Golden Years

This week I turned 60, which in the Chinese Zodiac means this is my Golden Year (I’m a Metal Rat, to be precise). Despite the global pandemic, and the challenges of having spent the best part of the last 7 months in Melbourne lock-down, I would say that this year I have been more fortunate than many others. For which I am grateful.

Golden Years – Image sourced from Discogs

But with more time for reflection on what this milestone might signify, I have been thinking about the circumstances in which I find myself – whether it’s true that “60 is the new 40”, or is it all downhill from here?

My own father left full-time employment before he was 60. And although he had planned to do some part-time consulting work in his semi-retirement, he ended up volunteering for numerous not-for-profit organisations, for the next 25 years. This included lengthy stints serving on various boards and committees, at times almost a full-time job in itself. I’m sure he found this work to be fulfilling and rewarding, alongside his U3A classes and other social activities, but I’m not certain it’s how he intended to spend his retirement. It seems like he fell into this type of role, and since he was good at it, people kept asking him to do more, and he couldn’t always say no.

On the other hand, my paternal grandfather, who ran a small building company, died before he was 50, so I never knew him. While my maternal grandfather had an erratic employment history (not helped by the 1930s depression and war-time disruption), and was still working in manual jobs until he passed away in his late 60s.

I left my last corporate job when I was 50. At first, I thought I would look for a new full-time role, but the combination of the fall-out from the GFC and an implicit age barrier made that less likely the longer I looked. Some of the job interviews I attended revealed a significant prejudice towards older candidates: either their experience represented a threat to incumbents; or their past seniority meant they were unlikely to be hands-on, and/or less adaptable to new technology and new working practices.

Realising I was heading into self-employment (comprising part-time, contract, temporary, casual, freelance and consulting roles) I decided to reorganise my affairs, in order to sustain this new lifestyle. A key reason for seeking another full-time corporate gig would have been to service my mortgage, which didn’t really make sense. I was fortunate that I was able to restructure my finances, and effectively live debt-free. This gave me the flexibility to do some retraining, and to venture into the start-up world, which is where I was able to apply my skills and experience more creatively than in a corporate environment. This is how I came to encounter new technology and new opportunities in the form of FinTech, Blockchain and Cryptocurrency. And the rest is history (thus far…)

I appreciate that not everyone has the same opportunities; and working in disruptive industries or joining a start-up is not for everyone, either. But I also know that if I hadn’t made similar or significant career changes (and personal choices) over the past 35 years, I wouldn’t be in a position to be enjoying a golden period of my life right now.

Next week: Startmate Virtual Demo Day

“How do I become a business strategist?”

I was recently asked for some career advice, specifically on how to move from a technical role to a more business strategy role, within a corporate environment. Like a lot of the questions I receive regarding career development (especially on LinkedIn….), the initial question was quite broad, a little bit vague, so I needed to frame it before responding.

At the outset, I should stress that I am neither a qualified career counselor (although I have done some related coaching work), nor an organisational behaviorist/industrial psychologist (but I have some formal experience of using personality profiling tools, and trained as a counselor very early in my career). Plus I have had a varied career path and some in-depth corporate experience to draw on!

I have never worked in a full-time Business Strategy role – rather, Business Strategy has been integral to the whole of my corporate and consulting career, whether I have been working in product management, market expansion, business development or start-up roles. So while Business Strategy can be defined (and practiced) as a specific discipline, from my experience it’s just another management component or business tool everyone needs to understand and apply, especially on a practical level.

First, my exposure to business strategy really began when I was in a product management role. So I it was part technical (requiring some formal qualification and subject matter expertise), part production (understanding the design and manufacturing processes), part strategic (managing the commercial, financial and market dynamics). That framework continues to inform my approach to business strategy, even in my consulting work – and helps in understanding my clients’ business.

