Today I would like to offer you some thoughts as you think through your career strategy. I specifically would like to mention 6 career strategies you should avoid.
Joining McKinsey, BCG et al. is great but it is not the ultimate goal. We are proud of our clients when they reach this goal, but we always push them to think about what happens after McKinsey. Becoming a partner is not enough. Joining McKinsey is the equivalent of obtaining an MBA from a great school. One has to do something with the designation and often times many squander the very valuable designation.
When we tell clients to think and plan 4, 8 or 10 years into the future, most do not. They assume things will just take care of themselves or it is just too far out. However, 5 years is just 5 birthdays or 10 x 6-month cycles or possibly 3 Avenger movies. It is not a long time and while it may seem strange to think through career strategies and plan for a career, it is actually a worse feeling when the 5 years have passed and you have progressed at the average rate.
Many clients assume waiting for and acting on opportunities is one of the most effective career strategies. Well, it is common, but it is not effective. It is not effective mainly because you are at the mercy of the opportunities that arise. If you have a career strategy, it is your job to create opportunities to help you execute your strategy. You have seen us do this with Fei, Bavin and Andrew (>200 episodes released so far just for the program with Andrew). It is fair to say that a career strategy of waiting for opportunities is the same as not having a strategy at all.
One of the other common career strategies includes focusing on threats and neutralizing those threats. If your career decisions are made by responding to threats which may change daily, weekly, monthly and yearly that is also the same as not having a strategy. This is because you are being reactive and anytime you are reactive to changes you are letting circumstances control you.
Clients also underestimate how hard things become in the future. As you progress into your 30s and 40s you just cannot work the same hours you could in your 20s. The physical stamina deteriorates. Promises you made years ago to loved ones need to be honored. The needs of others materialize. It gets significantly harder with age. And if you feel you are behind, the sense of failure itself can feel worse than any actual physical barrier.
Clients also follow a pyramid strategy in building their careers. They build a base of decisions like the school chosen, degree, career and location. They then build specialization on top of this. This is the second layer. The next layer is a family. And the next step on the way to the apex is becoming better at the specialization and finding new ways to use that specialization. The problem with this model is that if you pick the wrong specialization it is incredibly hard to change because of the base you built. And the base is very hard to change.
So how do you compete when the competition is so daunting? What we find is that clients take about 6 to 12 months to begin course-correcting their careers. It is like changing the direction of a supertanker. It takes a long time just to start moving in the right direction. And this assumes you now know the direction you want to go.
As you go into your 30s and 40s you will be waging an epic mental war in your mind. On the one hand, you have achieved something. You have a stable life, a stable career and some degree of respect. But it is rare for many to think that is enough because you usually had bigger dreams and have some more successful peers against whom you compare yourself. And this is the case with clients who are even McKinsey partners. The battle will be waged along two fronts. The first is figuring out what is missing and what you should do. The second is deciding if the risk is worth it.
Can you do something different where you will not have the respect you have earned, will not be an expert and will need to start over? Can you mentally handle that? Can you accept people not respecting your views since you have no track record in your new field? This will happen whether you move from McKinsey to PE, from industry as an executive to McKinsey or as a McKinsey EM into a start-up. It is a tough pill to swallow.
Life is like the story of the tortoise and the rabbit. The rabbit will always win, if he does his best. Yet, in life, many people do not do their best because they assume they cannot lose. And when they make this assumption, they lose focus, take too long breaks and eventually, someone like the tortoise wins. As you think about changing your life always remember that story. The tortoise can only win if the rabbit stumbles or becomes complacent, and in life too many of your competitors are over-confident and will stumble.
That is why you should not be intimidated. Your competition will become complacent. That is why powerful companies fall behind. That is why you can overtake seemingly invincible competitors.
I was speaking to several McKinsey, BCG et al. partners as we were preparing for a new program on how to overtake McKinsey. Some McKinsey partners do not believe McKinsey can be overtaken, while some believe McKinsey can be beaten. When you believe you are unbeatable, you make errors, you underestimate your competition and you make mistakes that can hurt you, mainly because you do not think they can hurt you.
As you prepare to change your career, always remember that humans stumble and/or become complacent. Get into the game, eliminate ineffective career strategies, plot your strategy and always have the mental and physical reserves to exploit the stumble or complacency.