Waiting for a Career Path? DIY!

Throw away “career path” and build your career plan.

Many employees still expect their organizations to provide a “career path.” This is evident from the mediocre marks that leaders receive regarding career development on employee surveys. As an executive coach, I’m often asked by senior executives how they can improve those results.

I start by challenging the outdated assumption that career path definition is somehow up to the employer or boss.

Even though some jobs come with promotion potential, we are now in the design your own career era.  Why?   Bonds between employers and employees are far looser than they were in the past, due to workforce management (e.g., using headcount for cost control), frequent organizational change, shorter employee tenures, and more virtual and flexible workplaces.  

Excellent careers are created by each individual and are not the organization’s or boss’ job to design.

I tell my clients that the way to fix their survey results is to be excellent and proactive career coaches; I ask them if they have recently discussed career plans with each of their people.  After all, the employees you most want to retain and promote are often thinking about their careers—and if you’re not talking to them about it, then you could lose them.

From the employee’s perspective, unfortunately, the above is the exception.  Most executives don’t proactively discuss career planning with their people, and you need to take that into account.

Your Career Is up to You—in All Cases

The savviest approach is to design, execute on, and evolve your own career plan and then bring that plan to a trusted person as a neutral sounding board. Here are considerations for doing that:

First, target career goodness and don’t settle for less:

  1. Target a role or organization that will energize you most of the time rather than deplete you. If you’re net-depleted on most days, make a change sooner rather than later.
  2. Target conditions (culture, mission, people, dollars, healthy work/life integration, etc.) that will enable you to do your best work on most days. Don’t stick around too long if the conditions are getting in the way.

Of course, no organization can know your heart as well as you do, not to mention what energizes you and what depletes you. Organize yourself around those factors because others won’t do it for you.

Next, consider that the best careers evolve by nonlinear change.

In her seminal book, “Lean In,” Cheryl Sandberg noted that, nowadays, a healthy career is a “jungle gym and not a ladder.” We move sideways, down, around, and up. If you don’t create your own path on the career jungle gym, others either won’t do it for you—or they will, and you may not like it.

Choose each job and organization to meet a career plan need.

In super-dynamic settings like startups and heavy-growth situations, you’ll find good opportunities to design your role and pick your boss, as well as experience unexpected changes and bumps along the way, which will test your agility in career planning. Or, you may want to use a career stint in a more static organization to get one specific experience, such as round out a specific skill. Again, that should be part of your dynamically evolving career plan.

And please, don’t take a job based on a promise for something more later

Get the job you want and the money you need on day one rather than in a promise for later. Too often we take a job bundled with a promise, as in, “I know you’re perfect for that other job, but we just need to get you in, and we should be able to promote you within the first year.” Unless this is an irrevocable agreement in an employment contract subject to no other conditions—and even then I worry—then it’s nothing more than a good intention, an idea, a theory, and certainly not a commitment.

Finally, develop and evolve your career plan.

As this post implies, I’m not going to hand you a template. Roll your own. DIY. Make it one page. Do a vision board. Whatever works for you. Then when you’re happy with it, look at it daily.

Consider your road map to achieve the conditions discussed above and monitor whether or not you’re energized and doing your best work on most days to check where you are, make changes, and evolve that road map regularly.

The headline of your career plan should always be your sense of highest purpose in your work, such as “making a positive difference in the world” or “providing for my family in ways that allow me to be a healthy and happy member of that family”—or whatever it may be for you.

  • Pick excellent bosses rather than put up with bad ones.
  • Get the job and money on day one.
  • Pick your organization carefully for its culture and level of dynamic change that’s right for you at this time in your career.

If you need help, find someone in your world—and I hope your leader is that coach to you—to do a sanity check on your plan. Feedback will help enhance it.

May you and your plan continue to evolve!


David Peck is Partner, and the US Lead for Executive Coaching at Heidrick Consulting. He’s been published extensively and is the author of Beyond Effective. Twitter: @coachdavidpeck

Forget Resolutions: 5 Pro-Tools to Maximize Your Year

Check out these three quick questions about your last year:

1)   Were you net/net energized or depleted by your work most of the time?

2)   Did you do the best work of your career?

3)   Did you get the results you most wanted to achieve?

If you answered “no” to any of the above, try these exercises:

First, set your work standards, if you don’t already have them

When I was deciding what to do next in my work life back in 2003, I set three standards for whatever I would choose: 1) I would only do work I found energizing rather than depleting on most days, 2) I would just do something that I would continue doing even if I won a lottery, and 3) I would wake up most days thinking, “I can’t believe I get paid to do this.” Friends and family were puzzled. From their viewpoints, I was “giving up” a divisional COO job at a great financial services and technology company like Charles Schwab as the then-youngest member of the senior leadership team. I was told by many, “Only the lucky ones get to do work they love.” I rejected that view, and I am glad I did. While the road hasn’t been easy, for the last decade plus, my work life has consistently met those very standards.

