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Guest AuthorMahalingam

How far can you really go into the forest?

By C Mahalingam

One can venture only so much into the woods. Likewise, one cannot have unlimited career growth. There is room for learning and contribution.

In a path-breaking video, Power of Vision , Joel Barker makes an emphatic case for how progress follows a well-defined vision and its pursuit. Success in one’s career requires a balance of abilities, aspirations and engagement. Building one’s skills and competencies on a continuous basis advances the chances of succeeding in one’s career. The half-life of knowledge is shrinking rapidly for all professionals. Byhalf-life of knowledge, we mean here, the time it takes for half of what we have learnt to become irrelevant. From four to five years two decades ago, the half-life of knowledge has shrunk to barely two years during the current decade. Continuousun-learning and re-learning are becoming critical survival competencies for professionals in all walks.

Aspirations are equally important. Noticeably, the present generation is well- equipped to handle this part of the career equation. They aspire and more often than not aspire for significant progress in their careers. Opportunities today are decidedly more, and with a higher standard of living, going abroad for higher studies has become a reality for the middle class. Aspirations are often also fuelled by peer comparisons. Becoming a CEO is a dream that every engineering and management graduate can nurture today. Welcome to the world where opportunities meet aspirations and ability.

Engagement

Engagement is another key component in career growth. Even the most competent and aspiring professionals stop growing when their motivation begins to flag and their contributions become questionable. Lack of engagement can be due to organisational reasons as much as an individual challenge. Engagement is manifested in energy, cooperation, embracing stretch goals and in willingness to take calculated risks. When any of these flag, engagement suffers and the “career best” of an individual does not surface.

More recently, there has been a well-placed emphasis on building ‘one’s brand’ at work and outside in order to be both credible and visible. Credibility and visibility are both critical to steadily climbing the career ladder. There is more to building one’s brand than simply viewing it as impression management. As Warren Buffet said, “It is only when the tide runs out, we will know who has been swimming naked!” Personal brand building takes a long time and is a lot of hard work. Executive presence is key in personal branding and many times, even the most able, aspiring and engaged professionals miss out on opportunities because they have not invested in fine- tuning their executive presence.

Organisational loyalty

Organisations fully understand that employees will demonstrate loyalty only to the extent they see their career growth being taken care of. The most significant reason why many talented employees desert their companies is perceived lack of career growth.

But it is important to recognise that organisations have their limitations too. Besides the cliché, “hierarchies narrow at the top”, career plateaus are becoming commonplace even in more talent management-savvy organisations.

Therefore, employees need to be guided in terms of shaping their career aspirations. Any efforts on part of organisations to enlighten their employees, through workshops, coaching and other means should cover carefully crafted messages about managing the pace of growth and recognising that their contributions can continue and so will the rewards, but not necessarily more glamorous titles and responsibilities.

“Novations”, a concept describing four stages of contributions, are well worth explaining to employees. These stages include (a) contributing dependently; (b) contributing independently; (c) contributing through others; and (d) contributing strategically. This focus shifts the emphasis on vertical promotions, adeep-rooted concept of advancement in the minds of employees.

Asking the right questions

There is an interesting way to counsel employees and moderate their aspirations with what is possible. In career workshops, an innocent question like: “How far can you go into the forest?” will help accomplish this. The response from the employees will be very obvious and accurate that one can only go into the forest as far as one feels safe or one has the confidence to return to the original base or perhaps as far as one’s supplies will last. The real answer is that one can only go half way into the forest. Only half way because beyond that, one is not advancing into the forest, but actually exiting it!

The message is that there is nothing called unlimited growth. Real growth is very personal in nature and has got to do with learning, competence and contribution. Leading a successful career is about contributing and experiencing fulfilment.

Professionals who have reached the pinnacle of fulfilment will have a uniform story to share.

And that will have something to do with becoming mentors and coaches for their colleagues. Those who miss this point continue to believe that a magic turn will happen and catapult them to infinite heights. In the end, this leads to frustration with not only the job or organisation, but even more damagingly with themselves.

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MaliC. Mahalingam is a leading HR Thought Leader in India. He was Executive Vice-President & Chief People Officer with Symphony Services Corporation and served in organisations like IBM, HP, Phillips, Scandent Technologies etc. He is now a Leadership Coach, HR Strategic Consultant and visiting faculty at some of IIM’s.

This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated September 24, 2014

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