Having spent over 35 years in business in global firms, I have seen tens of thousands of career trajectories—from the first steps of entry-level millennials to the long journeys of Fortune 500 CEOs.
What I see: Most people have the wrong approach to careers. They think about the immediate next step, not the pathway. They treat a career like a sprint, when in fact it is a 40-plus-year marathon. They are more focused on getting promoted on Tuesday than about having great choices when it really matters—in their 40s and 50s.
I have been thinking about careers for decades and lecturing on the topic for the last dozen years at places like Yale, MIT, Harvard, Columbia, McGill and NYU. Here are some of the things that you might not be thinking about your career, but should be.
To understand the right mindset for career planning, we first need to do a bit of math.
1. Take the number 62 and deduct your current age.
This is the number of years you have left until early retirement. Of course, nobody retires early anymore. This number is a shock to most people. If you’re in your late 20s, you have almost 35 years of your career left. Even if you are 40, you are not even at the halfway pole.
2. How many hours does it take to become truly "excellent" at something?
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell studied super-performers in various fields such as sports, music, art, and business. He estimated that it takes about 10,000 hours of intense effort and practice and rehearsal to become excellent at something. The key point is that innate talent is not enough. No matter how many IQ points or natural abilities or gifts you have, being successful takes intense and sustained hard work.
3. What percentage of your personal wealth do you accumulate after your 40th birthday?
Most people guess about 60%. Young people tend to guess smaller percentages like 40%. The real answer is 90%. The vast majority of personal wealth occurs after the age of 40. The reasons are pretty simple. First, as we saw in Question 1, you have more years of career after 40 than before, and they tend to be the high-paying ones. Second, you enjoy the effects of compound interest. And third, many expenses tend to taper off once mortgages and child-related expenses are covered. It is true that personal wealth can decline later in life (especially after 80 due to health care expenses), but the big point is that the wealth game for most people is heavily back-end loaded into the 40s, 50s and even 60s. Most people totally miss this.
4. How many Facebook friends and LinkedIn contacts do you have?
The purpose of this question is to understand how many social and business relationships people think they have. The answers I get to question #4 are always in the hundreds, and often in the thousands, especially among young people. Many people think that the key to a successful career is to have the most social connections. But that is not the whole answer.
5. How many people do you think you will meet in "career heaven"—those people who really made a difference to your career and life?
Of course, there is no one correct answer to this question, but I use it to compare and contrast with question #4. In my experience, when people reflect on their long careers at awards dinners and retirement parties, they often focus on a few individuals who made a major mark on their careers. They don’t say, "I’d like to thank my 1,632 LinkedIn connections." They say, "There are three (or four or five) special people who made it all possible."
We all discover people in the course of our careers who become our mentors, teachers, and advocates. They are the people who champion us and say nice things about us behind our backs. They nominate us for jobs and awards. They are like a 15-mile-per-hour tailwind for our careers, a benevolent hidden hand that propels us forward. We accumulate these champions over the course of our lives. People ask me, "Where do I find them, and how do I sign them up?" The best approach is to be patient and open, and when you discover a champion, appreciate and nurture the mentorship.
Even people in their early 20s probably already have at least one mentor in their lives. Who was the person who recommended you for college? Or that person who proposed you for your first job or promotion? Over time, additional mentors will emerge and, occasionally, some will fade. But always remember there is someone out there who is in your corner.
Once you discover a mentor or champion, the main thing is to appreciate them, and to stay engaged with them. Periodically send them a note to let them know how you’re doing. Share victories and failures. Ask advice. Remember, to your mentor, this kind of communication isn’t a burden, it is a reward.
What does this Career Math mean ?
The big and stunningly obvious conclusion from Career Math is that a career is a long journey, often lasting more than 40 years. Most people vastly under-estimate how long a career is and miss opportunities as a result. Like a marathon runner, you need an ambition, a plan, some preparation, and a smart sense of pacing. You need nourishment and refreshment along the way. You need the drive to carry forward despite the inevitable pain and hardship. You need fans.
