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I start by challenging the outdated assumption that career path definition is somehow up to the employer or boss.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

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.

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