I’m a planner – I love notebooks, lists and organising things way in advance. I can tell you where I am going on holiday up to this time next year – I like to have a plan.
So, as a planner, you would expect that I would be similarly keen on planning my career. But in fact, when I thought about it, I realised that my career was something I have never really planned at all. I remember on my Management Training scheme 25 years ago being asked to participate in a video about future destinations, and being asked where I saw myself in five years, ‘did I think I would be on my way to being a Chief Executive?’ To which I remember laughing and saying I had no idea what I would be doing in five years. I thought the question was a joke – how can any 23-year-old know what the next five years of their career will look like (needless to say, I didn’t make the cut of the final video).
If I had been older and had more time in the interview, I would have been better at explaining the lessons that have shaped my own career journey and given a more thoughtful response on why trying to look five years ahead in career terms is not only impossible, but not something I would be interested in doing.
The first of those lessons comes from my childhood. I have a clear childhood memory of watching the athlete Paula Radcliffe in her early career. For a number of years, she always seemed to miss out on the medal she wanted, there was always a heart-breaking image of her sitting disappointed by the side of the track on the news and it was impossible not to feel sympathy for her. Then, one day, she entered the London Marathon and won, with the second fastest women’s time in a marathon in history – I remember thinking so clearly at the time that she had been running the wrong race and realising that part of achieving whatever you want in life is about finding the right race to run for yourself.
I started my career in Communications – it wasn’t my race. It took a good three years to acknowledge that this wasn’t something I was ‘good’ at or really found satisfying. Looking back now, I am really grateful to have been so unsuccessful at it, but at the time it felt horrible.
Running your own race doesn’t just apply to the area you work in; it can apply to the work you do and the way you do it – all of these things are choices. As a co-founder at PPL, it took us some time to find the race we wanted to run in our world of consultancy. The decision to focus on social purpose, to become a social enterprise, to prioritise sharing what we have developed as generously as we can is not simply one we took to do something that felt ‘right’, but, most importantly, was one that felt right to us as founders and leaders – this is the race we want to be in, this is what gets us out of bed in the morning, this is what makes us proud. It will be different for every individual, but to carve out the space to ask yourself ‘what race do I want to run, what do I think I would enjoy, what would make ME happy?’ is the best gift you can give yourself in understanding what you want to DO with your time and your talent.
The second lesson is one from my Dad – he firmly believes, and has always taught me, that life is about balance – he describes a pie cut into three slices – one for yourself, one for friends and family and one for your professional world, and that the key challenge for all of us is to keep those three slices as much in balance as we can. It’s good advice. It is hard to maintain balance, and we all get it wrong at different stages in life, but this aspiration has also shaped the choices I make for myself, and the choices I support those around me to make. Work should, at its best, be a space for positive achievement – it is often (ironically) easier to achieve things at work than in the messy complexity of our personal and family lives, but I firmly believe that it is not fair on the work to ask it to be our personal answer. For me, I have always tried to integrate my work into my broader sense of self. I value the sense of achievement from supporting our team and clients to achieve the amazing things I know they are capable of; I am really lucky through my non-exec work to be part of other organisations’ journeys and to be able to offer guidance and support to them to achieve their own objectives but, for me, my career can never be who I ‘am’, instead it is one of the many things that I ‘do’.
Going back to that initial question, it’s the reason why titles have never really interested me in the same way as interesting work and great colleagues. My career is what I do in that third of the pie that I assign to it and I want to make sure that what I am doing with that precious time feels valuable to me, and that I can see the difference it is making. It is as important as the other two parts, but not more important than either of them. Keeping those areas in balance is something I see as my own responsibility but, as a leader, I am committed to modelling the balance I expect others to enjoy. I believe passionately that we have the gift of time to be able to enjoy life, and that a rich life fills those precious hours with all kinds of things, including valuable and purposeful work but not excluding everything else.
My final reflection on careers is one I remember reading in a magazine when my own children were small – I wish I could remember where I read this as it has had such a big effect on me, but sadly I can’t – probably a symptom of the sleep-deprived era in which I read it! Someone (very wisely) wrote that she wished someone had told her that her career would be long, but the time her children were small would be short. Three, four, five years is the blink of an eye in a 40, 50-year career, but feels like a mountain at the time. I realised that she was absolutely right and it completely changed my understanding of both that period in my own career, but also all the other life events that pop up for all of us – looming large in our daily lives but, when you take a step back, simply moments in a career of several decades. Perspective is so key – none of this is a race; the one thing we have is time and the ability to choose how we spend the time we have and ‘bridging’ between episodes of life and episodes of career focus should, for me, be part of one long and hopefully enriching journey, not things that are in competition.
All of this, I hope, explains why I have never had a career plan, but also that not having a plan doesn’t mean I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my career. And that is the main point. Having a strict plan and working to it takes away the space to keep asking the difficult questions about what makes us happy, what makes us feel fulfilled, what helps to create a valuable life in the time we have. The answers to all these questions will be personal and unique – I can’t advise anyone on their own answers any more than anyone would be able to do the same for me. What I can do, after trying to develop and grow professionally for 25 years and with (hopefully) another long stretch ahead of me is to say that the best gift we can give ourselves is to keep asking these questions and to keep making positive choices with the answers. As employers, we should celebrate the journeys of self-awareness and development that our colleagues are on, rather than competing with them. If we ask people to give to their work what they can, we will see their best work and they will experience the space (and responsibility) to grow through using all their time in ways that are enriching.
My final point is, as ever, that good work happens when people work together – my career has also been shaped by my fellow travellers; the choices I make are influenced by the connections and colleagues to which they lead me, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I want to spend my professional time with people who excite me, stimulate me, who make me laugh, who I respect and who respect me.
Your career is a journey, not a plan, and having a sense of what direction you are heading in, making active choices about the way you travel and who you travel with is the best way I have found to make sure that it is something that feels enjoyable and purposeful, rather than as if you are running someone else’s race.