To me, successful careers are written in three great chapters, each lasting up to 15 years. The stages are quite different. And your career strategy needs to evolve along the way.
The entire first stage of a career is designed to prepare and equip you for the long journey ahead. In my opinion, most people do not focus enough on this rocket fuel stage and run out of momentum midway through their career, just when it should be getting the most interesting and rewarding.
Career rocket fuel comes in three forms. And to take full advantage of Stage 1, you should accumulate all three types of fuel:
- Transportable Skills
- Meaningful Experiences, and
- Enduring Relationships
1. Transportable skills are not just technical knowledge or jargon, but fundamental abilities that will lay the tracks for a successful long-term career.
- Problem-solving: Can you assess a business problem and create a plan?
- Communications: Can you write and speak persuasively?
- Selling: Can you sell, negotiate, and close a deal?
- Analysis: Can you look at a set of data and draw important insights?
- Team: Can you mobilize a team to accomplish a meaningful goal?
- Talent: Can you attract and develop good talent around you?
- Risk and Judgment: Do you know how to make decisions and take appropriate risks?
A transportable skill worth special note is "Internet leverage." Are your Internet skills a competitive advantage or disadvantage in your professional effectiveness ?
By Internet leverage, I do not just mean your keyboarding speed, or the number of apps you have or Internet devices you own. To me, it is your ability to leverage three things:
Internet Research: Are you excellent at finding multiple authoritative sources quickly. It is not just about finding data, because the Internet is a veritable landfill of data. It is about finding the good stuff, the credible stuff, the fresh stuff, the convincing stuff. People who can research effectively on the Internet have a distinct advantage in their careers.
Digital Content Creation: As a starting point, do you have the ability to take decent photos and create basic blog posts? In addition, I believe that every modern professional needs to be able to create a good 10-minute selling presentation (Keynote, Powerpoint, Presi, etc.) and a persuasive three-minute video for YouTube.
Digital Publishing: Once you have some content, do you know how to effectively amplify it using the Internet? What does it take to get 1,000 YouTube views? How do you get others to share your links? This skill means that you increase your professional impact dramatically.
These transportable skills form the foundation of your skill set. They are transportable because you can carry them with you from job to job and company to company.
Meaningful experiences are situations which challenge and develop you. They take you outside your comfort zone and build new career muscle. Have you worked in a corporate environment and an entrepreneurial one? Have you worked in a foreign country? Created or pitched a new business? Managed through a crisis? Started something risky? Put on a major event or show where there is visible risk of personal failure?
A range of meaningful experiences will make you more adaptable and agile. You do not thrive only in one kind of controlled environment, like a hothouse flower. You are robust enough to land on your feet and be effective in many different and fast-changing situations.
Stage 1 is the time to explore and heal your weaknesses. If you are terrible at public speaking, take improv classes. If you are too tough or too weak with team members, get personal leadership coaching. Learning is more important than unadulterated success. It is okay to fail sometimes, as long as you learn and apply it to future victories.
Enduring relationships include both the brands you associate with and the people you connect with early in your career and carry with you throughout the journey.
The employers you are associated with have always mattered, and they matter more now than ever before. Social platforms like LinkedIn now make your employment brands visible to the world. Are you proud of the companies you have worked for? What do they say about you? What reputation do you carry forward (positive or negative) because you worked at Company X and Company Y?
If you want to see what employer brands carry the best reputations, consult sources like the WPP Brandz list of the World’s Most Valuable Brands or Fortune’s Most Admired Companies. I do not recommend working for famous brands alone, but it doesn’t hurt.
Personal relationships are every bit as important. All kinds of them. They include:
1. Your Bosses. This is the #1 relationship you will experience. No one has more impact (for better or for worse) than your immediate boss. Are you learning best practices and good habits? Are you working for a respected career professional who is going places? Have you learned from an entrepreneur who will teach you about risk-taking and other transportable skills?
