3 lessons from a forced career change

“We’re going to make a change.” I heard those words a few years ago, just before bonus time. And that short conversation made me realize how little control I had over my career. How I was too dependent on my manager to define who I was, what I did, and how well I did it.

This week, at an event in Singapore, I talked with 120 people about what I learned since then.

I wanted to share 3 lessons that could give them a bit more control over their career - and their life.

#1: Career plans are graphs, not ladders.

I used to work in prime brokerage technology during the hedge fund heyday. So, if I needed a job, our 1000s of fund customers could have been a rich source of opportunities for me.

But how many hedge fund people did I know? Zero.

The reason was that I viewed career progression too narrowly - as a path upwards through the hierarchy. I simply didn’t invest in relationships with people who might have helped me.

More importantly, I didn’t know how to build those relationships anyway. I thought of networking as something superficial, transactional, or both.

It was only in recent years that I learned opportunities come from a broad and diverse network. (We’ve had evidence of this since the famous “strength of weak ties” paper in 1973.)

And it was a year-long course with Keith Ferrazzi, author of “Never Eat Alone” and “Who’s Got Your Back?”, that taught me how wrong I was about building relationships at work. That I could be generous, vulnerable, and authentic while still being purposeful.

Instead of trying to climb the ladder, with a limited set of opportunities at the next level, I learned to build a network, where the possibilities multiplied and were more diverse.

#2: Don’t be an Eagle or a Rattler. Be your (whole) self.

The second lesson was that I was thinking too narrowly about who I was and what I had to offer.

In Singapore, I talked about the Robbers’ Cave experiment that I wrote about last week. People smiled when I described the Eagles and Rattlers and how quickly we identify with our given organization. How, when we introduce ourselves in meetings, we start with our place in the org chart - our acronym instead of our contributions, aspirations, or passions.

For me, tying my value to my role in the organization was unnecessarily limiting. “I’m a prime brokerage IT guy and so my value to hedge funds must be related to prime brokerage IT.”

Ferrazzi and others taught me that people actually want to relate to real people, not the professional veneers of people and organizations. I learned, gradually, that by making work personal I could add value to others in many different ways - and I could establish much more meaningful relationships with people I’d benefit from knowing.

#3: The key is “Building a Purposeful Social Network”

Those first 2 lessons, combined with ideas from Seth Godin, from Gina Rudan - even from Dale Carnegie - taught me that the way to a more fulfilling career and life was to build a purposeful social network.

I learned that I had a choice. I could let my manager control my reputation or I could shape my own reputation through public, online contributions on topics that mattered to me. I could rely on the hierarchy in my firm or I could actively seek to build personal relationships with a broad and diverse network of people I liked and whom might help me reach my goals.

So, in the years that followed “we’re going to make a change,” I tried to add value to my company in other ways. I actively sought to build relationships in my firm and across industries. I wrote weekly blogs and presented on ideas I cared about.

I’m still amazed - and grateful - that I could fundamentally shift my career while at the same firm. That I could go from prime brokerage technology to something I truly love doing - using social tools and practices to change how people work.

The best thing about these 3 lessons are that everyone can use them. Just as every can and should develop good writing and presentation skills, everyone can and should learn the skills needed to build a purposeful social network.