It doesn’t need to be a matter of luck. It’s about setting and aiming for a specific and straightforward set of work standards that are unique to you. Use them to filter opportunities and changes in your professional life. Don’t stop short of achieving them. If you haven’t created a simple set of standards, then 2019 is your time to do that, and keep at it until they are clear and they become your reality. If you don’t do this, then being in the best situation for you to be at your best and achieve meaningful results will indeed have to come from sheer luck.

Next, begin this year with the end in mind and set “retroactive” goals

Fast forward your mental calendar to this time next year and imagine you’ve had your best year ever in 2019. You’ve achieved everything you wanted to do. Congrats! Now picture that energized, satisfied future version of you who had that great 2019.

Through a mental miracle, that version of you time-travels “back” to visit the “present-you.” You can even set up an empty chair in front of you and imagine future-you sitting there. What would you want to know? What would you ask, and what would future-you say? What made their year so great? How did they do that? Record the questions you asked future-you, and the answers you imagined them giving you. Put your notes away for a day or two. Pull them out. What do you notice? How does that inform you?

Finally, identify the “so what/now what” from this exercise. To begin 2019 with the successful end of 2019 in mind, what does that success look like, and what will that require of you? Make a list of not more than three goals that reflect your highest priorities.

Incorporate three key takeaways and three leave-behinds from last year in your plan for this year

Make two lists to go with your goals:

a) What are your three most important takeaways from 2018—the things you learned, did well, loved, or appreciated, that you’d like to invite to the party and incorporate into this year?

b) What are your three most essential leave-behinds from last year—the things you’d like to tell, “thank you for your service, you are dismissed” from this year?

Monitor/manage and debug self-defeating mindset glitches

Mindset glitches are your thoughts and ideas that deplete your own energy or cause you to be unhappy. It’s what you tell yourself (and how you say those things in your mind) that undermine what you hope to accomplish, devalue you, cause you to be overly critical, “less than” others, too perfect (unattainable), a “fraud,” or otherwise not what you want to be.

You need to carefully monitor and manage what you tell yourself about yourself and about what you’ve done and haven’t done. Highlight your patterns of thinking or self-talk that get in your way, including, for example, undermining, self-marginalizing, self-devaluing, or overly self-critical thinking.  When you catch yourself being less than positive and supportive, correct it by giving those patterns the rest of the day off. As I say to some clients, “Just dismiss the itty-bitty-s*tty-committee in your head.” Practice it every day. These thoughts become less and less powerful as you gain more and more real-time ability to notice and dismiss them. Eventually, they fade away.

Understand what you’re hanging on to: “Despite or Because of”

Sometimes my coaching clients say, “I’m successful because I’m a perfectionist, even if that gets me in trouble every so often,” or “I’m successful because I tell my people what to do and how to do it, even if they whine about it at times.” We are successful because of some things and despite others. In these cases I challenge clients to consider the notion that they are successful because of their smarts, experience, drive, and focus, and despite these behaviors.

If you had to make a list of things others might consider to be negative, yet you would say they are part of your “because of” list rather than your “despite” list, then what would you move from one to the other? So how do you want to incorporate that into this year?

Finally, create a daily reminder and practice

Take the results of the five exercises above and turn them into a note on your phone or one-pager taped to the wall in front of you. Anything that you can look at every day of 2019. Not more than three goals at the top and the rest are practices. Share them with someone you trust and revise them if they have useful feedback or suggestions for you.

Read your goals every morning, and pick one practice to try every day. 

I hope that you will be energized, do your best work, and achieve the results you find most rewarding in 2019, and every year after that. Keep this exercise in your pocket for future years too!


David Peck is a Partner and US Lead for Executive Coaching at Heidrick Consulting. He’s been published extensively and is the author of Beyond Effective. Twitter: @coachdavidpeck

Hostile Boss, Hostile Workplace: A Recipe for Positive Change

With the strong focus and support, an overly sharp-edged manager can indeed make modest changes that, over time, will considerably improve their impact on others.  I’ve experienced this with my clients, and it’s inspiring.

So-called nightmare bosses are much more common than any of us would hope. We all know or have worked with someone who’s overly critical or angry and generates stress all around them.

