Career strategies to avoid

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6 CAREER STRATEGIES TO AVOID

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. This is based on my own experience and based on observing and working with thousands of FIRMSconsulting clients and members.

Career strategies to avoid: #1 – Thinking that joining McKinsey, BCG, Bain, Deloitte, et al. is the ultimate goal

Joining McKinsey, BCG, Google, Amazon, et al. is great but it should not be the ultimate goal. We are proud of our clients and members when they reach this goal, but we always push them to think about what happens after join McKinsey, BCG, Deloitte, Google and so on. First of all, all of those top companies are incredibly competitive. So even to have a sustainable career there is a challenge.

For example, BCG, McKinsey and some other firms are known for up or out policy. If you are not very familiar with consulting jargon you may be wondering, “what is exactly up or out policy?” It is an HR policy consulting firms have which refers to predetermined time frames within which consultants either get promoted or managed out. Most of the people who join top firms like McKinsey and BCG are managed out. 

You cannot stay at the same level for too long. So when you see that someone was a partner at a major firm it is already a testament to their skills and capabilities because most people are managed out at more junior levels.

But, becoming a partner at a major consulting firm like McKinsey, BCG, Deloitte is also not enough for most ambitious people. And in my view, it is not enough, unless you get to do some very impactful work for the world in your role. And this is often not possible because in consulting you are an advisor. You rarely get to implement anything. And no matter how brilliant your insights and ideas are, unless those are implemented there will be no impact.

So, 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. 

Career strategies to avoid: #2 – Lack of long-term focus

When we tell clients to think and plan 4, 8, or even 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 5 Christmases, or 10 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.

Think about how fast the last 5 years of your life went. The next will go as fast. Time will pass whether you do something with it or not.

Career strategies to avoid: #3 – Waiting for opportunities vs. creating them

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 FeiBavin, and Andrew (>200 episodes released so far just for the program with Andrew) and many other clients.

After all, would you not agree that it is fair to say that a career strategy of waiting for opportunities is the same as not having a strategy at all?

Career strategies to avoid: #4 – Too much focus on neutralizing threats

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 that 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. 

For example, let’s say you have a superior at work that is trying to damage your reputation because he is very jealous that you got your role after an MBA while he had to work for 15 years to get the same role. If you are focusing on neutralizing this threat and spend all your efforts on this you may not have any energy left to fix the issue of being in the wrong industry and the wrong job for you in the first place, assuming that is the case. You may spend 3 years establishing your reputation so that this colleague cannot touch you, but 3 years down the line you still will be in the wrong industry and the wrong job for you.

Career strategies to avoid: #5 – Underestimating how hard the future will be

Clients also underestimate how hard things become in the future. As you progress into your 30s and 40s you just usually cannot work the same hours you could in your 20s. The physical stamina deteriorates.

Sometimes it deteriorates earlier, often in the mid 20s. I had a colleague in their mid-20s, David, who told me, “I just can’t work the same I could before. I used to be able to spend 5 hours straight working on an excel model or pull an all-nighter working on a report. Now I struggle to focus for 30 minutes.” And this not uncommon. Apart from the deterioration of physical stamina we also often feel that we paid our dues, and it is time now to enjoy life more. It is not only physical. It is also psychological. 

Additionally, promises you made years ago to loved ones need to be honored. The needs of others materialize. You have family obligations. 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. 

Career strategies to avoid: #6 – Following a pyramid strategy

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. 

This is actually why when I did the undergraduate degree I specifically wanted to get a general business degree so I would have options. One of the reasons I chose management consulting was also this ability to work in various industries and deal with a variety of problems so that I would have options instead of specializing in one particular area. And the same logic applied when I chose to get an MBA versus a specialized master’s degree.

I learned this lesson starting my career as a pianist. I spent 12 years studying to be a pianist. But it is such a specialized knowledge that there is not much you can do with it unless you want to be a pianist or a composer, or teach piano.

Course-correcting

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 most driven people 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, BCG, Bain, Deloitte, etc. 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 initially 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 initially not respecting your views since you have no track record in your new field? Are you willing to dedicate time and effort to learn new skills? This will happen whether you move from McKinsey to Private Equity, from industry as an executive to BCG or as a McKinsey engagement manager into a start-up. It is a tough pill to swallow. 

The story of the tortoise and the rabbit

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, they want to take a break, they want to enjoy their life more, they think they are smarter than most people around so they should be ok, they think they paid their dues and it is their time to live their life etc.

And when they make this assumption, they lose focus. They take too long breaks, they take bigger risks, they spend way too much and some start living beyond their means, 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. 

So even if you feel you are less capable, less talented, less attractive, from poorer background, went to worse, or have some disadvantage relative to whomever you comparing yourself to. In other words, if you feel you are a tortoise not a rabbit. You will still likely win if you have the right mindset.

I was speaking to several McKinsey, BCG et al. partners as we were preparing for a new program on how to overtake top firms like BCG and Bain. Some McKinsey and BCG partners do not believe McKinsey, BCG, Bain can be overtaken, while some believe those firms 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, plan long term, execute, and ensure you have the mental and physical reserves to push forward full force when your competitors stumble or become complacent. 

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Recommended books:

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Cheers, Kris

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