2. Clients/customer relationships. These personal connections can be crucial in any career—but especially for those in marketing, sales or professional services. It sends a powerful message when your clients and customers value you so much they follow you around as you move into different roles, firms, or even industries. One test I ask my employees at Ogilvy is the eBay Factor: If you were put up on eBay, what clients would "bid" for you and ask for you by name?
3. Business Partners. Are you working with excellent business partners such as consultants, agency partners, technology vendors or talent recruiters who can support and propel your career down the road? Jobs later in your career can be scary and lonely. As a senior person, you often feel like you need to know all the answers, and your peers can sometimes be your competitors. It is great to have a roster of talented and supportive partners on your side.
4. Talent around you. Are you meeting top-rate leaders and subject matter experts early in your career? Here’s a good question to ask yourself: "If I started my own company, who from around here would I want to bring with me (and would they come if I asked them)?"
Here is an important message to people in Stage 1—especially high-performing millenials. DO NOT FREAK OUT. Do not panic if you are not an SVP or a start-up CEO by your 28th birthday! The game isn’t over. It has barely begun. Focus on the learning and the journey. Think about progress and the pathway. Instead of fretting and obsessing, take some constructive daily actions that build value in your career skill set.
If you are taking on lots of transportable skills, meaningful experiences and enduring relationships in Stage 1, you are taking on career rocket fuel and positioning yourself well for the road ahead. You want to leave Stage 1 with a great base and lots of pent-up career energy.
- Find your sweet spot
- Align to your passions
- Set a high ambition
- Differentiate or perish
As you enter Stage 2 (perhaps 15 years into your career), you should have a pretty clear picture of what you are good at and what you love to do. If you are not sure, get some candid outside opinions—ideally from your mentors and advocates.
Now is the time to differentiate yourself from the pack and create great choices in your career pathway. Build on your core strengths and push yourself to make them great. By the time you are into Stage 2, it is very hard to fix weaknesses. It is often much better to stay focused on your strengths and surround yourself with people who complement you and compensate for the things you do not do as well.
Early in Stage 2, you need to plot out two or three really rewarding pathways and start to pursue them. I do mean pathways, because too many things can happen for you to bank your career on just one route.
To get started, write down some ambitions and directions of where you might like to end up. You don’t need to put a precise timetable on it, just plot out some broad options and start to assess them. To home in on the top two or three, ask:
1. Does this play to my personal strengths?
Is this something that I can be really good at? Do people (especially trusted mentors) agree that this is in my sweet spot?
2. Is this pathway aligned to my interests and passions?
A good career avenue can sometimes be directly linked to your strongest interests (love of sports, or music or gardening or animals or travel or whatever), but any valid path must at least allow room for you to pursue your passions. In my own case, I love music and travel. I do not work in music or the travel industry everyday, but my job in global advertising at least keeps me around music and travel as part of my career experience.
3. Does this pathway have a viable future for me in terms of employability and financial rewards?
Do some homework into the longer term outlook for the industries, categories and professions you are considering. Not all career pathways are created equal. There are many publicly available sources which can help you assess the long-term viability. It is NOT just about money. But you really do need to pay attention to industries that are either growing or shrinking fast. It is hard to enjoy a job in a category that is destined to long-term shrinkage.
Your "pathway analysis" should reveal a few good ambitions. For example,
- Become a regional director of current firm
- Become a world-class guru in topic X
- Start up a small business in a category that you love
What would it take to get you from where you are today to "winning" one of those jobs? And I do mean winning. There is lots of luck in career success, but after 35 years of observation I would still say that the vast majority of people earn their jobs by being better than the other known alternatives.
You are a career brand. You are on the shelf with other competent and well-intentioned brands. Some boss with a job opening or promotion is shopping for a solution to their problem and you need to get them to pick you.
