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Crafting a Career

By | Dr Pavan Soni | IIM-B Innovation Evangelist 

Securing a job is one thing, and shaping a career is quite another. In the modern times, which are mired by rapidity of change, increased life-expectancy, and an ever shortening attention span, one needs to acknowledge that we need to prepare ourselves for a long haul. This also means that we need to stick to some simple heuristics (rules of thumb, or mental shortcuts) to navigate through this ever increasing complexity, yet to realise that our career and personal goals are always ’emergent’, and not planned. Here, I offer simple heuristics that have helped me well while navigating through my career, right from my early days at Titan to this very day. I also offer some of the principles that have been handy in me crafting a career, that has served me well, so far.
Making career choices
While given a host of options, or lack of it, I think the decision should come down to whether your prospective career offers you all three things: Knowledge, Money and Brand (mostly in that order). And if all three aren’t available in a choice set, which is mostly the case, then the decision is about which two are available, and I say that even if a combination is available, go with the choice. Let me offer an explanation.
  • Working with a startup is a specific case where you typically will get a lot of new knoweldge, and perhaps good money (say in the form of equity position), and perhaps, not a good brand, to start with. Even then, you must not refuse the idea of working with it, provided you get some really new knowledge. With time, brand would come and so will money, but none of this may happen, if you fail to assess the unique value addition in terms of knowledge and skills that has happened to you. Here, knowledge means ‘know why’, and skills me ‘know how’.
  • Working in a large MNC offers you undoubtedly a good brand, and preferably a good salary, but knowledge addition might be questionable, as is the case with most large IT MNCs in India, such as IBM, Accenture, etc, which are mostly tapping Indian low-cost advantage, and not performing much of a cutting-edge work here. Still it’s okay to work there for securing some money before starting on own!
  • Working in a government establishment, such as ISRO, or DRDO, or say a CSIR lab, certainly gives you a brand and knowledge (provided you are doing some real stuff), but certainly can’t expect it to pay you very well. Hence, the choice is always about- knowledge addition in such situations. 
Knowledge leads to Brand, and eventually, Money
Mostly good graduating students are confronted with choices of either securing a job, or pursuing higher studies, or starting on own. On the job front, the choices are typically about large firms or working with startups. Once again the dictum that has served me very well is that it is best to work at a place that does a significant value add to your knowledge, and skills, and then leveraging the same to get into better brands and secure finances. Typically, a better brand or a good salary may not necessarily help you secure new knowledge. 
Once again, knowledge could be of two types- domain specific, or generic; leading you to become a specialist or a generalist. I believe that with fragmentation of roles, and increased connectivity, the future belongs to specialists, and not generalist. The modularization of work, coupled with low access cost of talent, makes it an imperative that people develop expertise in narrow domains, and publish their skills widely. In today’s economy, one can surely make a good living by being good at something, and letting people know that s/he is good at that, through the social media, or the ilk. 
When I started taking consulting assignments way back, I wasn’t getting paid for that, for one, I wasn’t sure if somebody will pay me anything, and secondly, I didn’t know what’s the right amount to ask. I was too keen to learn if some of my insights on innovation and creativity finds some real business applications, and if I can learn from the field. The knowledge, and exhibition of knowledge, helped me shape a personal brand, and this later helped me get money. While doing so, the dominant discipline that drew me into my career has following tenets:
  • Take half-chances
  • Find a purpose in whatever you do, or are asked to do
  • Share, rather than to keep it secret
  • Try exposing yourself to difficult, unprecedented situations, to learn
  • Stretch your limits, physically, intellectually, and emotionally
  • Don’t wait for 100% readiness to launch yourself, rather adopt 70% and go
  • Better to ask for forgiveness, than seeking permission 

Some of these might sound unrealistic to you, but have worked well for me.

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