Over the past 14 years, I’ve coached a number of executives and emerging leaders who fit this profile.  During anonymous, 360-degree interviews, which I usually conduct at the start of my client engagement, colleagues described these individuals as quite angry, hostile, and/or volatile, who tended to bring out the worst in others.  In several interviews I was told the clients were bullies whose behavior created a “hostile workplace.”

Bullying, sadly, is trending—in schools, on social media, and across the political landscape. It’s increasingly common to hear accusations that certain managers create hostile workplaces by acting like bullies, too.

Since concerns about bullying have become more prevalent, I wanted to educate myself in the relevant legal perspective.  For that I turned to Mark Romeo, a Labor and Employment Law Partner at Crowell & Moring LLP.

“Being a mean manager doesn’t in itself create what is sometimes referred to legally as a ‘hostile work environment.’ In fact, while no one likes a hostile boss, unless you can show that negative, inappropriate or unwanted behavior is based on certain protected characteristics (for example, race, disability or gender) then the claim of a hostile work environment due to harsh or angry behavior is unlikely to be legally actionable.’” –Attorney Mark Romeo

Even so, hostile and/or bullying behavior significantly impacts people and organizations, whether the culprit is managing two people in a small firm or sitting on the Board of a Fortune 50. “You need a whole cleaning crew to mop up the messes they leave behind,” said one CEO.  Ultimately, bullying managers cause the performance of the team or organization to suffer, by eroding morale, increasing turnover, and even challenging cultural sustainability.  Some affected by bullying remain, and may clam up and vent privately, trying to “cope.” In general, those who stick around pay a hefty personal and professional price in stress, health issues, and loss of self-respect.

Often, the perpetually critical or angry manager or exec is a true believer in their harsh approach. For example, in interviews with their colleagues, I will hear, “He knows full well what he’s doing, and he believes it’s the way to get the best out of others.” Some bullying bosses may have had some psychological pain, trauma, or difficulty in their own personal or professional lives that has hardened them toward others. In both situations, it’s quite unlikely that their behavior will change without significant intervention, and if you work for or with them, you need to factor that reality into your career plan.

When Is this Behavior “Fixable”?

There’s another potential explanation behind overly angry or sharp-edged behavior: the existence of a blind spot around how one’s communication and actions impact others. This is much more prevalent.  I’ve coached several clients who fit this category. Their aggressive or sharp-edged behavior can either be part of a long-standing blind spot, or stem from a temporary condition due to stress or other circumstances. Discussing a specific example with a client who tended to lash out and send fiery emails, she told me, “I had every right to be angry with them!” Perhaps. But what she didn’t realize, and what was in her blind spot, were several important facts:

  • This reaction was a pattern for her. When we see this behavior once, we can expect it has been and will be repeated: she tended to lash out or process her anger or frustration in email or IM “nastygrams.”
  • When a senior leader repeatedly expresses frustration in person or electronically, it can destabilize an organization, shatter morale, and make people stop communicating the most important things its leaders need to know. It can also cause passive-aggressive retaliation on the part of those impacted.
  • She’s absolutely entitled to her feelings. But if she wanted to achieve sustained, effective leadership (which she did), it’s her job to process those feelings in a self-contained manner. Then, after the reactive sting wears off, she could decide calmly what communication, delivered in what way(s), would be most effective. My suggestion: generally, voice-to-voice, one-on-one, kindly, and privately.
  • When we react to something by taking action toward others in anger, we are not making a good leadership choice, nor are we operating at our smartest. I appreciate that one colleague said, “When you’re reacting angrily, your IQ drops 30 points.”

So…How Can Mean Managers Change Behavior?

Subtracting the unwanted behavior starts with the person’s awareness and genuine desire to change.  If a mean management approach is not her or his deliberate choice, but instead unintentional, then it’s also crucial that they get the right help and support. It takes patience too.  With the proper focus he or she can indeed make modest changes that, over time, can considerably improve their impact on others.  I’ve experienced this with my clients, and it’s inspiring.

As the saying goes, it “ain’t easy.”  Here’s how it works:

  1. Usually expertly-collected and analyzed interview-based anonymous 360-degree feedback from his or her colleagues is a good start. It shows them the impact they are having on others.  Also, this feedback can illuminate the patterns and triggers that cause them to flare up.
  2. A plan of action, including daily reminders in the form of practices or cheat sheets (I’ve also helped clients make mantras, wallpaper for phones and computers, wallet cards, etc.) to keep the desired behaviors, along with triggers, top of mind.
  3. Help with accountability from a coach, colleague, mentor, or friend.
  4. Clarity about how he or she will handle mistakes or slip-ups.
  5. A mechanism to do reality checks on progress and track change, that may, for example, include follow up 360-degree assessments after a reasonable amount of time has passed. Tracking progress, collecting follow-up feedback and suggestions, and making adjustments, as needed, are essential practices.