Some people find the notion of career brands distasteful. Whether you like it or not, bosses and companies are constantly shopping for talent, and you are either on the menu or you’re not.
People ask me what it takes to win the battle of the brands—to be well differentiated and come out ahead. One factor that is becoming increasingly important in career momentum is "social eminence"—a measure of your activity and respect in social networks. Employers routinely look at your LinkedIn profile and the publicly visible parts of Facebook. Some employees offer you a chance to link your Twitter handle or blog on your resume. What happens when they search your name on Google or Bing? Do not be surprised or offended. They are not invading your privacy, they are just doing modern due diligence into how you behave in social circles.
I am not a believer that career advancement comes from blatant self-promotion or aggressive confrontation (aka "winning through whining.") It’s more important to be good at something, to stand out, and to earn a reputation as someone who delivers.
If you are a good communicator, work to become the best public speaker in your company. If you are a talented connector, take on tough team challenges that show your special abilities to integrate where others have failed. If you are a highly effective doer, then celebrate it. One of my mid-level colleagues had a business card printed up naming her CEO. She proudly said it stood for "chief execution officer." Stand for something that others value. Fly your flag.
- Tribal Wisdom
- Stay Fresh
Traditionally, the last years of a career were marked by a distinct fall-off (Retirement Day) or a sad drift. In my view, the third stage of a career can be exceptionally fulfilling and enduring. But it takes the right mindset and expectations and preparation.
The purpose of Stage 3 is to pass the torch: closing the loop on succession planning and evolving from a doing/leading role to an advisory/contributory role.
This is where the student becomes the teacher and the mentee becomes the mentor and the leader becomes the valued contributor.
Succession: How do I equip the next generation in my company to succeed? This can range from a simple, thoughtful hand-off of duties and lessons learned to a much more formal hand-over of leadership or ownership.
Consultancy and paid advisory boards: Consulting jobs and board appointments can be great Stage 3 gigs if you can get them. But you need to have laid the tracks in Stage 2 to get asked. These roles are in hot demand now as Boomers age out of the traditional workforce in record numbers. The tight competition brings us back to that rude eBay question: "Are you now skilled and connected enough that someone would bid for you?" Nobody owes you a paid consultancy or Board position. You need to earn it.
Teaching: To me, teaching is a critical part of a rewarding Stage 3 experience. Think broadly about what you know and who you could teach. You can aim as loftily as a college professorship or as down-to-earth as tutoring local kids to read. Adult schools offer hundreds of courses in business, the arts, languages, life skills, hobbies and crafts. What tribal wisdom do you have to pass along?
Community: Recent retirees often talk about their hopes of "sitting on a few community Boards," but they are startled to find how competitive and demanding these roles can be. Frankly, I wouldn’t want someone on my Board who wants to sit around and preside. But I would welcome a volunteer who says they want to "contribute to this exciting mission." You need to be productive. Do things. Contribute, or you won’t be asked back.
To be effective in Stage 3 you must stay fresh and relevant. People value history, but only to the extent that it informs present-day conditions and challenges. If you don’t stay at least broadly informed and relevant, don’t expect people to listen to you. And certainly not to hire you. Staying relevant is part of your job in Stage 3.
If you ask a skilled financial advisor how to get the best yield out your investments over the long haul, they’ll tell you that asset allocation is the key. Are you investing in the right kinds of things at the right time—stocks, bonds, commodities, etc.
The same in true of careers, but the question is how do you invest your time?
The pie charts shown below are based on real examples for myself and other executives I know. Conveniently, there are about 100 waking hours in the average week, so it’s easy for you to do this exercise, too.
I classified my 100 hours into broad categories like Work, Family, Health & Wellness, Teaching & Learning, Community. It’s not critical that you use exactly the same categories or that you have precise hourly estimates. Do it for a few people you know, and you’ll get the point.
This first pie chart is me in my early 30s. This is pretty reflective of me in Stage 1. I was an up and coming executive at Ogilvy Canada. I was married, with two young children.
