Editor’s Question: What’s the best career advice you have been given?

Editor’s Question: What’s the best career advice you have been given?

In days gone by, careers advice at school wasn’t always an inspirational chat. More often than not, it was a tick box exercise and pupils would be left holding a piece of paper with a random job scribbled on it which didn’t align with their interests or skills. Careers advice at school is a difficult one to get right. But what about in the world of work? We asked four experts what inspirational words inspired them in their careers.

Paul Drew, MD and Founder, from apprenticeship provider, Apprentify Group, said: “Never stop learning and developing. We live in a world where the only constant is change. Working in the learning and development space, we try to coach people into the lifelong learning mindset. That’s the best way to stay relevant and give yourself a good chance of success. Also, never stop running. In a physical sense, I learned this through football. I hung up my boots at 28, thinking I could always take up the sport again but that’s just not going to happen. So, I try to keep ‘running’ in terms of learning new skills, meeting new people and understanding different perspectives.

“There are never enough hours in the day, so you have to invest your personal time in learning by attending industry seminars and conferences. I prefer to attend in person where I can, because you can rapidly absorb the experience of others in the informal conversations at events. Fortunately, these days there are so many virtual events and learning programmes that you can attend in your own time when work isn’t quite so hectic.

“Having been reasonably successful in my early career with a steady job that was well within my comfort zone, it would have tempting to sit back and just carry on doing the same thing day in, day out. But by adopting the continuous learning mindset, I was able to think about new opportunities and spot new gaps in the market where my new skills – and I mean both technical and soft skills – could give me an advantage.

“And learning is infectious. Once I moved into the L&D world, I found far greater job satisfaction helping others to build their careers based on the much in demand skills like digital marketing and data analytics. It’s gratifying to see people of all ages and all backgrounds gaining the foundation skills that will not only equip them for their first job but give them that level of agility which is going to be so important in building a lifelong career journey.

“And learning can happen in the most unlikely places. You just need to have an open mind and most importantly the ability to listen. I have been fortunate to work with some fantastic mentors with decades of professional experience. People who have run multimillion pound businesses and have the scars to prove it but equally I can sit in on a session with 20-year-old apprentices and be amazed at what they can teach me about issues like inclusiveness and diversity, as well as giving me that burst of the enthusiasm of youth that we all need now and again, even if we cannot run the length of a football pitch any more.”

Jerome Lecat, CEO, Scality:

Trust yourself, but get a business coach to challenge your thinking. 

Coaching provides an open forum to talk about anything that’s going on in the business or your career. For me, it is invaluable to be able to freely exchange ideas and discuss all elements of the business with a ‘sparring partner’ who has extensive management experience. Getting an outside perspective enables you to see new ways to solve various challenges. And, very often, simply verbalising your thoughts on a matter leads you to a better understanding of the situation. 

Once-a-month meetings with my coach have helped me weigh my priorities, better manage my time, as well as prepare for – and come to peace with – difficult decisions. 

After I sold my first company back in 1997, my manager recommended I get a business coach. She explained to me that, at some point, the biggest limitation to the growth of my company would be me. Ever since, I have almost always had a coach. And, looking back, the years when I didn’t regularly sit down with a coach were not my greatest!

The coaching relationship and experience looks different for everyone. You might have to try a couple of different coaches before you find the right fit. But the effort is worth it. I strongly recommend that anyone in a management position find a coach.

Another form of coaching? Books. A number of books have guided me throughout my career, including Good to Great by Jim Collins, which is an indispensable resource that describes a number of leadership skills that every manager should master. Learning to Scale by Regis Medina and Grit, the Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth have also had a significant influence on me. And The Lean Turnaround by Art Byrne inspired me as we adapted to the pandemic crisis.

By contrast, the worst piece of career advice I ever received was to offload the management of a particularly critical area of the business because I was ‘incapable’ of doing it myself. I hired someone to fill my shoes in this capacity and, while seeking support was the right decision, I did not trust myself to monitor what they were doing closely. In hindsight, I handed over the reins more blindly than I should have, and the company almost failed as a result.

Over the years, I’ve learned that, of course, you have to lean on a team in order to succeed. But, at the end of the day (and sometimes in spite of well-intentioned advice) you have to rely on your own intuition.

Karl Breeze, CEO, Matrix Booking:

The best career advice I’ve come across is to explore many different things and don’t be scared to make mistakes along the way. It’s through making mistakes that we truly learn and grow. In fact, if someone hasn’t made any mistakes, it might mean they’re not trying hard enough or not being honest. So, embrace the learning journey and remember that mistakes are a natural part of it, especially in today’s evolving work landscape where the opportunities are endless.

The rise of hybrid and remote work has opened up a world of diverse learning experiences that were previously beyond imaginable. With no need to commute, finding the right job that offers the essential skills and experiences to drive us towards our dream roles has never been more accessible.

