To be an effective business leader (and this is, without question, the goal for those of us who want to still be employable moving forward) requires you to not only personally embrace a digital-first posture but to also look microscopically at your career to date and where it is headed.
I’m fascinated by successful people and their career paths. Do you know what I never hear when I listen to a successful businessperson speak or when I read a biography of someone I respect? I never hear a story that goes like this: "I always knew that I wanted to be in marketing. There was never any doubt in my mind. All through elementary school, all I could do was daydream about marketing campaigns and working on a company’s overall strategic vision. While other kids were outside playing, I was busy drawing up logos for imaginary companies. In high school, I started the marketing club and could not wait until our economics teacher touched—ever so slightly—on the topic of marketing. Right after high school graduation, I interned at an advertising agency and could not wait to pursue my MBA with a focus on marketing."
My point? Very few people set out in life to be the people that they have become. Even fewer know that they’re going to be in one specific industry from a very young age. The most successful and interesting entrepreneurs and businesspeople don’t have a very linear career path. In fact, it’s actually very squiggly. Always bear that in mind. Embrace the squiggle.
Accept it: There is no gold watch in your future.
Here’s the thing: People want guarantees. If I go to school and get a degree, I get a well-paying job, right? If I work hard my whole life, I’ll have a pension, right? If I do everything my boss tells me to do, I’ll get that promotion, right? I’ve been fortunate enough to have met some of the most fascinating musicians, artists, thinkers, authors, business leaders, and politicians around. I don’t take that gift for granted. If there’s one thing that has become abundantly clear to me, it’s that the most successful people I know have very squiggly careers. No linear paths and no constant and consistent ascents. It’s been bumpy, weird, strange, funky, and all-around fascinating.
What about you?
Do you find yourself stuck in thinking that it’s time to "adapt or die"? There are days when it is the soundtrack of my life—and then there are days when I shake my head at the connotations. You see, it’s easy to be an armchair quarterback and say that the newspaper industry, the music industry, the book publishing industry, the retail industry, a traditional advertising agency…and almost every other industry should adapt or die. We live in interesting times (to steal a turn of phrase from the ancient Chinese curse), but it’s not so easy to "adapt or die"—especially when it comes to our own careers. Are we supposed to go back to university or trade school?
The challenge for you and your career is to not remain stuck in the past and to not get too comfortable with how things are today. Is it time to take chances? Absolutely. Is it time to blow everything up and start over? Maybe for some, but not for many. Is it time to kill even the profitable business units because you know there’s no future there? That’s a very tough call. Regardless of what we—as business owners and employees—are capable of, there are bigger forces at play: technology, connectivity, mobility, analytics, data, creativity, commerce, publishing, and more that will continue to reshape and change how we do business. So, where does this leave you and your career? Do you adapt or die? Maybe it’s more like tweak, iterate, and get comfortable with the squiggle as this purgatory unfolds.
Lost in adaptation.
You will have to adapt to a world where your career can (and should) get squiggly. You wind up seeing, reading, and listening to a lot of content (both online and in traditional publications) that speaks to the coming years and what businesses should expect in terms of disruptions, predictions, new channels, and shinier and brighter objects. It’s almost easier to say that everything we have known about business continues to change and that the only constant in our lives will be change. Fine. Dandy. Now what? The true adaptation for you (and your business) will not be about how smart you are with your marketing or whether or not you’re doing clever things in spaces like Twitter or Facebook. True adaptation will come from how well you can get over what I call "the lazy" and move to a place where squiggly becomes your friend.
This doesn’t mean that you have to suddenly change your ways. Just know and understand why these people are the way they are. It’s also important to think deeply about your own definition of the word career. This isn’t a generational issue, but one based on the reality of business as we know it today. Is there really a need for you to be sitting behind a desk—day in and day out—doing the job that you’re currently doing? Or is there a way for your career to better balance your interests, attention span, and what needs to get done for some breakthrough work to come through?
Indeed, start looking at the most interesting people you know…the ones who have had true success (by your own definition) with the work that they do. The one component that the majority of them will have in common is a very squiggly career (with a dash of incompatibility). Start getting squiggly.