Career Progression – Be in the driving seat

Jun 12th, 2018


A goal without a plan is just a wish.

Antoine de St-Exupéry


As a new financial year begins, I have been working with several boards on strategic reviews to prepare their 5 to 10 year growth plans. One of the questions that comes up consistently is ‘How are we going to attract and retain our top talent?’ One company, having invested in a leadership programme for an emerging leader was disappointed and surprised to receive his resignation. What surprised me, I offered, was that they didn’t know he was unhappy. Had they been really close to their people and reviewed their progress short-term as well as linking this to their career aspirations, surely they would have known?  The gap between a company saying career development is vital to their success – the intention – and what they actually do about it – the behaviour – continues to loom large.

Which is why it was refreshing to hear this month a CEO of a global business explain to me how he has shaped his culture based on his values and belief – when he retires, he wants to be replaced by someone better. This belief is encouraged throughout the business so that young emerging leaders are given great opportunities to develop with their more experienced leaders. Every board member has a succession plan and is held accountable for developing their successor. This strive for excellence has nurtured an environment of extreme challenge for continual improvement with clear measures of success, and they balance that with exceptional investment to develop world-class people to equip them to deliver and grow.

To build excellence into your career and succession planning, first talk to the people you want to retain. This may sound obvious but countless organisations build a strategy without doing so. Ask your people: what is the best thing about working here? What would you like to change? What would make you want to stay and be part of this business for the next 5 to 10 years? And what would make you want to leave?    This is critical information that will form the foundation of your strategy.  Then put structures in place for regular conversations, such as monthly one-to-ones and quarterly business plan reviews which align performance progress with personal aspirations.

A client which until last year would admit to being somewhat haphazard in its career development approach, has taken this approach and has in just 12 months transformed itself. They recognised in our strategic review last year how critical career development was to its success, and committed to leveraging people’s strengths and put people in roles or on projects in which they excel, which transformed its practice. Doing our progress review this year, I felt I was in a different company.

In addition to these structures and processes, I am a strong advocate of mentoring programmes that deliver results to raise the visibility of emerging leaders. Expose them to strategic discussions they would not otherwise be privy to.  This includes in one case where they wanted to develop more women in senior roles by offering mentoring with senior, often male, colleagues to address unconscious bias.  Go one step further than ‘regular coffee and chat’ sessions to make the mentoring really effective by making the mentor accountable for key aspects of the persons career development.  In this way they take a personal interest in expanding their network, increasing their profile and introducing them to opportunities to stretch and grow.   The CEO client of the global company measures his leaders not only on their contribution to the board meeting but on the contribution their potential successors make in the strategy sessions to which they are invited.

What of your responsibility as an individual in driving your own career? Whether your company has highly developed career strategies or do you count yourself lucky to get one hour a year with your manager during the appraisal to discuss your aspirations.  What can you do as an individual? Take charge. Think of the time you spend on your own business growth plan. When was the last time you devoted that much reflection to your own career development?

I developed my Vision Intensive Programme  for this specific purpose – to help people find the answer to: What’s next? Whether you are a young manager with ambition, a mid-level executive faced with a number of paths, or a senior executive nearing retirement, creating and making those conscious choices at each stage of your career requires you to reflect deeply about what you want. The Vision Intensive programme enables people to get crystal clarity about what they want and to take meaningful action to get there.  Creating a clear plan involves three key stages:


Invest time to reflect

What do you love to do? What energises you?  A plan is based on clarity of your strengths and what brings you alive.  Think about success in all aspects of your life. Many people walk into the room for their Vision Day expecting to focus on career only, but are surprised to discover that making small tweaks in other areas of your life can have a major impact on fulfilling your wider aspirations. Based on a clear understanding of what you truly long for, you can identify your short-term, mid-term and long-term goals and emerge with exciting plans for both career, you personally and your family.


Have the courage and confidence to take action

As Mahatma Ghandi said, “The future depends on what you do today.”  Once you know what you want, express this aspiration. Even if your manager does not normally ask you about your goals, say: ‘I’d like to talk about my long-term opportunities.’  Let them know in advance so they can prepare –you will have a more significant conversation. Prepare thoroughly yourself for this important conversation. Make the business case for what you want to do, the benefits to your manager of your proposed action and adapt your approach to the style of the person you are talking to. Use the ‘Feed Forward’ method vs feedback to get specific tips and advice and ensure their commitment.  For example, ask “What advice would you give me to help me get closer to where I want to be?” If, like a client I recently worked with, your manager is offering vague promises of a promotion somewhere in the future, ask for specifics: “What do I need to do to get there and what would be the timing if I can achieve those things?”


Draw out a career plan even if there is no structure in the job

Once you have had the discussion, continue to drive the process by requesting a progress review every quarter so you know you are on track and they will acknowledge your ambition and commitment, and continue to seek their input and guidance.  Remember, excellence requires discipline. Physically write out your career map and your goals and actions in collaboration with your manager and others to make it happen and hold yourself accountable. I highly recommend sharing it with someone else as well as your manager who can support you – a friend, your partner, etc. Then review it constantly, hold your manager to the quarterly review and be prepared to adapt and evolve it.

I recently ran a Vision Intensive day with a female executive, a highly competent performer who had accepted more and more responsibility – but was now exhausted. She came to me searching for a way to get off the hamster wheel and find a new direction. But the key question was – to do what?  She had many options running through her head and as a result was frozen. It took only one day of focused, structured thinking in a beautiful off-site venue away from all distractions to find a path that energised and motivated her. We identified what she didn’t want as much as what she did want in both the short, mid and long term, and for herself, her career and her family. We then identified the meaningful action she could take to get to where she wanted to go. In our follow-up coaching six weeks later, I could hear the difference in her voice as she explained all the steps she had taken, the results of the conversation with her manager, and the new track she was building.

Once people have created their Vision Day plan, it is amazing what they attract. Clarity makes people grounded and this is conveyed in how they approach conversations and seek out opportunities.

The power of this clarity is best expressed in the words of a client following her Vision Intensive experience “Apart from the birth of my two children, the Vision Day was the most significant day of my life.” When both the company and the individual drive career development forward in sync, the impact on performance and fulfilment can be life changing.


For more information on our Vision Intensive Programme to answer your What’s Next? – contact Oona Collins at