Monday, May 27, 2013

Charting a Successful Career Path

A few months ago, I stumbled across a visual summary of the book, The Start-Up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career by Reid Hoffman, Co-founder and Chairman of LinkedIn, and Ben Casnocha, an entrepreneur and author. The book is chock full of simple, but insightful principles you can apply to your career and your life. In this blog posting, I'll cover just a few snippets from Chapter 2: Develop a Competitive Advantage and Chapter 3: Plan to Adapt (in future blog postings, I'll discuss other tips from the book):
  • In a world where a million people can do your job. . . CHART A CAREER PATH that sets you apart from other professionals.
  • Popular career planning advice says you should decide where you want to be in 10 years and then develop a plan for getting there. Popular career planning advice says you should find your passion and then pursue it. These philosophies have serious strengths, but also huge drawbacks. 
  • They presume a static world. In fact, you change, the competition changes, and the world changes. 
  • They presume that fixed, accurate self-knowledge can be easily attained through introspection. In fact, your identity is not found through introspection but rather emerges through EXPERIMENTATION
Creating a PATH and following your PASSION are what I call the two "Ps" in career planning. So many career books talk about these two "Ps" ad nauseam. Charting a career path is great if you know exactly what you want to do with your life, but let's face it. While many brand new college graduates can tell you what they're passionate about, I argue that most of them don't have a clue about how to chart their career path. The exception, of course, are young people who head straight to law school or medical school right after graduating from college. For the rest of us, I propose that instead of focusing so much on charting a path and following your passion, be willing to EXPERIMENT and find your ELEMENT. This is what I call the two "Es." I believe the same concept applies to your company's brand. Rather than sticking to the "this is the way we've always done it" path, be willing to experiment with your brand and discover what its true element is.  

A few weeks ago, I heard a talk given by Carla A. Harris, a managing director for Morgan Stanley. In her talk, she discussed the importance of constructing your own career agenda, which is another way of talking about a career path. In Chapter 2 of her book,  Expect to Win: 10 Proven Strategies for Thriving  in the Workplace, she wrote: "One of the most important things that the real you can do is to construct your own career agenda. This is important because you are the one that has to live with the triumphs and the disappointments. Only you really know what matters to you in terms of time, money, and the pace at which your career progresses, and only you know what sacrifices and trade-offs you are prepared to make to achieve success. Part of being the architect of your own agenda is understanding what success means to you."

Early in her life, Carla Harris made the decision that financial services was the industry she wanted to pursue a career in, and I know other people who knew what they wanted to do even before they graduated from college. Knowing ahead of time exactly which field you want to be in and what type of work you want to do will certainly make your life a lot easier, but I believe there's value in pursuing the experimental route, which was the path I chose throughout most of my work life. As Hoffman and Casnocha explain in their book, The Start-Up of You, "you change, the competition changes, and the world changes." I know I have changed a lot since I graduated from college, and so has my world. Over the years, I have discovered who I am and what I enjoy doing through constant experimentation. I believe experimentation can be an alternate route to charting a successful career path.

Let me take you on a whirlwind time travel tour of my work life from my post-college years up until now. I majored in English at Indiana University because I knew I wanted to be a writer. I loved writing ever since I wrote my first story when I was six years old. Writing is what I've always wanted to do; in some ways it's what I've always known I was meant to do. But after I graduated from college, I had absolutely no idea how to go about find a writing job. I also had no idea where I wanted to live, but I could tell you right off the bat that I did not want to spend the rest of my life in the Midwest where I grew up. So when a guy I became friends with in college invited me to move to Hawaii with him, I thought to myself, "Why not?" At the time, it sounded like a really fun place to live and I've always loved the sun, water and sand. I thought that after I arrived in Hawaii I would figure out how to find a writing job. After all, I was only 22 years old with the rest of my life ahead of me. 

My initial foray into the financial services industry began while I was browsing through the classifieds and spotted an advertisement for a sales representative position at Metropolitan Life. It wasn't a writing job, but I thought that perhaps it might lead to a writing job someday. After all, an important component of writing is being able to sell your thoughts and ideas to readers. So I applied for the position, passed the LIMRA personality screening test, and landed the job. My friends back on the Mainland warned me not to accept the job because sales is a tough way to earn a living, but I've always been the sort of person who thrives on new challenges and I viewed my job with Metropolitan Life as my first sales experiment. 