The strongest factors leading to success are his or her capacity for and commitment to change.  The winning recipe isn’t a cookie-cutter approach; it’s whatever fits that specific person.  Coaching can be a crucial tool. Other solutions can include counseling, mentoring, and friendships. Meditation, physical exercise, music, hobbies, and even reading or studies can act as enablers for change.  Those ingredients, individually or mixed, can provide a developmental roadmap that fits the person—and can make a huge difference in an individual’s ability to achieve and sustain a less reactive and more powerful and positive approach to management.


David Peck is a Partner and US Lead for Executive Coaching at Heidrick Consulting. He’s been published extensively and is the author of Beyond Effective. Twitter: @coachdavidpeck

Special thanks to Eileen Harrington and Mark Romeo for their invaluable contributions to this piece.

Leadership Challenge: Finding Common Ground

Never has the American ethos been more conflicted. More voices are transmitting strongly-held one-sided views via all forms of media. It seems the artful practice of finding common ground among differing ideas is some kind of dream of a more courteous past.

However, leaders in particular, and colleagues in general don’t have the luxury to dig in or to stop listening in a tough conflict, particularly when effectiveness is at stake.

Most of us don’t like having a conflict or disagreement with a colleague. While debate, skepticism, and taking the “devil’s advocate” position may be signs of a healthy dialogue, this challenge relates to situations where there may be a conflict or differing views that seem–if not irreconcilable–beyond your current capacity to resolve.

If you find yourself in this situation this Fall, I challenge you to ask yourself as many of the following questions as you can:

1. How do the facts (rather than the feelings or delivery) of his/her view truly differ from my own?

2. What does this issue, or the overall situation, look like from his/her viewpoint that has them convinced they’re right and/or I’m wrong?

3. What’s the elephant in the room? What’s not being said or addressed here that’s contributing to our lack of progress on this issue?

4. What, if any, sacred cows do I need to let go of in the interest of finding common ground?

5. Beyond this immediate issue, what’s the bigger picture here, that if we can address that, will help with this particular issue?

6. What, if anything, would need to happen for me to change my point of view?

7. If we find common ground, what will my ego need to let go of?

8. What am I therefore willing to do differently right now to find common ground?


David Peck is a Partner and US Lead for Executive Coaching at Heidrick Consulting. He’s been published extensively and is the author of Beyond Effective. Twitter: @coachdavidpeck

The Leadership Workout

Whether you’re into the gym, yoga, running or just walking the dog—you try to keep yourself fit, so why not work out your leadership “muscles” too?

While coaching executives and aspiring leaders over a decade and a half, I’ve put together this workout of 15 quick exercises that can help you strengthen your leadership skills no matter what situation you and your organization may be facing.

For each of the following exercise, take a look in the mirror and reflect on:

a) How you handle it now
b) What’s working and not working
c) How you want to enhance your approach going forward

Then practice:

1. Spread your vision, strategy, roadmap and your “why”: Make sure everyone responsible for your organization’s success understands your vision and strategy, knows the roadmap to get there, and “gets” why and for whom the world will be better if your vision is achieved. If your people are vague on any of these elements, they won’t be able and/or inspired to do their best work.

2. Appreciate collaboration: Value and reward your people’s excellence when they deliver results and when they collaborate with colleagues and “have each others’ backs.” Expecting and rewarding both results and relationships make a more sustainable organization.

3. Accelerate new ideas: Measure, monitor, and decrease the amount of resistance in your organization to implementing a good idea. Diminish the amount of time, number of steps, or non-value-added activity it takes to execute new projects. This “drag coefficient” exists in all organizations of two or more people, and lessening it is an ongoing way to maintain a strong flow of good leadership.

4. Delegate authority: Delegating with context and clear expectations makes you and your team scalable. If you’re a founder, perfectionist or do-it-yourselfer, you may need to work extra hard to guide others to do their best for you, rather than do things “your way” (or worse) yourself.

5. Weed out chronic underperformers: Give all reasonable feedback, candor, and support to your people to help them succeed. With that, when someone continues to underperform, help them move on. Hanging on for too long is a common and avoidable leadership error.

6. Be accountable: Modest failures are inevitable, particularly when innovating. It’s important not to hide from them or shift blame, but to claim and transcend them, and to encourage the same from your team.

7. Encourage innovation: Innovation isn’t in a book, method, process, or workshop. It’s in your imagination, as well as your courage to challenge the status quo. Push yourself and your team to do, build, or be something novel.