Speaking from my experience, I can confidently say that seizing the opportunities that came my way has led me to discover a career path that brings me joy. During the university holidays in my first year, I started to work as a software developer for a tiny software company that happened to be close to my parents’ house in the North East of England – I found them in the Yellow Pages!

Then in my third year, I needed to travel to Italy to install marine software that I had written on Ro-Ro ferries sailing between Italy and Greece – in the days before the Internet and when software could only be installed from floppy disks. The boats were about as unglamorous as software installations can get, but it gave me a very real sense of the sort of opportunities that could come from working in the IT/tech industry.

This has also taught me a valuable lesson for years later when I was aiming for a C-level position. Don’t be scared of taking on responsibility; in fact, go after it. Treat everyone fairly and with respect and accept that there will always be things you don’t know. That’s where continuous learning and having a growth mindset come into play.

It’s about seeing every opportunity as a chance to learn, stepping out of our comfort zones and embracing the unknown, even if it seems a bit scary at first. This is how we can ensure that our careers align with our true passions. Work then becomes an exciting journey where we can learn, develop and enjoy what we do. In the words of Mark Twain, if you ‘find a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life’.

Alaska May, Chief People Officer, Ontinue:

The best piece of career advice I’ve ever been given is to be hungry and stay hungry. For me, that means driving your career practically every day and having a growth mindset.

If something comes up in a board meeting or other workplace environment that you’re not clear or well-versed on, don’t be afraid to put your hand up and ask the why, what, how questions.  

For people in senior roles, this can be a daunting prospect as there’s sometimes a fear of ‘looking too junior’. But my advice would be to set aside any ego and stay humble. There’s always more to learn and being hungry is about constantly striving to add strings to your bow and books to your library.

In practice, this might look like a non-finance worker volunteering to work on a finance project, even if it’s outside their usual remit. Sometimes the best ideas and perspectives come from people working in different areas, so don’t feel like your experience won’t be valued or appreciated, in fact your work history and experiences are extremely powerful.

When you’re in-house, I think the best way to stay hungry is to consider what other opportunities there are within your company. Just because you are comfortable in a role, that doesn’t mean to say that you can’t continue planning for your own career success and development. Lateral career moves, while often daunting, can be extremely rewarding too, so take a look at the in-house career map.

It’s that constant curiosity and thirst for more that will propel you from one goal to the next. I’ve driven my career in that way. When I became an HR director, I didn’t settle – I’ll always ask myself, what’s the next step? 

In addition to looking for proactive ways to grow, make sure you take the time to reflect on lessons learned. Watch how people around you manoeuvre their way around a role, career, meetings – learn about different communication styles and how to work with colleagues. Reflect on and digest that information and then put it into practice.

It’s cliche to say, but each day is a lesson – especially when working with the next generation. Again, it’s easy when you’re more senior to get complacent, but working with the next generation, I’m constantly in awe of their creative ideas, savviness within tech and ways of thinking and working. So, stay open to learn, be open to change.

Phil Lewis, Senior VP of Solution Consulting at Infor:

Over the years, I’ve been on the receiving end of lots of words of wisdom in the workplace – some helpful, some not so much! Above all, there are two main pieces of advice that have stuck with me and continue to help me in my professional life.

Not unique to me, I’m sure, is the old adage of ‘lead by example’. In the early years of my career, I was lucky enough to have inspirational managers who did just this. One manager in particular really did lead by example, not only by being the best at all the practical parts of the job but by encouraging us to be our best selves too. There was almost a competitive element to it, as everyone in the team wanted to be as good as him and he too wanted us to be as good as we could be. He really did nurture our skills, not by saying ‘this is how you should do x, y and z’ but by giving us the confidence to build our own style of doing the job well. At the same time, it showed me what a good leader looked like, someone who inspires their team, truly leading by example whilst giving enough space to enable people to finely tune their own individual ways of working.

It was this start in my career that really did help me to progress, forging a career path where I’ve always tried to lead by example.

The second piece of advice came by way of a congratulations message when I was promoted to the role of vice president. A former manager of mine observed that, ‘now it stops being about what you do and becomes about who you are’, something that really resonated with me back then and continues to do so now. In my experience, once you become a manager of managers, how good you are at skills like presenting, reporting-writing etc. really does pale into insignificance when compared to how you communicate, how you manage and how you nurture your team.

That’s not to say that all the hard skills I’ve learned over the years don’t matter anymore, but it’s more about being a good listener, advice-giver and example-setter. It’s too easy for senior managers to fall into the trap of being people administrators, merely coordinating and overseeing the practical performance of their team members. Rather than talk about being able to ‘manage’ a team, we should be focusing on the ability to lead a team, leading by example and helping team members to develop their own skills and forge their own career paths, something that is evident in the great teams we have here at Infor. It’s this shift that explains the rise of the player/manager role, with managers demonstrating that no matter how senior they become, not only do they remember where they’ve come from, but recognise the role that good leadership played in their career trajectory, paying that forward by working hard to become a leader who truly inspires.

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