At Metropolitan Life, my target audience consisted of military families. The office was located near a major military base, and several of the employees in the company used to serve in the military, including the branch manager. When I was hired, I was the only person without a military background, but that didn't bother me. I was determined to succeed. I worked twelve hours a day from 9 AM until 9 PM, and I also met with prospects on Saturday mornings. Needless to say, I didn't have much of a social life, but eventually, my hard work paid off. After my first six months in the business, I was ranked among the top ten life insurance agents in the San Francisco Bay area, which included Northern California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and Hawaii. Among the top ten agents, I was the youngest sales representative.

What I enjoyed most about my job at Metropolitan Life was writing sales letters. Long before I decided to attend graduate business school, I already had a passion for writing, marketing, and communications. I loved the challenge of creating messages and content to drive sales. Back in the mid 80s' the life insurance industry was not heavily regulated, and I was given free license to create my own sales letters. The only approval that was required was obtaining a sign-off from my branch manager. Based on my research and knowledge of the military marketplace, I knew that a simple, but creative approach would most likely appeal to my target audience. So I created a clever one-page letter called "A Tale of Two Sergeants." I drew a picture of two Sergeants (Sergeant Penny and Sergeant Pity) and glued a penny right on top of the face of Sergeant Penny. In the letter, I described how Sergeant Penny was better able to provide for his family when he passed away because he was willing to set aside hundreds of pennies every day to buy life insurance. Like many investors today, Sergeant Pity lived for the present and didn't think about the future. Ten years later, when he passed away unexpectedly, his family had to struggle to make ends meet. The Sergeant Penny and Sergeant Pity direct mail campaign was a huge success and that letter helped me get my foot in the door with many qualified prospects. Several of those appointments resulted in new life insurance business. It just goes to show how powerful a creative storytelling idea is! To this day, I still enjoy experimenting with different sales letters to see which ones are the most successful.  

By the time, I decided I was ready to switch from selling life insurance to selling a more diverse array of financial products, I felt that my career path in financial sales was set in stone. While I was flipping through a free weekly publication I found in downtown Honolulu, I came across an advertisement for a complimentary financial planning seminar at Merrill Lynch. Even though I wasn't in the market to hire a financial consultant, I thought attending the seminar would help me find out if there were any job openings at Merrill Lynch. After the talk concluded, I spoke to the Merrill Lynch financial consultant, explained my background, and my career aspirations. He was impressed by my sales achievements at Metropolitan Life and mentioned to me that the investment team he worked for (the Strada/McRoberts team) was looking for someone to help them bring in new business. A few days later, I interviewed with the senior partners on the team and was offered the job of business financial specialist. I considered my first job with Merrill Lynch as my brokerage experiment. 

In the brokerage world, everyone must submit their correspondence to the compliance department in New York for pre-approval. Back then, it took a few weeks to receive approval (this was long before email became popular) and very little creativity was permitted. My direct mail campaigns at Merrill Lynch helped me set up appointments with business owners, but the lead time was very long due to the lengthy compliance process. So I decided to try out cold calling as an experiment. I love talking to my friends on the phone so I just pretended that the strangers I was calling were long-lost friends. Since there was no Do Not Call List and I loved talking on the phone, cold calling helped me bring in many new accounts. In the office, I quickly became known as the cold calling queen because I was really good at "dialing for dollars."  

As a Business Financial Specialist for Merrill Lynch, I focused on developing and executing direct marketing strategies targeting small and mid-sized business owners. I enjoyed researching the small business marketplace and learning all about the challenges business owners face as well as the key business trends within the local community. Based on my research, I created a portfolio of business solutions. One of the most successful business products I sold was Merrill Lynch's Working Capital Management Account (WCMA). It was a great way to align the needs of the business owner with Merrill Lynch's brand positioning. Opening a WCMA with a client also led to many successful cross-sells as well as referrals. The work environment at Merrill Lynch was dynamic and fast-paced, but I thrive in that kind of environment because every day brings new challenges and opportunities. I also enjoyed working collaboratively in a high-performance team environment where everyone felt free to share their best thinking with each other. 

