How to manage your career

In this article, we look at the career environment today, what the organisation can do to enable career development for its people, and what you can do yourself to develop your career.

How to manage your career

Changes in the career environment

Many companies still view career development in the traditional hierarchical sense, where people start at the bottom and work their way up. They assume that people value this hierarchical progression and the increased pay and status it gives.

But, as we all know, workplaces are different now:

The marketplace is more global, and technology has changed to enable global and flexible working.

Workplaces are typically flatter and matrixed, without the traditional “department” structure. There may be more fluidity of teams coming together for certain projects or initiatives, then disbanding.

Nowadays, both partners may be working and also juggling family responsibilities. Fathers tend to be more involved with childcare duties than they were. This reduces a couple’s ability to relocate and means they need and expect more flexible day-to-day working arrangements.

Work is still important to people, but other things have increased in importance, such as the balance between home and work. The younger generation has a different attitude to work and is more inclined to take time out to do something different. I see people with the talent and potential to develop into very senior roles but who are put off by the hours they see their executives working.

With the world changing faster than ever, new careers are emerging and people are less likely to stay in the same career throughout their working life.

Retirement is less likely to be at age 60 or 65.

Fascinating facts

  • The US Department of Education estimates that 60% of all new jobs in the 21st-century will require skills that only 20% of current employees possess.
  • Until the 1960s, two-thirds of US households were “traditional”. It’s now down to 17%. Women constitute half the US workforce and are the primary breadwinner for nearly 40% of families.
  • 70% of baby-boomers and 92% of millennials (generation Y) cite career:life fit as a top priority.
  • The average person is likely to have 11 jobs in their lifetime. This has gone up since the McKinsey report (War for Talent) when it was 7 or 8 jobs. For the previous generation, it was 2 or 3.

What organisations can do

Recognise that the hierarchical corporate ladder doesn’t work any more. Instead, a lattice approach* acknowledges that career and life are now interdependent.


There are three core areas that are central to a lattice model:

  1. How careers are built
  2. How work gets done
  3. How participation in the organisation is fostered

The lattice shows that an employee’s career path is more likely to be multi-directional. They will make sideways moves as well as upwards and even into a different area. Some people may feel nervous about this, feeling it will dilute their functional expertise, but developing greater breadth will enhance general leadership and influencing capabilities.

One advantage of the lattice model is that it gives people options. Rather than a one-directional model, they can customise their work experience.

* The corporate lattice: achieving high performance in the changing world of work by Cathleen Benko and Molly Anderson

According to a Corporate Executive Board study, production rises when options are available to individuals. Where people have more choice about where to go next, they have more satisfaction at work. They are more likely to stay at the company whether or not they exercise these options.

Organisations should not look to be a lifetime home for people but should aim to keep their employees agile, flexible and marketable. This may seem counterintuitive, but employees are more likely to stay with an organisation that enables them to be marketable in an ever-changing world where job security is less assured.

This is consistent with the ethos that individuals are responsible for their own career and brand, and employers are responsible for providing the environment to enable this to happen – provide that environment and your organisation will retain the best talent.

What you can do to develop your career

I meet a lot of people who do not spend much time planning their career due to the pace of change – they prefer to wait and see what opportunities come their way.  Whilst this makes a lot of sense (especially about being “opportunity ready”) there is still a lot you can do to stay in control of your career within this environment and ensure you get to where you want to get to.

Based on the book (Forget a Mentor) find a Sponsor by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, the following are some suggestions for how to develop your career. I’ve added some thoughts to these underneath the list:

  1. Decide what you want to do and where you want to go
  2. Based on this, determine the skills you already have and the gaps to close
  3. Get yourself a sponsor
  4. Develop gravitas (this will be covered in a future article)
  5. Lean in

What do you want to do – What’s your dream?

First of all you need to decide where you want to go and what your dream is:

  • What inspires you?
  • When you retire what do you want to look back and see?  What stories do you want to tell?
  • What’s your legacy?
  • What type of work do you love and what type of environment do you thrive in?

Invest the time to dream and then shape your dream into an outline; if you work better by discussing this, then find a coach or trusted colleague who will help you create the space to think. It doesn’t need to be highly detailed and specific – a broad direction is fine, and actually will give you more options in how you get to your ultimate destination.

Skills and Gaps

Determine the skills and strengths you already have that will help you achieve your dream. Hewlett suggests the following questions to guide your thinking:

  • What do you do exceptionally well?
  • What sets you apart from others (skills and experiences)?
  • What accomplishment has given you joy and won you accolades?
  • What gives you satisfaction so that you want to do more of it?
  • How does the mission of your organisation overlap with your own values and goals?

Psychometrics and other tools such as the Hogan Leadership Skills Inventory and Strengthsfinder (I use both of these tools, along with others, so let me know if you would like more information on these) will add another dimension/set of data, as will a 360 and your recent performance review.

The key to this is to establish what you have, and then identify any gaps in your knowledge and experience based on your dream. Then get yourself a sponsor to make the most of your skills and close the gaps…

Find a sponsor

You can’t just rely on doing a great job and hoping to get recognised and promoted. To get noticed and progress your career, you need high-profile senior people on your side. You need a sponsor (and actually maybe two or three, so you don’t put all your eggs in one basket).

Again, from Hewlett:

“A sponsor is someone who:

  • Believes in you and goes out on a limb on your behalf
  • Advocates for your next promotion
  • Provides “air cover” so you can take risks
  • Expands your perception of what you can do
  • Promotes your visibility and connects you to senior leaders
  • Gives honest feedback and advice”

You need to be quite targeted with who you choose to sponsor you. They should be someone powerful and influential who is prepared to fight your corner.

A sponsor is not the same as a mentor. Sponsorship is a strategic alliance where you help them and they help you. Your role is to earn your sponsor’s respect so they will give up their time to help drive your career. By taking an interest in you and your career, it helps their own career.

If they give you opportunities make sure you outperform expectations. Be loyal to them and make them look good. Add value by bringing different perspectives and skills to them.

Research at the Centre for Talent and Innovation found that individuals who are most satisfied with their rate of advancement are those who have a sponsor.

Lean In

This term has been much quoted recently based on Sheryl Sandberg’s (COO of Facebook) book of the same name. I plan to cover this more in next month’s article looking at the differences between how men and women progress their career at work. However, the essence of this can apply to both men and women – that is, if offered opportunities, start with a “Yes” even if you then negotiate how to make the opportunity work for you.

Rather than worry about how to make the most of the opportunity, and how you will fit it into your already crowded life, look and sound enthusiastic and show your commitment. You can always re-visit the conversation by asking for any flexibility or resources you may need.

Please share this article with anyone you know who might find it interesting, and let me know if you’d like more information about managing your career.

January’s article builds on this subject by comparing career management for women and men.