The Mentorist

Play Chess, Not Candy Land: Managing Your Career

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I meet a lot of people through networking. Many of them want jobs they don’t have a prayer of getting. The sad thing? They don’t know that.

What all of these people have in common is that they’ve never looked beyond their next job and planned their careers. All along, they should have been playing career chess – where positions and moves are considered with a view to the endgame. Instead, they’ve been hopping around a Candy Land board: no strategy, no control, but hoping for luck.

Let’s look at the world of law, for a moment. If you work in a law firm, the “top dog” position is equity partner. In a corporation, it’s general counsel.

If you think you’d like to attain either of these positions, you had better quickly learn what skills are needed, devise a strategy for developing them, then – with careful timing — move into positions that offer the best shot at reaching your “goal” job.

Even if you’re in the early stages of your career, it’s not too soon to develop a career strategy and start acting on it. In fact, it’s essential.

Here are some steps to follow:

1. Realize that what got you your last promotion won’t get you promoted again

Each level in a firm or corporation requires different sorts of skills.   For instance, a law firm associate is expected to expertly research and draft agreements, while a junior partner is expected to seamlessly run deals and manage teams of people and an equity partner is expected to bring in business (and lots of it).

You’re not necessarily going to develop the skills you need to get promoted to the next level (or the next one after that) while working at your current level — unless you take the initiative.  [More on that below.]

2. Do your research: What does it take to get where you want to go?

One of the best ways to figure out the attributes needed for the job you’ve set as your career goal is to talk to people who are doing that job.

For example, if you eventually want to be a general counsel, seek out people who’ve already got that title.  Ask them what expectations are placed on them in their role, how they developed the skills they needed for the position and what career advice they might have for you.

Another way to learn about what your goal job requires is to read career-related articles on websites aimed at your profession. Also, consider joining a professional networking group that includes senior people in your goal job. Make certain to attend the group’s programs that focus on career issues.

3. Find a mentor who’s already won the game

I’ll write at length about mentors in future blog posts: how to find them, how to use them, what to expect from them and (when needed) how to break up with them. It’s a big subject. For now, just know that having the right mentor can mean the difference between reaching the top and languishing somewhere in the middle.

4. Think three positions ahead

As in chess, you need to be thinking not only about how you are going to get to the next square on the 8-queens-on-a-chessboardcareer “board,” but also to the square after that and then the one after that…. The research you’ve done, as well as your mentor, can help you plot the various moves that will help ready you for your “goal” job. 

5. Make your own opportunities

Brainstorm ways that — while in your current role — you might get experience that starts positioning you to handle the requirements of your goal job.

For instance, your odds of eventually becoming a general counsel will increase significantly if you have a background in corporate law.  If you’re currently an in-house employment specialist, but have a goal of being a general counsel, tell your manager that you’d like to round out your experience by negotiating some of the company’s business contracts or helping with Board of Directors matters or….

Just make certain that, at the same time, you continue to do stellar work in the job you were hired for.

And if, after a decent interval of time, the opportunities you need aren’t coming your way, it may be time to change jobs.  [Look for a future blog post on this, as well.] 

6. Consider whether the end game will actually make you happy – and is worth the sacrifices along the way

Being “top dog” carries a lot of pressures with it.  For instance, if you are an equity partner, you’d better make certain that you continually bring in new business and generate significant revenue.  If you’re a general counsel, you’d better meet your (ever shrinking) budget and enjoy making decisions based on only partial facts plus “gut instinct.”

Once you’ve done your research and have a fairly clear picture of what your goal job actually entails, think long and hard about your personality, your passions and your strengths. Are you going to be a good fit for the role?   What sort of work really makes you happy?

Perhaps you’ll decide to change your career goal.  Just make certain that — whatever goal you settle on – it comes with a strategy and well thought-out moves.

Author: Jane E. Owens

Jane E. Owens, The Mentorist’s chief blogger, has spent her career immersed in the business and culture of corporations and law firms. A former general counsel and corporate lawyer, Jane is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the professional world – and, through her mentoring practice, hopes to increase the ranks of the former. To learn more about Jane or suggest topics you'd like The Mentorist to discuss, go to: www.mentorist.co

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