If I were asked to spell out in fourteen bullet points the way forward to anyone starting up on the career path, what would it be?
For someone who has been through it all in the course of nearly four decades of negotiating learning and practice curves in the realm of international commerce, the following aspects appear to be the drivers :
Awareness of self worth and direction ahead. People generally fall in two categories, those who are keenly aware of their strengths and are direction driven, and others, who are unsure of themselves and content to merely execute tasks assigned to them, like inconsequential cogs in the wheel. To the keen and aware individual, every work or situation is an opportunity to create an impact through efficient execution. Task well executed has a salutary impact on the working environment resulting in steadily expanding scope for continuous growth. An illustrative example is the real-life story of a packing guy at the bill counter in a large shopping mall. What is just a routine job of packing items tossed forward after passing over the POS machine, becomes a growth opportunity for a packer who started attracting attention by the sheer speed and efficiency with which he disposed of each and every customer, picking up friendly conversation and keeping customers interestingly engaged in the process of doing his job that, in due course, he turns into a focal point attracting more customer foot-falls. Over a short period, rewards follow in the form of his elevation to supervisory and store manager positions—all from the humble packing function.
Challenge status-quo. The vast majority is happy working themselves into prevailing pattern of things, setting up cosy niches and remaining there. The usual tendency is to accept the known and resist the unknown. Growth, however, comes from doing exactly the opposite. It requires our moving out of comfort zones, challenging the known and embracing the unknown, which is the field of all possibilities, since what is known is just a drop whereas the unknown is a vast ocean. The beginning years is the time to think out of the box, take calculated risks, explore off-beat tracks and newer possibilities, because there is nothing to lose and everything to gain. Great things happen to people who question the status quo. Examples like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Sam Walton, Malcolm Mclean, Jeff Bezos and, closer home in India, the pioneering efforts of dynamic entrepreneurs offering on-line shopping experience through e-commerce in FMCG and LCC (low cost carrier) service in aviation, and thereby opening up air mode as travel option to a larger audience, come readily to mind in this context. While Jobs, Gates, Walton and Bezos are household names across the fairly well-informed world, the equally great name of Malcolm Mclean may ring a bell only in the domains of shipping and logistics. Starting as a modest owned truck driver in the US in mid 1930s, moving cargo to vessels docked in the harbour, it gradually dawned on Malcolm that there ought to be a better way than the existing time-consuming method of loading individual packages of cargo on board ships. What if the entire cargo-laden truck was driven over a ramp to be transported on board ship? In so doing, it was found that considerable space was lost on vessel’s deck due to loss of space below truck chassis, which in turn prompted Malcolm to device mechanics of detaching cargo compartment from truck chassis for loading just the big box on board the ship, with hundreds of such cargo boxes going on board vessel, duly optimising on utilisation of ship’s cargo space. The experiment successfully took off and by mid 1950s Malcolm raised enough capital to establish his own shipping company operating fleet of cargo vessels customised to carry freight containers which, by second half of the twentieth century, completely revolutionised shipping and transportation of entire range of general cargo and perishable commodities, reconfigured to move intact in dry or refrigerated marine freight containers travelling not just aboard ships but also other modes of transport like road trucks and rail flats, right from origin through to final destination.
Be willing to fail, to succeed. A hundred percent rate of success may make for an impressive progress card in academics; in the commercial environment, it is a different scenario. Any remarkable success in business is mostly attainable after a string of failures. One should be willing to risk failure to achieve success. Many people fight shy of failure by opting to operate within safe and absolutely zero-risk limits, which is okay for mediocre accomplishments. One can as well continue to function at such level and be content with consistency in mediocrity. Big ticket achievements like successfully launching a pioneering product or a service, require painstaking efforts backed by enterprising mobilisation of capabilities and resources. If not inclined to take the falls while struggling to be on its feet, the baby must be satisfied with crawling through life.
Be brief. Brevity is the soul of wit said Shakespeare in Hamlet, ironically driving home the point through the sharply contrasted character of Polonius, who was neither brief nor witty. Be it email, power-point presentation or MIS report, it has to be precise and to the point. The prescribed length for any business report is predicated by what is just required for its completeness. An email must be limited to maximum quarter of a page, power-point presentation in 15 slides coverable in twenty minutes; MIS report in one page, worded in simple and short sentences that will quickly communicate to a multi-national business audience.