After spending three years with Merrill Lynch, I decided to move from the sales side of the business to the investment recommendation side. Most financial consultants do not have the luxury of specializing in just one aspect of the business. Instead, they're expected to do it all -- prospect, set up appointments, conduct money manager research, review client portfolios, make suitable investment recommendations, and service their clients. When an executive recruiter notified me about a career opportunity at TIAA-CREF in San Francisco where I could focus on giving investment advice to university professors and administrators, I decided it might be fun to just focus on one aspect of the business. I also liked the idea of traveling all over the West Coast to meet with professors and administrators. 

When I first started working for TIAA-CREF, I enjoyed having an expense account, racking up thousands of frequent flier miles, and staying at four and five-star hotels. I also enjoyed giving investment advice and recommendations to college professors and administrators. This audience was quite different from the military families I used to visit back in the '80s, but I know how to interact well with people from all walks of life. Since my job involved talking to as many as 20 to 25 professors in one day, I quickly learned how to deliver concise, relevant and insightful recommendations about each client's portfolio. My life at TIAA-CREF changed abruptly in 1991 after I became engaged to the man who eventually became my husband.

We realized that if we wanted to start a family someday, being away from home five days a week was not ideal. During our honeymoon in Europe, I fantasized about what it would be like to work in the travel industry. I will admit that the travel benefits sounded very enticing to me. Moving from financial services to the travel industry was a daring experiment for me, but fortunately, it wasn't a huge financial gamble since my husband earned a good living. A few months after we returned home from our honeymoon, I left TIAA-CREF and enrolled at Echols International Travel School, the most highly regarded travel school in San Francisco. 

For the next fours years, I worked in the travel industry and had a great time. Even though my position did not involve traveling for business, I traveled vicariously by learning more about international destinations and writing marketing materials to promote the company's tours. Howard Tours, Inc. specialized in offering tours to Rotary Club members. I joined a local Rotary Club in order to learn more about how to design marketing strategies for this audience. As the firm's Tour Administrator, I was in charge of developing the company's direct marketing strategies. Later, when I joined California Pacific Tours, an inbound tour operator, I developed expertise in designing marketing strategies targeting travel agents and Asian tourists interested in visiting California. Unfortunately, I was forced to leave the travel industry in 1996 due to pregnancy complications. Becoming a mother for the first time was definitely the most challenging experiment of my life! Fortunately, my son was born healthy. When I was a child, both of my parents worked full-time, so my siblings and I were raised primarily by strangers. I wanted my son to have a different experience growing up so I took a few years off from work to raise him at home. When he turned two, I started A Child's World, a home-based preschool for children between the ages of two and four. I created my own brochure and direct mail campaign to promote my school. It was a huge success and in less than a year, I enrolled twelve children (including my son) and I hired a full-time Assistant Teacher. 

In March 2000, I returned to Honolulu to attend a friend's wedding. Back then, I had no idea how my world would change after that wedding trip. While I was in Honolulu for a few days, I decided to visit some of the people I used to work for on the Strada/McRoberts team. I learned that they had recently moved from Merrill Lynch to Morgan Stanley so I visited them in their new offices. I also learned that after I had left the team, they had hired another financial consultant to take my place, but by March 2000, he no longer worked for the firm. Because of my successful experience working for the Strada/McRoberts team when they were at Merrill Lynch, one of the senior partners asked me if I would consider working for them again in Honolulu. Unlike my decision to work in the travel industry, this was a huge gamble for me because it involved moving my family thousands of miles away from Northern California to Hawaii. However, the timing was good. My husband had just sold his business so he was in between jobs and our son had just graduated from my preschool. However, since my husband had never lived in Hawaii, he reluctantly agreed to sign up for our three-year "Hawaii experiment." I made an agreement with him that if he didn't like living in Hawaii after three years, we would move back to Northern California. To make a long story short, my husband was unable to find a satisfying job and never got used to living in Hawaii, so we moved back to Northern California in 2003. 

I knew I still wanted to work in the financial services business, but this time around, I wanted to experience what it would be like to work for a bank. I really enjoyed working for Wells Fargo. During my four years there, I earned the maximum bonus award for my project management and marketing accomplishments. Being able to earn this award while working on my Master's degree in Marketing was incredibly challenging and involved many 12-hour days, but I was determined to excel at my job and in school. My graduate school experiment was a success. I graduated from Golden Gate University with a 3.93 GPA and I also received a nice bonus at work while I was working on my Master's degree. What I loved most about Wells Fargo was its collaborative, team-based culture. I really enjoyed interacting with everyone in my department and team members from other departments across the nation. One of the most challenging, but also most rewarding initiatives I worked on was creating and implementing the first national PCS (Private Client Services) Wealth Management Conference. I also enjoyed working on setting up the National Sales Advisory Desk for Wells Fargo PCS.  

