Last week I enjoyed working alongside Graham Ogilvie at a one-day event with leaders in the NHS to reflect on their learning from some of the NHS’s core leadership programmes. Graham is someone whose career is almost bound to raise eyebrows. (“How on earth did you come to do that?”) Graham has made a great career out of turning the verbal into the pictorial – taking the key messages from training events, conferences and more and turning them into cartoons. It seems unlikely that anybody ever said to him, “Son, what you need to do with your career is this…”
Always interesting to me, it happens that I’ve been reflecting on career directions quite intensely recently. One client organisation has asked me to put together an outline programme to help members to identify next steps in their career. Coaching clients are raising questions, from “What can I do to move towards greater fulfilment and peace of mind?” to “How can I create fulfilment in my forthcoming retirement and give something back?” (Yes, the age-range of my clients is broad). Another client has asked me to help create clarity for leaders across the organisation about their forward career paths. As the French say, “Jamais deux sans trois.”
Struggling to identify next steps in your career?
Graham, and others like him, epitomises an aspiration many people have – most of us want to find fulfilment in our lives and careers. Somehow, he’s managed to create a job for which there was no Job Description and to turn it into a career that is fun, profitable and fulfilling. But if you’re unsure of your own next steps, you know it’s not always so easy. Sometimes, it’s hard to see which way to go.
Perhaps you have an expensive education in Speciality X but are finding that jobs are scarce in your field. Or perhaps you’ve been successful so far but don’t much like the speciality you’ve chosen. Or you face stark choices and don’t know which way to go.
Perhaps you’ve achieved some – all, even – of the goals you set yourself a few years ago. The trouble is, you’re not having as much fun as you thought you would. Or you don’t know where to go next.
Maybe you’re loving what you’re doing and still, you face a choice. Do you carry on as the “person who does” or step into the unknown territory of leadership? Perhaps you’re already in a leadership role but something’s not working for you or you’re wondering “What next?”
Perhaps your greatest joy is on the side. Perhaps it comes from the project you are involved in at work rather from the areas of your work that your employer is most concerned to monitor, manage and reward. Perhaps it really is on the side – coming from a hobby that no-one pays you for.
Perhaps you’re one of the many people who have been affected by our deep global recession… young and unable to practice the profession you trained for, mid career and finding your way forward after redundancy, ambitious and wanting to catch up after setbacks.
The thing is, you know that you’re not emotionally fulfilled and you know you have more to give. At the same time, you don’t know where to go next.
Life at Malt House Farm
You may not know that I grew up on a farm. My father started farming in the 1920s and my mother met him when she came to Berkshire to work. They married in 1957 and farmed until they retired in 1980. I have a photo of my mother, at hay-making time, which hangs on my office wall. The stray bits of hay in her hair are a reminder of a time of year we all enjoyed and I also notice a certain steely glint in my mother’s eyes which remains to this day.
I’ve noticed how many of my clients have views about their careers which reflect the views and experience of past generations of parents and grandparents. Things like “I need to get a steady job that will provide for me and my family until I retire”, “If I don’t get on the right ladder at the beginning of my career I won’t be successful” and “I need to have clear career goals from the beginning of my career in order to make the right choices in the here and now.” There are even some more recent concerns that can go unseen because they are so widely held. “I need to show I can earn at least as much as my (partner, peers, parents etc.) otherwise people will think less of me”, for example, and “I am what I do – I need to do something impressive if I want people to like me or admire me.”
The thing is, these beliefs – and others like them – come from our need to feel safe and secure and yet, at the same time, they fuel the very anxieties we seek to avoid. They make us wonder if we’re on the right ladder, and worry that if we’re not, we’ve missed our chance to have a fulfilling career. They make us try to plan for a future which may be radically different from anything we can imagine right now – and worry when we don’t have the answers. They make us make job choices to meet needs we can meet more easily in different ways; which may even have been met already if we only dare to notice how much we are already loved and admired.
In writing this posting I want to bring care to the parts of us that seek security, acceptance and more. These needs are both primal and primitive. We are here because we have given priority to our need for safety and because we continue to do so. What’s more, career or no career, each one of us has a need for love and acceptance. Many people, early in their career, focus on adapting to the roles they find themselves in in order to secure a living and to achieve some measure of acceptance from their employer.
But this is only part of what we desire.
As much as we’re hard-wired to worry about our most fundamental needs for security, nourishment and more, we also have needs for fulfilment, for self-expression, to make a difference by what we do. If we listen only to our worries, we may feel empty and unfulfilled. Over time, our lack of fulfilment or our desire for something more motivates us to seek new avenues.
Your perfect career is about who you are
As much as we spend our education acquiring knowledge and skills, our success at work is driven by far more than any book learning.
At work, employers are often concerned with our behaviour – do we demonstrate the behaviours we need to be successful in our current job? A great deal of research has shown that whilst our knowledge and technical skills are important, especially early in our career, there’s a great deal more that fuels our behaviour.
More fundamentally, our behaviours reflect a set of values that we hold about what’s important to us. They reflect all sorts of hidden (and sometimes limiting) beliefs – what some thinkers call our “world view”. They reflect our sense of who we are and what we’re here to do – our identity and purpose.
There is bad news.
Sometimes, for example, we don’t know what values we hold and this makes it hard to seek out opportunities which really meet our need for fulfilment. Sometimes we have a sense of identity which is frozen in time and out of kilter with who we really are. Sometimes we are held back by limiting beliefs which remain out of view.
There is good news, too.
The good news is that we are most likely to be successful in our careers by being ourselves. The good news is that the more we understand ourselves – our underlying values, our natural strengths, our core purpose – the more we can seek out and move towards opportunities that fulfil us. These are jobs in which, moreover, we find greater ease.
The good news is, too, that we get to explore who we are and examine old beliefs about ourselves and about the world at large and, in doing so, we increase the likelihood that we will find both career success and personal fulfilment.
Following your bliss
Joseph Campbell, author of The Power of Myth and The Hero with a Thousand Faces calls this process “following your bliss”. I shared this phrase with Graham Ogilvie when we met last week, because it seemed to me that his description of his personal journey was a perfect example. Graham told me that, each time he faced a choice, he chose the option that was most appealing to him at the time.
In truth, as much as many people tell their children to choose wisely, past generations are littered with people whose lives have been touched be serendipity, synchronicity and more… and it all worked out in the end.
My father, for example, became a farmer because he was told, for the sake of his health, to leave his office job and to work outside. He was already lodging at Malt House Farm and was able to take up a job because his friend Harry, the landlady’s nephew, wanted to leave farming. Years later my mother became a farmer because she fell in love.
Perhaps you have stories, too, of people of whom you could ask, “How did they get from there to here?” If you do, please share them using the comment box below so that they can be an inspiration for us all.
And as I close, I want to ask you, what choices are beckoning you at this time? And how is your heart responding? Your head? Your gut?