Second, business and management tools come and go; some are mere passing fads, others are the result of changing technology or market conditions – so there is little point in trying to grapple with each and every one, or whatever happens to be in current fashion. Rather, I believe that we should each identify some core models and frameworks that work for us, which can also be adapted to different situations either organically or by analogy. For example, even the over-used Johari window and SWOT analysis can be useful techniques for mapping out markets, customer segments, or growth options. And having some basic accounting, legal and risk management ability is really useful!

Third, a key personal skill is being curious, and remaining open to possibilities. Simply asking the right questions (Q “Why do we do it this way?” A “Because we’ve always done it this way”) can uncover opportunities for improvement or alternative solutions. Without being a perpetual rebel, it is possible to constructively challenge the status quo, to find ways to do things better, more efficiently, more ethically, more environmentally friendly etc.

Fourth, if there was one thing I had understood better before entering the corporate world and management roles, it is the function of teams, the role of team dynamics, and the importance of open communications, pro-active stakeholder engagement, and bringing people on the journey with you. Never underestimate how stubborn, stupid, wilful or malicious some people can be – but often, they are acting out of a position of fear, ignorance or weakness. It’s rarely personal (it’s just business, right?), but it can feel that way. So, whether you are managing up, down or sideways, be prepared to overcome objections, present solutions (not just problems), and get buy-in early on. Making the team collectively and individually responsible for decisions means that they are personally invested in the outcomes. It’s also a way of empowering people.

Fifth, this leads me to the whole issue of decision-making. Companies will always make some poor decisions – but worse is sub-optimal decision-making. Partly this comes from not having appropriate systems and oversight (proper matrix processes, clearly delegated authorities, well-defined mandates, strong governance frameworks, transparent and accessible policies, and documented audit trails, etc). Partly this is a lack of cognitive skills (empathy, self-awareness, communication). And partly it is an absence of informed decision-making (e.g., understanding any inter-dependencies), and the misalignment of goals and incentives.

As a follow-up question, I was asked about some of the tools I have found useful for being successful in my strategy roles. Personally, I think the jury is still out on the value of an MBA vs gaining hands-on experience, or learning as you grow into a role. MBAs have their place, but they are not the Be all and End all of a corporate career.

I’ve also been dipping into a few of the “leading” business text books of their day, that were recommended to me over the past 15-20 years or so (Blue Ocean Strategy, the Long Tail of markets, defining Metanational companies, etc.). While they all provide some insights, and even some practical examples, they feel very dated in terms of current technology, business models, and market environment. Hence my comment above on passing fads…

Even though I worked for major multinationals for over 20 years, I think I’ve learned a lot more from working with and for startups and entrepreneurs over the past 10 years – and to me, that’s where a lot of the more interesting stuff is happening, notwithstanding the challenges of founding a new business. But I realize it’s not for everyone as a career choice.

Finally, no doubt there will be huge lessons for business and corporate strategy as we come out of lock down and it’s how we apply those lessons that will determine the next generation of success stories.

Next week: “There’s a gap in the market, but is there a market in the gap?”

 

Bring Your Own Change

I receive frequent requests for advice or suggestions on how to make a career change. Having been through a significant career transition myself (in fact, I am probably on my 3rd or 4th career…), I am usually more than happy to help if I can.

Networking Image by Ghozt Tramp sourced from Wikimedia Commons

Anyone who has had to navigate a career change will no doubt have been introduced to the concept of networking, primarily as a means to access the hidden or non-advertised job market. The strategy usually involves targeting a particular industry (or even a specific company), and approaching a known contact in that sector (or company) with a view to learning more about their industry, their organisation or their role – and hopefully to gain an introduction to someone in their network who might be able to help in accessing or identifying a suitable role or opportunity.

Now, I am a strong proponent of networking – both to learn and to share – although I am not a huge fan of “open networking”. So I tend to be suspicious of unsolicited requests to connect with me – especially when there is no defined context, or there is no specific purpose underpinning the approach, other than a general desire to access my professional network, or a vague notion of hoping to learn from my experience.

