What do you learn about careers from talking with hundreds of people about their careers? Here are my top 5 career lessons…
Over the past year and half I’ve met with a lot of people to talk about their careers. It is an experience that I wish I could have had at age 22… but at that point I hadn’t done anything, so no one would have spoken with me about their careers…
In any event, I was recently chatting with a friend and he asked me what I’d learned over the past year. So, here is a short summary of my big 5 career lessons:
Lesson #1: Technology jobs are tough
Over and over we hear about the next technology startup, how young coders are paid so well, and how we should have vocational programs that teach people how to code. This is all great, except for one thing: technology evolves very, very fast.
This is the appeal of technology for many people, however when you combine a very specialized, technical skill with an industry that evolves fast, it is a recipe for quickly becoming obsolete.
Here is what I mean. I once had a conversation with someone who was an expert in Siebel (an old CRM that used to be the state of the art). He was well paid, made around $125-$150k, and enjoyed his work. There was just one problem…
Companies don’t use Siebel anymore, they use Salesforce.com. Now, when Salesforce was first getting popular he could have learned it and gotten paid $70k as an entry level programmer. He didn’t want to cut his income in half, so he stuck with Siebel.
Well, that Siebel job is going away… and it is what he knows how to do.
The key point I tell my clients is this: if you are in technology, try to move to management as quickly as you can.
As a leader you are less subject to becoming obsolete when programming languages, software platforms and other elements of the industry evolve. In other words, your skills transcend those details giving you greater flexibility.
Thinking that your expertise in a particular software or programming language will serve you well for the rest of your career is excessively optimistic. You need to constantly learn new skills to survive in this sector… or move into management.
Lesson #2: Being in middle management and in your mid-50s or older is difficult.
While you can certainly do things to combat it, ageism is real. -And even when companies don’t discriminate based on age, they would much rather pay a younger worker with the same skills less.
(Often times years of small pay increases make an older professional quite expensive relative to their counterparts.)
The exceptions I have seen to this rule are people in their 50s who are C-level (CEO, CFO, COO). Perhaps not surprisingly age is actually seen as a good thing for these roles.
The key point is this: Try to find your way to a C-level position if at all possible, and in the meantime start saving when you are younger so that you can retire earlier rather than later.
I had someone ask me if I could coach him to get a specific role at age 78… I had to be honest and say that while I could help, the deck was stacked against us. -You don’t want to be in that situation.
Lesson #3: A Role / Company / Salary is Temporary
As valuable and highly compensated as you may be in your company today, your role is temporary. I have heard stories of loyal employees with long tenures and stellar records lose their jobs with little notice, often for reasons completely out of their control.
The reasons may include:
- A merger or acquisition
- Financial reasons (e.g. a bad quarter for the company)
- A change in strategy/focus
- Political reasons (i.e. a power grab within the company)
The important thing to realize is that this can happen to ANYONE… including you. No matter how loyal, talented and well liked you are.
When I used to fly airplanes I read magazines that would describe accidents that pilots had (some of them fatal). The point was to educate myself, yet despite these lessons from more experienced pilots, I still had a sense that “I wouldn’t make that mistake.”
-It’s a story we like to tell ourselves. Small plane crashes can happen to anyone… as can being let go from a company.
The key lesson: Always, always, have a plan for what you will do if your job disappears.
This plan can be thought of in terms of rainy day funds, your network, and how you might consult or otherwise earn a living entrepreneurially. The point is to have a plan.
Lesson #4: Always be networking
Most people in corporate roles focus their networking within the company they are at (if they network at all).
The challenge with this approach is that if things go wrong (e.g. as in lesson #3) you have to build a network from scratch. This takes time, and it is often done when you are looking for something from someone (i.e. a job), which makes networking less fun.
The key point is this: build a network now, when you don’t need it. You will meet some amazing people who will no doubt come in handy later.
Lesson #5: Be careful following your passion for too long
It is not uncommon for me to get a call from an artist of some kind (videographer, painter, actor, etc). Their story always boils down to the same thing: I followed my passion, I persisted for years (even after my friends gave up), I now have a family (or other expenses) and I need to do something that pays the bills.
At this point they are looking at some pretty junior positions… especially for someone their age. (See How to become a rock star).
They never become clients because they can’t afford to hire me.
Here’s the key point: You need to find ways to combine your passion with something more conventional that will actually help you make a living.
The best example of this is an engineer client who also loved creating videos. We were able to market her as an engineer who could also communicate complex engineering efforts within an organization. As a result she was able to stand out from her peers, land a great job and get a 20% increase in salary.
Why? Because she was able to demonstrate how her passion helped broaden a conventional role and add more value to it.
Almost no one has their career all figured out, so here is what you need to keep in mind: careers are always evolving. Even doctors have their careers evolve constantly based on changes in insurance coverage, practice models, etc.
The world is always changing… and it requires adaptation. Your career success is largely a function of your ability to add value in the marketplace as the world evolves. It isn’t easy, but it is the key to a long, prosperous career.