Quite honestly, I would have stayed at Wells Fargo if I had not become friends with a woman named Cathy whom I met at the Fightin' 49ers Toastmasters Club in San Francisco. Joining Toastmasters and becoming friends with Cathy changed my world significantly. Cathy loved working for Lumetra, a small nonprofit healthcare consulting firm in San Francisco. She introduced me to a woman named Kamna who was the marketing communications manager at Lumetra and we really hit it off. Later, when a job opening for a Senior Marketing Communications Consultant became available, Kamna encouraged me to apply for the position. The starting pay was much higher than the salary I earned at Wells Fargo and I really liked the people I met at the company so I decided to apply for the position. I also thought it would be fun to work on strategic marketing communication plans for nursing homes, home health agencies, and hospitals in California. My weekend volunteer work at nursing homes, hospitals, and hospices provided me with unique insight into the special needs of these settings so I thought I would be a good fit for the company. A few weeks later, I landed the job and moved from the financial services industry to the healthcare field. One of the things I really enjoyed about working for Lumetra was having the opportunity to collaborate with subject matter experts, physicians, and senior leaders in creating new marketing and educational initiatives in the hospital, home health agency, and nursing home environment. 

Unfortunately, my world turned upside down when Lumetra lost the CMS (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid) government contract, which resulted in the company laying off the entire marketing communications department. From a company with 110 employees at the beginning of the year, the company shrank to 25 employees over the course of a few months. Since I had established a solid track record of accomplishments in the healthcare industry, I was able to land a job with Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, California. During my tenure with Kaiser Permanente, I earned the maximum bonus award for successful project management. 

While I enjoyed my four years in the healthcare field, there was still a part of me that missed working in financial services. So when the opportunity arose to rejoin the Strada/McRoberts team in Honolulu, I moved back to Hawaii in 2012. In order to broaden my social circles and give something back to the community, I joined a few local organizations in Honolulu. Most recently, I joined St. Francis Hospice as a patient care volunteer. I knew that I wanted to continue volunteering with the elderly after I moved to Hawaii. 

I have learned a lot about myself over the course of my various "life experiments." I believe that there is no "one size fits all" solution to charting a successful career path. While my life may have been easier if I had remained in one industry all this time, I know that working in the travel and healthcare industries broadened my perspective. Knowing that I can succeed in fields outside of financial services boosted my confidence and increased my overall value in the job marketplace. It's comforting to know that my marketing and project management skills are transferable to other industries. I never would have known that if I had not taken a chance to experiment outside of financial services.

I spent quite a bit of time discussing how important it is to experiment with your career, but there's another important component in charting a successful career path. It sounds a lot like passion, but it's not the same thing. While I enjoy sales, whenever I am given a chance to research, write, and develop new marketing materials and PowerPoint presentations, I feel like I'm in my natural element. How is being in your element different than finding your passion? In the book, Finding Your Element: How to Discover Your Talents and Passions and Transform Your Life by Sir Ken Robinson, he wrote, "Being in your element is more than doing things you're good at. To be in your element, you have to love the work too. An essential step in finding your element is to understand your talents. Helping people find what they're good at and love to do is the surest way to increase their engagement at work and promote a deeper sense of well-being and fulfillment in their lives." I would also add that just because you're passionate about something doesn't necessarily mean you have a special talent in that area. For example, I enjoy bicycling, but I'm certainly not good enough to become a professional bicyclist. 

If you already know what your career path is, good for you! You're one of the lucky ones. But if you don't, there's nothing wrong with experimenting in order to find out who you are, what you enjoy doing, and what you're good at. Figuring out the answers to those three questions will help you find your element. If you combine experimentation with being in your element, eventually you will chart a successful career path, but don't expect it to be an easy process. I agree with the advice comedian Stephen Colbert gave in his commencement address to the 2013 class of the University of Virginia: "Every generation must define itself. If you must find your own path, and we have left you no easy path, then decide now to choose the hard path that leads to the life and the world that you want." 

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