10 career lessons to my 24 year old self

After just over 10 years working in corporate Learning & Development I’ve decided to take the leap and go out on my own. As an action-oriented person I’m not a natural reflector but this big change felt like a great opportunity to take stock. So, inspired by Baz Luhrmann’s song “Wear Sunscreen”, here’s the lessons I'd share with my 24 year old self. What would you add?

1. People will grow at their own pace.

You can’t force someone to learn something, or grow in a particular way at a particular time. I can barely do that with plants let alone people. So that means you (and your ego) need to get ok with not seeing the immediate impact of how you've led and coached others. In fact, the proverbial penny may only drop in five years’ time when you’re not there. Intellectually this is obvious but emotionally it’s a work in progress for me. So, just keep bringing your best and trusting the process.

2. Fix the root cause not the symptom.

So much of corporate life is “firefighting”, that is, focusing on the symptom and trying to fix it. So it’s no wonder that one of the top questions I get from managers and leaders is “How can I motivate my people?” Start by fixing the root cause of a problem otherwise your people are like Sisyphus pushing the stone uphill day after day and you’re simply at the sidelines cheering them on and waving a carrot they don’t want.

3. Meet people where they're at.

Matching emotions is a great way to connect. That means when someone is excited sharing their ideas, first find reasons to get excited with them rather than saying"that won't work because…". Equally, when someone expresses doubts, don't see it as a challenge to win them over. It’s their reality so meet their concerns with genuine curiosity and ask open questions to truly understand. You’ll either learn something about the project you’re working on, or you’ll learn something about what motivates them. Either way I’ve found it builds much stronger relationships.

4. Stop nesting and start acting.

My mum always says, “It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”, and I think this philosophy is a great inspiration to get out of my comfort zone and just try things. I've learnt that the best thing to do with an idea is to get out there and pilot it before the moment has passed (or the budget has been taken away). Worst case scenario it doesn't work as you'd planned but you can just call it an iteration of Design Thinking.

5. The corporate machine will keep turning with or without you.

Is it a human thing that we like to think of ourselves as indispensable? Everyone likes to be needed but no-one is indispensable. You will leave companies, you will be replaced and you will be forgotten. I've learnt to feel liberated, not rejected, by the reality that I'm not here to save everyone and that they will be just fine without me.

6. Respect your downtime.

Research shows that people who take all their annual leave are healthier and more productive than those who don't. So, be a much-needed role-model in this over-busy world and define your own boundaries. Book your holidays early and plan your projects around them. Make a decision about when to switch your phone off every night and stick to it. I’ve found that respecting my free time means other people respect it too. Plus, it keeps me motivated and productive. And as above, the machine will keep turning without you.

7. Plans are there to help not to handcuff.

As a completer finisher who loves a to-do list, I used to struggle with changing a plan saying things like, “Sorry guys, the ideas phase is over! It's the execution phase now.” Sometimes this approach is needed but most of the time flexibility is crucial because the world is constantly changing around us. It's been a battle but I have learnt to respect the plan but know when to deviate.

8. Define what career means to you.

I often coach people who are unhappy in their career and feel stuck. When this happens, bring it back to basics and ask yourself, what role do you want career to play in your life? Is your career about creating a series of broad experiences? Is it about depth in a particular area? How can you be happy now rather than attaching happiness to a conditional future state of “If I just get xx job I’ll be happy”? (Thanks Shawn Achor for that great TED talk!)

9. Start with unconditional positive regard.

I’ve met a lot of people that are suffering from “Corporate Paranoia”. This is when Stakeholder Management turns into Game of Thrones. They are convinced that others are out to sabotage their ideas, steal their budget or make them redundant, so work focuses on land-grabbing and self-promotion. If you’re viewing the world through this lens then I guarantee that all you will see is threat. And when your brain is in threat mode, it’s harder to be creative and add real value. Instead can you start with unconditional positive regard? Give people the benefit of the doubt that maybe they genuinely did forget to email you rather than intentionally excluded you. Almost everyone just wants to do a good job and in that sense we have #Moreincommon.

10. You are the culture.

I’ve found myself blaming a corporate culture for my unhappiness. And I hear it all the time from others too. But we are all the culture of a company. We make it through our conversations, actions and decisions. So what do yours say about you? What culture do you create around you? If you feel so disempowered to change the culture then it's time to move on to a place where you can.