The dangers of falling into short-term thinking when choosing a career

iStock_000005168521XSmallAsked at an early age what they would like to do, most young children respond with jobs that are high profile in nature – firefighter, space pilot, jockey, football player, etc. A few might want to ‘copy’ what their parents are doing – stockbroker, lawyer, etc. – without really understanding what the job entails. In any case, most children don’t see the career options as ‘jobs’ but rather as fun things to do, and not much more (isn’t that a great way to look at it?!).

Later on however, as we finish our education, either at school, college, or university, our understanding grows of the needs to earn a living, and we tend to pick jobs based on a combination of certain criteria, principally relating to what we’re good at and what’s available.

Now 15 years into my career, and having been in a counseling role for others, and observed colleagues in their career development, it has become clear to me that careers are often very different later on to what we see as we start out on the career ladder, and that this is often overlooked by people starting their careers.

People often choose jobs based on a combination of the following:

  • availability/ demand in the market (there are often a lot of jobs opening in the areas of finance, law, business/management, etc.)
  • level of interest (and excitement?) which the job might provide
  • desire to work in a certain industry/service sector
  • potential for achievement/success/personal growth
  • potential to give back to society or socially valued roles (charities, emergency forces, cultural roles, etc.)
  • remuneration potential (hopefully not the top priority, but always a consideration)

These all seem to be sensible, however miss a fundamental additional point which is often overlooked, being ‘what does the future hold for my possible career choice?’. Most jobs change in their requirements of the person and the opportunities available as one spends longer in the role. The skills required five to ten years into the job might be very different to those which are given priority/focus during the recruitment process.

Five additional things to consider about your first step on a career ladder, aside from forming a direct assessment of the job(s) that might be available to you:

1. What sort of people make it through to senior positions?

Most organizations operate some sort of pyramid structure with regards to hierarchy, in order to leverage talent.

The skills that the company looks for in its senior management roles might be different to those that they are looking for in their junior ‘workers’. While some companies have an eye to recruiting future leaders when taking on more junior roles, priority is often placed on people who can successfully do the job which is immediately being recruited for.

Most senior management positions are less about the product/service/execution, and more to do with negotiations, communications and (unfortunately) also administration. That is why it is possible to see CEO changes happening between large listed companies, which are in quite different sectors.  Of course, this over simplifies leadership, but otherwise a discussion of the requirements of a leader could fill up more than this blog post alone.

On this basis, it is important to consider two things:

  • Do you have the necessary skills already, and if so, do you have sufficient expertise?
  • Can you further develop the necessary skills, and if so, what opportunities/support do you need to do this?

Regarding this second point, it is important to be strict with yourself here – it is very easy to become overly confident with one’s ability to ‘change’ (in particular with skills development, as opposed to knowledge development).

2. What sort of opportunities does (and can) the job/company provide with regards to international travel/secondments/mobility?

This requires you to think ahead and consider whether this is important to you. Globalisation means ever greater mobility demands, and changing footprint of where demand exists for certain skills.

3. How is the sector or requirement for certain ‘skills’ developing?

Is there a risk that it will be superseded somehow, or that the skills might become obsolete? Even in these circumstances, there might be opportunities for a small number of people to have ‘niche’ skills/experiences, which are highly desirable among certain employers.

People with certain computer language programming skills have seen this, and have been very successful as a result, but it is potentially also quite risky.

4. How transferable are the skills and qualifications that can be obtained in the earlier years?

Certain skills and qualifications (for example, in the accounting profession: numerical analysis, financial statement analysis, investigation/questioning skills, using and reference of accounting standards, etc.).

  • If the profession provides the opportunity to take and pass exams, how well are these qualifications seen in the market place?
  • Can one use the exams to enter jobs in other parts of the market, either for competing firms, or for different roles elsewhere in the sector or even other sectors?

If the skills and qualifications are easily transferable, it might be worth re-considering the answers to the questions above with respect to the broader sector which could be seen as future opportunities. If this is still so large as to be not be restrictive, then you may be lucky enough to defer some of the decisions until later.

These matters can sometimes surprise and frustrate you if you don’t see them coming.

Before starting out on a career (eg, just after college/university) thinking ahead beyond the next five to ten years can be difficult, and seem unnecessary or irrelevant (and in some ways it might be, since so much can change in the intervening period).  Nevertheless, in a career which might last forty years, the first five to ten years is only a small part of that, and while technology, products/services, and even leading management practices might change, critical personal skill requirements often remain broadly stable.

The extent to which different recruiters are focused on providing transparency as to changing skill and job requirements throughout a career path varies, and might possibly even depend on whether there is an under- or overcapacity of available talent in the job market (if the recruiter can afford to be selective in their choice of candidates, might they pick some candidates who are able to do an excellent job early on, but might not be suitable leadership material, and hence be more vague on what the career path entails later on?).

Clearly if job opportunities are restricted, one might not be lucky to have a choice as to what job to take, in which case you may need to overlook some of these considerations until better opportunities (hopefully) arise later on.

To finish, it’s also worth pointing out , to avoid this post appearing depressing, or pessimistic about career opportunities, the changes that a career can bring and the corresponding challenges, can themselves be what keeps a career interesting, and so one shouldn’t fear the career ladder – plan ahead, but enjoy the ride.

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