01 Jun 2015 21:27 IST

Tell-tale signs you are goofing up your career

Studies reveal that close to a third of bright graduates from best-in-class B-Schools have mediocre career growth

Many youngsters start their careers after hard-earned degrees in engineering and management. They start their first job with appreciable fire-in-the-belly and spark-in-the-eyes. It is usually their dream job, picked thoughtfully from a whole bunch of other equally good opportunities. Most of them contribute well and grow in their jobs. However, there are still a significant number who do not make much of career progress compared to their peers. A cursory study will reveal that close to a third of bright graduates from best-in-class B-Schools have mediocre career growth, getting stuck in jobs that do little justice to their academic accomplishments.

Unfortunately, the career turmoil these bright people experience is rarely sudden. It has a pattern, with many tell-tale signs. The biggest folly has been ignoring these signs and not initiating corrective action on time.

This article examines the prominent tell-tale signs that aspiring professionals should guard against:

First and foremost, not being clear about what kind of a job they are keen to pursue. This is partly due to lack of personal clarity and partly due to peer preferences. Another reason is prioritising money over rewarding career options. While it is difficult for bright professionals to admit these errors of judgment, more and more cases of this are emerging. A case-in-point would be a student who wanted to pursue a sales career, but took up an HR role for extraneous reasons. While this happened with a nagging feeling inside, hesitation to admit and move on kept him at the job. The longer he denied the reality, the longer he persisted with the challenge. This also had a blowing effect on moving to a sales job later, as the only option was to start as a fresher in a sales job.

Second and equally serious goof-up is the “entitlement syndrome.” By entitlement syndrome, I mean “believing that a great degree from a great institute” is all one needs to climb the ladder. Savvy professionals recognise early on that qualification is only a passport to entry. What matters subsequently, is performance, performance and performance. In fact, even in consulting and other professional service firms where a degree from branded B-schools weighs heavily, it is the performance that matters once on board. The “gold stars” acquired during the academic stint play a small role in one’s career. While it continues to shine in bios, daily performance on the job is what really counts and builds career.

Thirdly, it is important to recognise that “where there are peaks, there are valleys as well.” This simply means that even the best-of-breed professionals have their weaknesses to work on. These weaknesses may not have mattered during the studentship. They may begin to matter a lot at work. An example would be a bright student from a great B-school, for whom attention-to-detail was a huge challenge. He was careless with commitments and even documents. At work, he frequently misplaced or lost documents and was not willing to admit his mistakes. After campus tours for hiring freshers, he returned to the office and found to everyone’s horror that he had lost all the campus papers including student bios, interview panel assessments and the like. His career, and with that his reputation, was sealed.

Fourthly, a mistaken belief that post a prestigious MBA degree, there is nothing more to read, refresh and update oneself with can hurt the professional. It is important to realise that the “half-life of knowledge” is shrinking faster than ever before. It is estimated that before graduating students take up a job, half of what they learnt during the course is already obsolete. This is true with every field; medicine, engineering and management included. A healthy dose of paranoia would actually save career disasters if only the professionals persisted with consistently updating themselves.

Fifth, a time-tested reality but ignored too frequently relates to service longevity. Unfortunately, there is a heightened belief that changing jobs frequently is the only way to grow in one’s career. And as an off-shoot of this belief, many otherwise smart professionals make too many career switches that are not necessarily compatible either with the strengths of the professional or with the intended career trajectory. In several cases, each of these moves has proven to be a step towards career disaster.

Sixth, not being clear about one’s career anchor. Many smart professionals have let themselves be swayed by the “start-up craze” or the “entrepreneurial bug.” While nothing may be wrong potentially with trying one’s talent with these, what is key is to recognise if one has the “appetite” for persisting in such endeavours. It is important to understand that these are not for everyone. The key point to remember is that certain career moves and endeavours are not about “josh” or “desire”, but a “journey of life.” As the realisation dawns, returning to more stable and salaried jobs will make sense. But alas, many of them move from one endeavour to another, only to have the experience repeated.

Finally, career goof-ups also happen when smart professionals suffer from illusions of career demands. A case in point would be assuming that consulting jobs are less stressful and free from sales targets than field sales jobs. A marked dislike for carrying quotas and demonstrating their sales skills often leaves them jostled when they realise, at the end of the day, that there is no free lunch; every job is a sales job and everyone has targets to deliver. Another version of this mistaken notion is a marked preference for a job at corporate headquarters rather than sweating it out on the street or a branch unit. Vital skills critical for survival are seldom learnt when a corporate job is the first one to grab.

This article only captures some of the key career goof-ups we notice smart professionals make. There are perhaps more. Paying to attention to these early in their career can save career derailments.

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