As leaders we become used to making decisions. We study the facts, consult with our trusted advisors and stakeholders, weigh up the risks – and then make up our minds. We use this process because it provides us with the most effective outcomes. But as Ron Ashkenas points out, when it comes to your career, taking a similar risk management approach can deliver a very unsatisfying result. As career success depends on happiness and attitude, he suggests we need to start with these first and then factor in risk later in our thinking process:
- Happiness criteria: At the end of the day, your career success is determined not just by tangible indicators (compensation, title, reputation) but also by the underlying enjoyment you derive from your work. Though highly subjective, this “happiness” factor often overwhelms all other career issues; to the extent that a person can have an apparently stellar career but still be miserable, or vice versa.
- The attitude factor: Also driving your career is your ability to learn and adapt over time — to deal with new situations, different personalities, and ongoing surprises — and make the most of them. Although people can paint logical pictures of their career paths in retrospect, in reality most careers are unpredictable — influenced by particular people, seminal moments, or unique opportunities. Having the attitude to grasp these surprises and leverage them is critical.
Now, there is no doubt that any career choice involves an element of risk – but what if we follow Ron’s advice and put our appreciation of risk to one side? What if we do as he suggests, prioritizing happiness first and then cross-match it against our attitude?
In my career, I have tried to work in this way – even though it can sometimes be personally challenging – and professionally confronting. Recently, I made a list of priorities – the criteria that I felt would not just lead me down the path of success, but towards a sense of wellbeing and happiness. I then matrixed these with the trade-offs that I would be willing to make. For sure, there were items that were non-negotiables – but it became blindingly obvious where my true priorities lay. And from this, I knew – with both my head and my heart – that my own decision had been made. And the result? You’ll have to stay tuned!