I appreciate that making a career change is sometimes very difficult, especially in the challenging workplace environment (thanks to rapid change, digital disruption, and the gig economy, etc.). Change often becomes harder the older we are. Plus, our path may be complicated the more niche our qualifications, and/or the more generic our experience. (See my previous blog on generalists vs experts.)

I also acknowledge that the transition may not be made any easier because traditional notions of “work” and “employment” are no longer as relevant or as valid as they were. (Conversely, Australia continues to enjoy relatively low unemployment rates, in combination with strong new jobs growth, and greater workforce participation.) Plus, many large employers are still fixated on hiring square pegs to fill existing square holes.

Do I think that more needs to be done to help people transition into and within the new workplace environment? Absolutely. Even if it’s simply to provide them with encouragement, or to challenge their assumptions about what a contemporary career trajectory looks like. (As a society, we are not very good in helping people to make sideways moves, or to adjust their ways of working.)

So, having gone through significant career changes and work transition myself, I am a great believer in “bringing your own change” – i.e., start doing what you need to, in order to effect the change or transition you desire. But what worked or works for me, may not work for you, and my career choices may not be the right choices for you. I can maybe provide some insights on why/how/what I did, but in many situations, I was very fortunate that someone was willing to take a chance on me, and give me an opportunity. Yet equally, I probably helped to engineer these situations because I try to keep an open mind, I maintain a sense of curiosity and I like to think I ask the right questions. By demonstrating flexibility and a willingness to challenge the status quo, I believe it is possible to create the right environment to effect the change you seek in the type of work you do, or the role you perform.

Next week: Equity crowdfunding comes to town

More on Purpose

Regular readers may be familiar with the name Carolyn Tate from my previous blogs on purpose, and the Slow School of Business. Last week, Carolyn launched her latest book, The Purpose Project, a distillation of the past seven years of her work, and quite possibly a road map for anyone wanting to take control of their own destiny at work.

I would describe The Purpose Project as a cross between a first aid kit for a disillusioned workforce and a survival guide for the modern workplace. But as with defining your own “purpose”, the value is in the mind of the reader, rather than in any prescriptive solution or outcome.

Having spent the past few years working with Carolyn at Slow School, I know that her views on this topic have subtly changed. Slow School itself initially appealed to, and was designed for, independent consultants (“solopreneurs”) and aspiring consultants (“corporate escapees”). But as the concept of finding purpose in our work has started to take hold, Carolyn now encourages her readers to find their own purpose where they are, rather than rushing headlong into a new job, a new company, a new career or even into entrepreneurship (which as we know, isn’t for everyone).

I first connected with Carolyn at the Slow School, when I was exploring my own purpose as an independent consultant (and sometime corporate escapee….). Slow School provides a community of like-minded souls with a “safe” space to test new ideas, a playground to kick around new concepts, and an environment to challenge our own assumptions. Unsurprisingly, a key part of The Purpose Project is a list of 50 questions designed to help readers dig deeper into their own purpose, modeled on the Japanese concept of ikigai”. There are also some tools and practices to bring purpose to life in our current work.

In my own case, I still think my purpose is a work in progress, and is never settled – much of my career has been driven by a need for new ideas and experiences, work that is intellectually stimulating, and a willingness to engage in continuous learning (while feeding an enduring curiosity and maintaining a healthy dose of skepticism). These factors, even more than formal qualifications or faddish management theories, have helped me to build resilience and navigate a rapidly changing work environment.

One point where I may disagree with Carolyn is this notion about finding purpose through staying in your current role or workplace – that it’s not necessary to leave. While I agree that it may be possible to reshape your current job to suit your personal needs and preferences, staying in an unrewarding job or remaining with an organisation that does not value you is like persevering with an unhealthy relationship.

In short, I’m quite pessimistic about the ability for large corporations and large institutions (as they are currently framed and constituted) to help us connect with our individual purpose, or even to provide the space to do so. And of course, rapid changes in the very nature of work, the way we work, the economic structures and business models that have traditionally underpinned employment and the value exchange of labour require us to take more control over where, how and with whom we choose to spend our working time.

Next week: Agtech Pitch Night at SproutX