The first assignment(s). Across your career span, you will probably be moving through five to ten organisations over mostly same or, exceptionally, different sectors. It is vitally important to stick to the chosen career path, to develop a passion for what you are doing and to continually learn on the job. It will be a big mistake if one is not learning on the job with which one is getting started on the career path. There will always be a degree of disillusionment with the first job as it may not be in sync with the glorious notions you originally had in your mind. Just get in and work hard and stop thinking about finding the perfect first job. The focus must invariably be on learning and impressing the superior through excellence in execution. Rewards will follow in due course.
Live in the present, work for the future. The day after embarking on your career, no one is interested in knowing where you schooled, what your grade points average was, if you captained the football, cricket or quiz team, or what your lineage is. All that matters is your deliverables, performance on the job; hence work hard on delivering results in the present on which the future will build up.
Expectation of the management. Your job is to meet laid down targets through efficient execution of assigned tasks vide judicious utilisation of resources. Devious actions such as involving in unhealthy office politics and petty manoeuvring to upstage your immediate superior with intent to advance further in the organisation is malafide and bound to boomerang on the perpetrator. Persisting with such actions will probably expose you as disloyal and untrustworthy to the rest of the organization. You want your team leader to succeed so that you can build on that.
Continue to learn.“Who so neglects learning in his youth, loses the past and is dead to the future” commented Euripides in a paternal undertone aeons ago. Learning is a process not an event, thus there is no end to it. Indeed, the day you graduate and move out of university is when real learning begins. Learning at the work place is a combination of briefings from seniors, observing colleagues and best practices already established, application of common sense and bringing all of these to bear on one’s working. You draw on your learning from multiple sources; first, the inherited source, consisting of your upbringing, formal and preparatory education; next in line is the secondary source of experience and your interpretation thereof, which will continue to influence your future, and finally, learning connected to your aspirational self, to what your life goals are. Positive convergence of learning from these multiple sources is what accelerates the growth process.
Studying role models. Our journey into awareness and earlier grooming is mostly guided by and modeled around parents. In due course the horizon widens to include, in the case of successful people, several role models garnered through observations and perusal of biographies of great men and women, how they triumphed even against seemingly insurmountable obstacles in different situations in life. Attaining great heights in your vocation may well be a process of visualising how your role models would have tackled some of your challenges, and accordingly directing your efforts towards successful closure.
Good communication and networking skills. You will make great strides faster in your career with a blend of effective communication and networking. Learning what not to say is as equally important as stating what is required. As you advance in your career, you will notice that experienced and intelligent folks listen more and speak less; they chip in only to add value, not otherwise. Successful guys create useful networks early in life, much before they need them. Useful network is a give-and-take field where relationships benefit the giver and the recipient in a complementary manner. Stay with only those people who are an uplifting influence and shun negative, destructive characters and drifters. Cultivate trust and credibility; interact amicably.
Ethical working. In our younger days, we were taught not to lie, cheat, or steal. When we grow up and embark on our career, we may be tempted to think in relative terms. The paradigm of right and wrong may appear to shift from absolute to relative. Everything will seem to be right or wrong in a relative sense only. Instead of black and white, all things apparently figure in a grey area of relativity. What is advisable as the golden rule is to always work within ethical confines, as right shall remain right and wrong shall be wrong forever. There is nothing like doing something wrong and getting away with it, as cosmic forces will ensure timely retribution and appropriate correction sooner than later.
Be a leader. To be one, you must be able to lead yourself before you can even think of leading others. It is also critically important to be a good follower, firmly committed to the leader’s goals, learning from his capabilities, internalising same and honing it in the laboratory of your own knowledge and skills in the continuous process of refining and developing your leadership . This process can start early in your career; you do not have to become the ceo to be called a leader. It is about taking initiative, responsibility, and willingness to run the extra mile; demonstrating your capability to execute a task while leading a team to collectively achieve more than what each individual team member can. Motivate yourself first so you can motivate others. Virtues like punctuality, dedication and humility go a long way in inspiring people and building a team under you. Someone posed the question to a sage on how to achieve greater freedom in life, and the answer was to assume more responsibility. The more responsible you are, the more free you become. It is the same with leadership; greater leadership comes with greater responsibility. In other words, there is neither freedom nor leadership without responsibility.
Enjoy your family and friends before they are gone. Nothing–not money, power, or fame–can replace your family and friends or bring them back once they are gone. It is natural, being the youngster that you are, to have delusions of immortality right now. At least consider that while you may wish to wallow in apparent notions of immortality, those around you are mortal and will soon be exiting the stage.
Conclusion. In your child state, your parents were always considered right. Through high school and university, you thought your parents were always wrong. As you grow in years beyond academia, you will gradually realize that your parents were often right. And then, it will eventually turn out in your becoming your parents. Let me leave you here to reflect on its significance….