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Why You Should Walk Away from the 10-Year Career Plan

Instead of worrying about your next step, focus on developing skills that will give you options for the future.

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I was the world’s least successful career planner — and it was the best thing that could have happened to my career. Having landed a job at Monitor Group out of undergrad, and having had good success in my first 3 years, I heard suggestions that I shouldn’t have any trouble getting into business school. I was so confident, I quit my job before hearing back from my applications and went traveling. Whoops. Harvard Business School — rejected. Wharton — rejected. Stanford — waiting list…and then subsequently rejected. And this happened again the following year.

I was dejected about my future.

Flash-forward nearly 20 years, and I’ve worked at Forbes, studied at Columbia Business School and now serve as Chief Strategy Officer at Deloitte, thanks to — in large part — a willingness to take advantage of opportunities to learn when they were presented. Over time, I became less concerned with planning my roles, and more concerned with figuring out what I’d be learning in each chapter of my own journey. Networking, finding mentors, and hard work landed me in a far better place than I ever dreamed.

Instead of following a nicely laid out career path as in the Game of Life, I followed a Snakes and Ladders-like way to my position today and I’m convinced that trying to precisely map your career for a period of more than a few years is largely wasted energy. Instead, I tell people to figure out what they want to learn and develop and how that might help them in the future.

As Deloitte’s 2018 Global Human Capital Trends study reports, individuals and their careers take center stage in the 21st-century. Instead of fostering a steady progression along a job-based pathway, leading companies are empowering individuals to acquire valuable experiences, explore new roles and continually reinvent themselves. But 59 percent of the 11,000 survey respondents rated their organizations as not effective or only somewhat effective at empowering people to manage their own careers.

This phenomenon is largely because of the organizational silos that prevent some companies from moving forward and ditching linear career paths in favor of winding ones.

Take, for example, the world of advertising and media. Despite dramatic shifts in consumer media consumption behavior over the last 15 to 20 years, most large advertisers were slow to adopt — or even test — non-traditional forms of advertising. In fact, between 1999 and 2011 television rose as a percentage of total spend despite the widescale adoption of time-shifting and ad-skipping technologies.

Why? It was usually someone’s role to buy TV.

Most large marketing organizations had appointed someone to work with traditional advertising and media-buying agencies. Typically, this was a relatively senior and central person because most advertising, historically, would have gone through that person.

So, it’s not surprising that, even as trends against TV continued to mount, the people in this role were stuck in patterns of the past, working in organizational silos that dictated work.

When organizations create a role, such as the media-buyer, they presume it will exist forever. The concept of permanence is pervasive, and likely one of the largest changes necessary for moving forward. We create roles that institutionalize a way of doing things. I saw this firsthand while at Monitor in 2005 when asked by Jim Stengel to help his marketing organization at Procter & Gamble transform the way they work with agencies. It was hard to be truly “media agnostic” because people’s jobs at agencies were organized around communication channels.

Companies must see that role permanence and career paths are at best a false sense of security. Toss the 10-year-plan for new employees. Stop asking where you might be in 5 to 10 years. Instead, reorient your people — or yourself — around the concept that great work is rewarded with more responsibility.

And the individuals in those companies must help those organizations by also embracing the concept that it is impossible to know where you’ll be in 10 years, even with a lot of thought and effort. Life just tends to unfold in predictably unpredictable ways. Instead of worrying about the precision of where you’ll be, focus more on developing skills in what you are doing today that give you lots of options for the future. Or follow the advice my dad used to give me – focus on learning how to learn.

STEVEN GOLDBACH is the co-author with Geoff Tuff of Detonate: Why — And How — Corporations Must Blow Up Best Practices (And Bring a Beginner’s Mind) to Survive (Wiley; May 2018), from which this article is adapted. Steven is a principal at Deloitte and serves as the organization’s chief strategy officer. He is also a member of the Deloitte U.S. executive leadership team. Previously, Goldbach was the director of strategy at Forbes. He holds degrees from Queen’s University at Kingston and Columbia Business School.

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