary, is still the right thing to do – and if you are one of the lucky Onpartners, your mentor may help you to build this picture. However the two worst things you can do to those excellent plans is firstly, focus on perfecting, rather than enacting them, and secondly, treat them as set in stone. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied forces in Europe during World War II, and the 34th President of the United States of America famously said ‘plans are worthless, but planning is everything’. My husband writes in ‘Drive Frames’, his emerging book on coaching: ‘Life doesn’t always present you with opportunities in the order you might hope for. What matters is that you are ready for them when they arrive. Simply by putting one foot in front of the other you place yourself on a journey towards your own purpose, and this puts you in command as the captain of your ship’. I like to repeat after someone wise, yet anonymous: ‘done is better than perfect’.
Analyse yourself, understand your brand, know what you like and what you are good at – then act, and don’t worry if you fail. There is no failure, only feedback. The best decision in your career is the one you just took.
Anna is a Business Process Transformation leader specialising in complex end-to-end transformation and continuous improvement programmes for global organisations. Her background in Finance (FCCA, IFRS Diploma) and Economics (MSc In Economics and Banking) is supported by an Executive MBA from the internationally renowned London Business School. She is a champion of Lean Six Sigma methods and a trainer in PMI Project Management framework. Anna supports the Cherie Blair Foundation and the Onpartu Programme as a Mentor and Speaker.