Monday, June 02, 2008

Avoiding Dead End Career Paths

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Last weekend I had a long phone conversation with a close friend of mine who is stuck in a career rut. This is someone I went to high-school with and when he called on Saturday to wish me a happy birthday (37 years old, thank you very much), we started talking about this and that and eventually ended up discussing his career conundrum.

This is someone who has a Computer Science degree from a respected school. He is a smart, dedicated worker, extremely talented and very nice to boot. An all round great guy. However, this is someone who for years has made one bad career move after another. I am not quite sure where it all started, but for the past five years it has been clear to me that my friend's career is not headed in the right direction. For the sake of clarity, by "right direction" I mean the direction my friend wants his career to go.

What went wrong? Well, I think it all started when my friend lost his job in a tough market and took a job that felt wrong to him, but would help pay the bills. The position was more or less a field service engineer for a sophisticated satellite communications system. What's wrong with that, you ask? Nothing. It was a well paying job with a good company. The only problem was that this position did not take my friend in the direction he wanted to go. The position led to two other well-paying, but similar positions in other respected companies. My friend really wants to land a product management position, but can't get anyone to give him a break. He feels pigeon-holed and at age 37 is about ready to hit the reset button on his career and take a low level programming position just to escape what he sees as a dead-end job.

So, once again, this time more deeply, what went wrong? In my mind, the main thing that went wrong is the fact that my friend did not have a well thought out career plan. If your ultimate career goal is to become a marketing executive, taking a job as a car mechanic is probably not the right path. Similarly, if you want to end up a reporter, you should probably not take a computer programming job. My friend wanted a product management job but took a starting position that typically leads to service and operations roles.

Sure there are exceptions to the rule, but generally speaking if you tell me what you are doing today, I will have a decent chance of guessing what you will be doing a few years down the line. Since my friend's goal was a product management position, he should never have taken a field engineering position, or if he had to do so due to economic circumstances, he should have continued looking for a new job. Alternatively, he could have taken the engineering position with a large company that has a reputation for assisting its employees to develop their careers and that offers job function mobility.

If you know your ultimate career goal, but are not sure what the path to get there might be, here are a few tips for finding out where you need to start:

(1) LinkedIn - LinkedIn is a great career research tool. Log in and search for people with the title that you aspire to. You will find some truly impressive people on that site, and many of them have their full career path laid out for you right there. Learn from those who have already walked the path.

(2) GigZig - this is essentially a career crystal ball. You type in your current or planned position, and the site spits out a list of some of the most likely positions you can expect to hold five years down the line. Alternatively. you can plug in your target position in five years, and the site will tell what position you should be looking for right now. Neat, no?

(3) Old Fashioned Talking - if you are serious about achieving your career goals, talk to some folks who currently hold your dream positions. Ask them how they got there. While you are at it, this is also a great networking opportunity. People love to talk about how they succeeded.

The best piece of career advice I can give you is this: always consider how the job you are about to accept positions you with respect to your long term career objectives. While it's OK to make some career detours (I've certainly made some of those, but more about that in a future post), always take such decisions in a deliberate and calculated manner, knowing full well that you are making a decision that may impact the course of your entire professional future. No pressure there... :-)


William said...

Once again, a great post. This is something I have been giving more and more thought to recently. I work for a large government consulting firm as a network engineer and feel like I may be in the same position as your friend. I'm 27 and while I like what I am doing, when I look around the office I see coworkers 15 - 20 years my senior doing the same type of work that I'm doing. I completed a masters in telecommunications a few years ago, but am considering going for an MBA with the hope that it will lead me in the right direction. The one thing that has been holding me back is that I'm not sure what what I want to do after the MBA, and getting an MBA just for the sake of it doesn't make much sense. I obviously have an interest in finance, but I'm not really sure at this point...

Shadox said...

Thanks, William.

An MBA is an excellent way to switch careers and place yourself on the desired career path. I should know. I used my MBA as an opportunity to switch from my legal career into a business career. I have never looked back.

I stongly recommend doing a lot of career research before you embark on the road to an MBA - there are many careers for which the only convenient and reasonable entry position is on campus MBA recruiting (investment banking and consulting are two prominent examples).

Your age is a great one at which to pursue an MBA. On the one hand, you have gained some business experience on the other, you career horizon is long enough to virtually guaratee ROI on your (big) investment.

If you are surrounded by folks with much longer tenures who are doing the same job as you, the writing is on the wall: you are in a career quagmire situation. If I were you I would start to think about some exit strategies.

I have previously written several posts about seeking an MBA - you may want to look them up to help you make up your mind on the subject.

Anonymous said...

a great post,felt as if it was intended to be written for someone like me. I am 23 and work for an IT company.I wanted to be a network engineer and was seriously considering options to pursue my masters in telecommunications.But at the same time,i sometimes deviate from this idea and seriously consider doing an MBA after working for a couple of years more,as you rightly pointed out on the ROI factor associated with the MBA.I am Very confused at this point,i see myself as a network engineer in the future and sometimes feel thats my goal,but also at the same time the money factor with an MBA lures me to go for it.Ive been having sleepless nights trying to resolve this conflict...

Anonymous said...

I recently graduated with my MBA (two years ago) and what did it get me with my employer? Envy, jelousy, abuse, and a transfer to a remote part of the company in a lower position. Even though it's not considered a demotion (have the same wage and title) that fact is that I am being shown the door.

God forbid that someone gets an education! Some tell me that because I have a higher education that I have become a threat to management!

But here's the kicker. Some of my fellow co-workers are willing to follow to someplace else if I become manager - enough employees to open an entire (small) office!

Shadox said...

Some organizations are like this, but none of the good ones.

I think you should take this as a your indication that it is time to find a better place with better prospects.

Congrats on the MBA, BTW. If it doesn't pay in your current company, it will pay off in the next.

Stuck-in-a-bad-place said...

I just wanted to say to Anonymous that I feel your pain. I have only an AS and BFA degree & my boss has neither. I dont THINK I know more than her, I actually DO. She's already a very insecure person & now thinks I'm better at what we do than she is, and as a result she is very threatened by me. It's been time to change jobs for a long time now, but I'm also afraid to change in case the new company I go to starts layoffs-I'd be the first one to go since I was the last one hired. I get really discouraged and find it hard not to just...settle - and be happy I still have a job. But, I'm certainly NOT happy.

Anonymous said...

Stuck-in-a-bad-place, the one thing you need to know is that you are no safer in the job where your boss feels threatened by you, than you would be as the new guy in a different company. If you're really unhappy, start looking, and take the next good job opportunity. But be sure to follow all the good advice about planning ahead first. Good luck