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Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Key Advice for Your Career Strategy

by Jim Citrin

It has been a great run. Since February 8, 2006, I've written 66 Leadership by Example columns, totaling some 230 pages and 131,000 words. But the time has come to draw this effort to a close. This, the first half of a two-part final column, will synthesize my most important advice about career strategies.

How different the world looks today from when I started! In 2006 college graduates and mid-career professionals experienced the most ebullient job market in years, and opportunities continued to be abundant across all sectors in 2007. Employers hired more than 15 percent more new college graduates that year, the fourth straight year of double-digit growth, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, and the number of retained management and executive searches reached an all time high.

The class of 2009, by stark contrast, is wading into the roughest employment waters since the Great Depression; the 8.1 percent unemployment rate in February is the highest in a quarter century.

In this challenging context, let me organize my sweep of career advice along a roughly chronological order, one that will hopefully characterize your professional life.

How to Launch Your Career Successfully

If you have the option in today's market, try to join a blue-chip company so that you can become associated with its brand. Select your boss carefully, recognizing how important he or she will be in setting the norms and standards that will guide how you will behave in organizational life.

Recognize, too, that first impressions are lasting ones. Maintain a positive, can-do attitude, which is the single thing over which you have nearly complete control. Work hard -- get in early and stay late, not just to create face-time but to get more high-quality work done; and always meet your commitments so you develop a reputation for reliability and responsiveness.

Be a technology mentor. If you've grown up with digital technology as a normal and integral part of your life, you have the opportunity to bring tech-phobic senior managers into the modern era. Teach them how to use Facebook, how to upload a video to YouTube, how to organize digital photos on Flickr, how to create a profile on MySpace, and how to watch 'SNL' on Hulu. In the words of Bob Iger, CEO of Disney, "I believe that it's a better path to join a quality company, work hard and well with people, and navigate your way into the right roles than to join a lower-quality company, even if you start in a more senior position."

Patterns of the Very Best Careers

You can manage your career more proactively than you may realize if you understand the patterns that govern extraordinary careers. First, find the right fit in terms of a culture and role that play to your strengths, personality, and interests. Seek creative ways to gain access to new responsibilities and opportunities through cultivating mentors, volunteering for stretch assignments, and pursuing an advanced degree.
As you progress through your career, build upon your experiences from one role and apply them in fresh ways to new roles; think of your career as a series of building blocks that can be mixed and matched to best position you for new opportunities.

Recognize that your value in the market is inexorably linked to the reputation of your employer. In many cases, you'll be associated with the company you work for more than the specific job you hold. Working in a company with great people will plug you into valuable networks and offer the best opportunities for skill-building and professional development. Also, it's easier to move from a large, widely recognized, well-respected organization to a smaller or more entrepreneurial one.

It is trite to say that hard work is the foundation for enduring success. Nonetheless, as Geoff Colvin puts forth in his fabulous book, 'Talent is Overrated', great performance is in our hands far more than most people believe. What makes certain people great is not their inborn talent. Rather, it is something called "deliberate practice," a sustained, often lifelong, period of purposeful effort designed to improve performance in a specific domain. This is just as true in the case of business as it is in sports, music, medicine, chess, science, and mathematics.

The Art of the Job Interview

There are typically four parts of a job interview for which candidates should prepare: 1) The opening, which is intended to set the stage and, ideally, help you, the interviewee, feel comfortable by establishing some common ground; 2) Chronological review, where the intention is to learn who you really are as a person, how you think, and what the major influences and key turning points were in your life. Here, make sure to emphasize your work ethic, values, personality, and impact; 3) Assessment of your background and track record against the core skills, experiences, and competencies required for success in the role, which will hopefully have been defined up front; and 4) Your questions, which are just important as your answers, so be sure to prepare in advance to show the homework you've done and the insight you have gleaned about the company and its competitors.

Strategies for Internal Job Candidates

One of the most delicate situations for executives is being an internal candidate competing against one or more external candidates for a key position. How do you handle yourself? First, embrace the process without projecting resentment that you aren't just handed the job. Declare your candidacy, balancing your personal interest in the opportunity with an attitude of support for whatever is best for the organization.

Determine how the process will work and who the decision-makers are, and conduct yourself professionally and with maturity. When it is your turn at bat in the interview, organize your thoughts into a few powerful themes. Tell your story without assuming that, because you are the internal candidate, people really know who you are or from whence you've come. Use analogies to demonstrate how you've been successful in similar situations; prepare for the tough questions; and practice your examples and responses repeatedly beforehand.

Making the Best Transition

Because of the tough economy, many people find themselves having to find a job and make a transition. Believe me, I recognize the difficulty of being downsized or restructured out of a job, and let me acknowledge that it's far easier to give advice than it is to actually do this. But here is my advice nonetheless: 1) Start preparing for a transition before you need to by beefing up your internal and external relationships and broadening your skill base and credentials; 2) Take stock of your situation by objectively assessing your strengths and figuring out what gets your juices flowing; and then 3) Find ways to apply your experiences in new ways by soliciting advice from trusted friends and mentors, reading voraciously, and seeking opportunities to present your case to as many people as possible.

The First 100 Days of a New Position

When you do get that new position, it is critical to get off to a strong start to establish the foundation upon which long-term success is built. Done well, the first 100 days create momentum for the next 100 days, and the next. Done poorly, you squander the unique honeymoon period during which you get the benefit of the doubt and when your authority and influence come more from the appointment than from your accomplishments. The keys to succeeding in this period are to prepare and do your homework, set proper expectations with your boss and other key influencers, and to pick three themes around which to organize your priorities and your continuous communications.

Working Effectively with Your Boss

"What bosses want more than anything else is loyalty, good advice, and to have their personal brands polished," says David D'Alessandro, best-selling author of 'Career Warfare and Executive Warfare'. There is no single person who has more direct influence on your short- or medium-term career success than your boss. Figure out how to support his or her success, and tailor your efforts accordingly. Doing so will create and sustain your career momentum.

By contrast, there is nothing a manager disdains more than the subordinate who goes behind his back. Never make yourself look good at the boss's expense. Since the rules of the game in organizational life are governed by hierarchy, if you circumvent your boss, then you'll be seen as breaking the chain of command or, worse, betraying him or her. All intelligent bosses instinctively separate their people into three distinct categories: the sycophants, the devil's advocates, and the small percentage of employees who are the balanced players. You definitely want to be seen as a member of the third group.

The Power of Relationships in Your Career

Relationships are core to your success, since everything you do in professional life is dependent on others. Therefore, it is imperative to have a relationship mindset. This means recognizing that all business relationships are also personal relationships, that one relationship or interaction leads to another, and what goes around comes around.

People genuinely appreciate hard work and thinking on their behalf, as well as responsiveness and straightforward communications. When you're at a critical turning point in your career, it's wise not to go it alone. A proven strategy is to cultivate a small group of professional and personal relationships to serve as your sounding board, brain trust, or personal "board of directors."

A Tactical Lesson

Most of my columns generated hundreds of comments (usually robust and valuable but often requiring a thick skin). The one that was by far the most commented upon was "Tapping the Power of Your Morning Routine," in which I detailed how 20 CEOs get the most out of their early-morning time. The lessons: 1) Start early -- 80 percent of the CEOs I surveyed wake up at 5:30 or earlier; 2) Get a jump on email -- virtually all report using this time to triage their overnight email; 3) Exercise every morning -- 70 percent work out daily in the morning; and 4) Problem solve -- most use the morning, when the mind is at its clearest, to develop ideas about how to resolve the thorniest issues of the day.

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