WORK—60%. Like lots of my peers, I worked hard. I could do 80 hours a week for a short burst if I absolutely needed to, but found that I maxed out at 60 hours per week on a sustained basis
FAMILY—about 20%. This included a few hours a day with the kids at bedtime and some family activities on the weekend. Not exactly Dad-of-the-Year stuff, but Child Services was never called!
CHILLING WITH FRIENDS—10%. The occasional dinner out and some weekly zombie time, usually in front of the TV.
HEALTH & WELLNESS—5% In my 30s I joined a gym and reactivated my beer-league hockey career.
COMMUNITY—2%. Minimal volunteer service. I started to get involved with a local charity: Goodwill Industries.
LEARNING & TEACHING—maybe 3%. I did a few industry lectures a year plus some training at work.
For contrast, Chart #2 is me in my 50s.
WORK in a traditional sense is now down to 45%, but as discussed below I have re-invested a lot of my work time into teaching and advisory activities. So I still put in about 60 hours a week, but the nature of the work is quite different
FAMILY time is down a touch as my wife and I are now empty-nesters. Family time is now often focused around travel together.
CHILLING is steady at 10%. I still need my down time and zombie time. In addition to time socializing with friends, my chilling time now includes playing a guitar—often while watching really bad television.
TEACHING & LEARNING is the big change as training, mentoring, lecturing and a range of industry and advisory board roles now takes up to 20% of my time. It also includes an active learning component, which is an important dimension. For me, every Saturday morning begins at 8:30 am with a guitar lesson. It’s hard to think of work when you are playing Hendrix.
HEALTH & WELLNESS is steady at 5%. A few trips to the gym and Sunday night hockey are a critical part of my weekly balance.
COMMUNITY plays a bigger role in my fifties than before. There are a few organizations where I like the people and the mission, and feel I can contribute in some meaningful way. I use non-work for energy. To me it’s the vitamins and nourishment that keeps me going.
Remember this: All work, all the time is a recipe for burn-out. It’s like a severely monotonous diet. I really like chicken. But eating only chicken all the time would make me very tired and angry. The same is true of work. At least some change of pace is needed for inspiration and refreshment.
Below is a time portfolio for a very talented colleague of mine in his thirties. He worked incredibly hard—not just occasionally but all the time. He barely had time for his young family. He tried to meet with friends, but often had to cancel "because I’m too busy with work." He let his cycling and photography lapse, again citing work reasons. This executive burned out at forty, was unemployed for almost two years and suffered a near breakdown. I believe that the lack of diversity in his time portfolio was a clear contributing factor.
If you are like most people, you spend a lot of time stressing about work. Why not re-invest some of this time and effort into periodically thinking about your career strategy and pathway. Do your basic career math. Take inventory of the transportable skills that you have already acquired, and the ones you will need to propel yourself forward. Talk to your bosses, and at least one trusted advisor. Begin to define your sweet spot, and how to evoke your passions. Work out your time portfolio and think about how you are investing your precious time. Is it changing over time? Is it building new skills and relationships? Is it leading you somewhere better in your career?
Most of all, enjoy the long, long ride.
PAID JOBS I’VE DONE IN MY LIFE AND WHAT I LEARNED
Gardener: First job
The value of a dollar
Snow removal contractor
Montreal winters last forever
Pricing by job, not by hour
The power of word-of-mouth referrals
Coping with allergies
Customer service, stamina
Judgement, dealing with angry adults
Bundling products together
Door-to-door newspaper salesman
Overcoming fear of rejection
GAAP accounting methods
Making data into insights
Whiskey barrel salesman
Advertising actually works
How to make clear recommendations
There’s money in compliance
Statistics and HR
President of a small company
How to budget and pay off bank loans
A brand is more than a product
Stay very close to customers
There’s no money in rhythm guitar and blues harmonica
Brian Fetherstonhaugh is Chairman and CEO of OgilvyOne.