Climbing the Career Mountain

Posted by in Career Advice, Mike Squires

After more than 30 years in executive search, I remain convinced more than ever, that our primary objective and concern should be to our candidates. Yes, our fees are paid for by our clients but experience has shown me that if we get it right by the candidate, it will inevitably be the right solution for the client. All too often I have seen both competitors and indeed some of my own consultants become fixated by dancing to the client’s tune, to the detriment of what is right by the candidate.

With this philosophy, I remain fascinated by the ambitions and desires of upwardly mobile career focused individuals. The answers to my questions “what do you see as your ideal next position” and “do you have a vision of what you will be doing in your 50s and 60s?” generally leads to unstructured, waffly and sometimes pretty unrealistic answers.

In my mentoring capacity and in order to help them give structure to their next move and longer term career ambitions, I draw on the analogy of climbing a mountain.

A good mountaineer whilst on the face of the mountain grips the mountain face with two hands and two feet. As they contemplate a move, whether it be vertical or horizontal, they need to assess which foot or handhold they are prepared to move. In doing so they have to recognise that moving too many holds at the same time, increases the risk of coming off the mountain face and ending up in a sorry heap at the bottom.

Simplistic, but this analogy has worked very effectively for me for a number of years, there are four key points of contact between an individual and their careers, and equally, if too many of those points of contact are changed in a career move there is an increased likelihood of failure.

The four points of contact are:

1. Core Discipline

At the centre of every executive is a core discipline. This often develops into general management and multi-discipline responsibilities, but more often than not, when contemplating a career move an important factor in the decision making process will be a reference back to that original core discipline. It is therefore important that candidates clearly articulate the responsibilities and successes they had in those early single discipline roles. It is important to remember that had they not had those successes they would not have made the progress into senior management. At the foundation of every successful career is that original core business discipline and all the CEOs I have had the opportunity of working with can clearly demonstrate and articulate what that was.

Unfortunately the reverse is also true, those who cannot point to those early single discipline successes often do not fulfill their ambitions and hopes.

2. The Industry in which the Core Discipline is Practiced

In describing that core discipline, and the successes associated with it, the candidate will inevitably and obviously identify this second point of contact with the prime industry in which the core discipline has been practiced. This becomes a vital second factor in the risk assessment of a possible career move.

In the sports world there is an ever increasing demand for the cross fertilisation of skills from the traditional, sophisticated and large sectors of FMCG, media and communications, technology, leisure and entertainment. It is important for a candidate to clearly understand the industry in which they have practiced their discipline and assessing the practicalities and risk of moving between sectors.

If the proposed career move entails a change in both the core discipline and a shift from one sector to another, emphasis then shifts to the next point of contact, geographic commercial market experience.

3. Geographic Commercial Market

By and large most candidates have gained experience in the commercial geographic market of their birth. There are however, an increasing number of genuine multi-cultural and multi-lingual candidates who have lived and worked in a number of markets.

This third point of contact is often one which candidates would like to develop and change. Sport is a global industry, with Asia poised for massive growth and the focus of so many sports rights holders. For those candidates wishing to expand their geographic market experience, or in mountaineering parlance to shift this handhold, then in evaluating such a move they need to do so in the context of their core discipline and sector experience.

By this stage I hope the mountaineering analogy has become clear. If the proposed new position involves a move to a brand new geographic market then you better hope to be gripping the mountain firmly with the first two holds. This becomes even more important as a move from one commercial market to another will inevitably bring into play the last of the points of contact, the domestic base and situation.

4. Domestic Situation

This should in many cases not be the last, but the first critical hand hold on the career mountain. I have been surprised, however, by the number of ambitious individuals who have not clearly thought through the possible impact that a potential new job could have on their domestic situation. In some cases the thrill of the prospect of ‘the job of a lifetime’ means that the practicalities of a domestic move fade into the background. This is not be helped by a ‘macho man’ culture of putting careers ahead of personal life so epitomised by some parts of society.

It is in this area where my belief that our prime responsibility is the care of our candidates comes to the fore. By doing so, we are also protecting our client from the costs and frustrations of an assignment falling over due to domestic reasons which had not been sufficiently assessed early in the decision making process.

From recent experience there are three domestic issues that may affect the ability of a candidate moving their geographic domestic base to take up a new position. These are, firstly the parallel careers of the candidate spouse or partner. What could be a great career step for one partner could be disastrous for the other. Increased emphasis on children’s education is the second issue which can make a move impractical. Thirdly, and as a function of improvements in medical care, we are all living longer and the consequence of this is that more of us are locked into the care of elderly parents.

These three practical issues (which you can read about further in a more detailed article here) mean that for many a move, however exciting and logical, simply is just not likely to happen.

Climbing a career mountain, like a real mountain, should be exhilarating but in both cases there are real dangers which need to be evaluated. A firm and tight grip creates the perfect platform for a change for both the mountaineer and the ambitious candidate. Every move needs to be assessed in a cold practical manner and if a move calls for too many changes then the danger of a fall needs to be clearly identified and accepted.

Having pointed out the potential risks, my final and perhaps even contradictory piece of advice is be bold, take risks, grasp exciting opportunities and don’t be afraid of failure! Life is too short to be left wondering. Good luck and have fun.

About the Author: Mike Squires – Chairman

Mike works closely with the Leadership Team to identify opportunities for growth such as penetration into new markets, formation of strategic partnerships and relationship management/development with key clients. He is also active in managing consultancy services, including advising Executive Boards on senior team structure and strategy, as well as consulting on the design of executive assessment processes.