8. Build for sustainability: Making positive (and not negative) impact on people, communities, economies, and natural resources is a sustainable way to lead.

9. Reduce avoidance: Noticing what you’re avoiding or when you’re procrastinating is an underused source of self-correcting leadership. Periodically make a list of these things, and look for a pattern. (And don’t put it off!) You will likely encounter an important insight.

10. Create a culture of candor: Candid feedback given and received is the breakfast of champions. Be candid with others, and ask the same for yourself. Honesty is the key ingredient for sustaining success when things are going well, and the fuel for change when things are in trouble.

11. Open your mind by opening your ears
: Positional authority—like that of a leader—can shut people down, and make them less likely to share ideas and suggestions. Give people permission to share their thoughts and questions. In fact, the most junior people, who are often the ones doing the actual work, can often see most clearly things that need change. Make it easy for them to connect to you.

12. Monitor yourself and read the room: Launch your self-observer drone in every interaction and meeting, and keep an eye on how you are coming across. Tailor your communication to your audience, and monitor your “transmit-to-receive” ratio. In other words, how much are you talking versus listening? It’s good to follow the 80/20 rule–80 percent asking or listening and 20 percent talking. Even if you are at 50/50, you’re talking too much to lead effectively.

13. Move the timeline to the productive future: Shift unproductive conversations into the future so that they can lead to useful solutions. “This is an important discussion, and what are we going to do moving forward?” is a great way to turn a frustrating go-nowhere discussion into a valuable outcome.

14. Carve out you-time: If your calendar is booked morning until evening every day, and you don’t have process time to yourself, then you’re not leading effectively and sustainably. I ask my clients to block a few hours a few times a week, or 30 minutes per day, during which they’re not returning emails, texting, or doing phone calls. Simply sit and think, and maybe make a few notes.

15. Identify and retain the “keepers:” People on your team who “care” are worth their weight in gold. Hire and retain employees who are fired up and care deeply about their own work. Diligence and willingness to learn are harder to find, and, when absent, more valuable than experience and credentials.

As you consider these 15 sets of leadership “muscles,” think about your own team, enterprise, and leadership approach. What could use some additional workouts this week? This month? This year?


David Peck is a Partner and US Lead for Executive Coaching at Heidrick Consulting. He’s been published extensively and is the author of Beyond Effective. Twitter: @coachdavidpeck

Put Your People Center Stage

Have you ever pitched your team’s ideas to your board? Or to your colleagues? If so, you’re not alone. Leaders often choose to be the spokesperson for their people’s work without realizing that it comes at a cost—a failure to foster your team’s autonomy, learning, and engagement.

Instead, move your people from backstage to center stage and nurture their growth and confidence. Encourage them to present their own projects, ideas, and problems. Expose them liberally, even to “high stakes” audiences, and you help them strengthen their skills through direct experience and experiential learning. By being a more secure leader in this area, you end up with a stronger team and elevate everyone’s effectiveness, including your own.

Why leaders hog the spotlight—even inadvertently

It sounds so simple, yet many leaders still keep their team backstage, by holding onto some common mindsets:

  • I prove my value to the organization by presenting my team’s work.
  • These may be their ideas, but it’s my group. The buck stops with me.
  • If they present their own work, what’s my value?
  • I’d better present this project, especially since we’re presenting to [“high stakes” person or audience.”The stakes are too high to put my people on the line for their own work.
  • I want to protect my team from being attacked. That project is in trouble; I should take the heat.
  • If I let them present their own work, I will lose control.
  • I would present it better.

How do you go behind the scenes?

First, it’s helpful to identify and challenge your mindset; the one that’s keeping you (and not them) center stage, when the stakes are higher. What thinking or fear on your part holds this behavior in place? Is it on the list above, or do you have a different mindset?

Then with a desire to change, support, and plenty of practice, you can take some simple steps to change the behavior.

If you have a tendency to speak on behalf of your team, I challenge you to create more opportunities for them to speak for themselves. Invite them to senior meetings you attend, and be watchful and supportive. Provide kind, necessary, behavioral feedback privately afterward.

In short, give them the freedom to do well, or, if needed, fail small, learn from it, and build skills for the next time.

By sharing, or even giving, the spotlight to your team, you become more of a participant. You may be pleasantly surprised—once you start gaining experience spotlighting your people, you‘ll probably want more of it. Most executives do. Not only will your team grow and evolve, but you’ll also receive greater respect and more engagement given what they can do and how you’re leading them.


David Peck is a Partner and US Lead for Executive Coaching at Heidrick Consulting. He’s been published extensively and is the author of Beyond Effective. Twitter: @coachdavidpeck

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