Career advice

Yesterday I met an old friend for drinks, and after a couple of rounds of catching up with each other, he said: “I wonder if you could give some advice to my daughter: she landed a job with a major PR agency but she feels uneasy, as if she does not really have a clear career path”.

This question made me think of the many times someone said this to me in my agency days: in fact depending on the economic cycle, agency owners are either worried about having too many people for the clients they have or not having enough. Balance is elusive.

And it is also a fact of life that no other employee is more profitable to an agency than the Account Executive: they know the job, they need minimal supervision, they bring in the bulk of the revenue and they cost little. It is understandable that agency principals tend to keep Execs at this level as long as possible and often a little too much, with the results that the good ones flee.

So the advice for the management of the agency is obvious: talk to your people, try to gauge when they are really fed up and offer them new challenges (and a little financial incentive, of course).

But what advice could I give to a young Executive?

Thinking on my feet (and thinking of my own experience) I came up with a few words of advice, which I now share with the uncountable masses reading this blog:

  1. What do you like? “Communications” is far too generic a word for what we do. Crisis, media, change, consumer, digital, executive… The revenue shares which you can find in any association annual report don’t say anything, because the market will not buy every specialty in the same quantity, but who cares? All you want is to find someone willing to pay you to do what you like.
  2. What next? Whatever it is that you are doing now, it won’t last forever. At some point it will be challenged by competition, offshoring, automation or some other form of – ugh! – disruption. At some point it could and will disappear unless you are the lowest cost supplier, an uncomfortable position to be in. So you have to be thinking NOW about what you want to do NEXT: keep your ears to the ground, follow role models and what they are up to, read, read, read. The best situation is when you are earning your living with your current passion, but already have the next brewing up in yourself.
  3. What will you need to make your next passion happen? Do you have the skills and the experience that’s required for your next passion? This may be a foreign language, or some coaching by an expert. Volunteer to help teams that are doing it or use your free time to skill up.
  4. Retain the pleasure to learn. Learning something new is the sexiest adventure: you are changing yourself, after all. Six months ago you didn’t know anything about wine, now you are a certified sommelier. Learning means your brain is still in working condition (not so obvious, sadly), learning means you can always re-invent yourself.
  5. Boredom is a healthy signal, if you learn how to use it. When you are bored with your job it is usually a good time to set aside time (at least 10%, be deliberate) for scouting: what else could you be doing? What are doing the smart people you know? Attend conferences, listen to speeches, read articles, talk to people.
  6. Your network is your best asset. Inspiration must come from people you know and respect, which means you HAVE to cultivate your network while you don’t need it, because the validation and nurturing cannot be done while you are harvesting it for ideas and new opportunities.
  7. What makes you unique? Differentiation is key, so work on making yourself unique: the worst thing it can happen is that your job defines you, you become a sample in a category of a mass-manufactured product.
  8. Ask questions. I hate interviewing candidates, it feels so unfair to be judging anther human being on the basis of a 30 minutes interview. So when I could not delegate this task to someone else, I ended up doing much of the talking to see if candidate would interrupt me (they rarely did). But whether you are talking to your boss or to a recruiter, don’t be afraid of asking questions: “This is what I would like to do, can you offer me that?”

Employers designing career paths are a joke: all they can design – if they’re really smart – is profit maximising schemes of which you will be a part. The opposite is true, though: companies can be part of the career path YOU design for yourself.


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