Q&A: Making good first steps with your career

Below is an edited transcript of my live Q&A with the National Centre for Universities and Business, a not-for-profit organisation bringing together universities and business.

Adi Gaskell (moderator): Hello all and welcome to this live Q&A – Making Good First Steps With Your Career – with author Robert Kelsey. Robert is the author of four books on how to succeed at work, and is co-founder and deputy chairman of a leading entrepreneurs’ think tank: The Centre for Entrepreneurs. So let’s get started:

Comment From David: With the web I really struggle with information overload. How can I overcome this?

Robert Kelsey: Hi David, In my view this is similar to decision-making paralysis or poor judgement, in that we can have too much information to make a decision or judgement, not too little. Yet I think this comes from poor goal-setting. If you have a detailed long-term goal with a worked-through plan and strategy for achieving it you are no longer receiving information, you are seeking it. At this point only the right information matters but, crucially, you can determine what constitutes the right information. There’s something called the Reticular Activating System in which the brain alerts you to what’s of interest. For instance, my son loves football and can spot a Chelsea or Arsenal badge (perhaps in a shop window) from 100 metres. Once you know what you’re looking for, in other words, that’s what you’ll focus on.

Comment from Joanne: I feel like I’m stuck in my job but don’t really want to jump ship to move on. What can I do?

Robert Kelsey: Hi Joanne, I guess you need to think about your long term goals. If you take a 10-year view about who you want to be and where, you can then add some milestones for five, two and one years and even six months, three months etc. Remember you only need to worry about what HAS to be in place to meet the later goal – so what MUST be achieved by year one to meet the two-year milestone etc (after all, you have 10 years to get to where you want to go). Creating that path will give you clarity of thinking – and should help motivate you to act. Indeed, you may well find that what’s needed is a new role in the same place, or one more year getting experience where you are. But it might also make you think – “enough! Time to move on”, although you should now have an idea of where to look.

Adi Gaskell: That’s a really interesting point Robert. Do you have any good sources for help in taking this kind of long-term thinking?

Robert Kelsey: Visualisation is a strong technique, though one that has been criticised lately for creating false hopes (nonsense in my view!). By visualisation, I mean simply putting yourself in a dark room, closing your eyes and projecting yourself 10 years forward – and be very detailed.

Comment From John: I’m worried that my career might be automated, what would you suggest I do?

Robert Kelsey: This is a concern for many people in many industries. However, I would differentiate between a job and a career. Jobs will certainly be automated. But will careers? Careers usually follow a pattern that starts with learning/training, before going on to execution, then management, then innovation, then ownership and then regulation/control. Automation is simply a change at the execution phase of a career, which is where people start. Management will not go away and nor will innovation, ownership or regulation. So – if this is your chosen long-term career (something that motivates you wholeheartedly) – remain flexible and be open to new skills and learning (yes, including those involving technology). And quickly show your management skills. That way you should stay relevant as your industry changes around you.

Adi Gaskell: It sounds like the concept of lifelong learning is more important than ever before. It’s something I feel that Anna is interested in with our next question.

Comment From Anna: If you were a student today, what would you study?

Robert Kelsey: That’s a tough one. I often think economics would be a great subject and then of course there’s psychology. That said, I enjoy the fact my research has led me to discover the right psychologists for me: as I’ve tried to deal with my personal issues (and then write about that path to discovery). So I guess my old course of politics and modern history did give me a broad perspective….and I enjoy using it.

Adi Gaskell: It sounds very much like a broad skillset is valuable in allowing you to adapt to any changes that occur. Would you say that’s fair?

Robert Kelsey: It’s fair to a point. The trouble is that the world is so specialised that we do need to discriminate in terms of what we want to do. That said, with long term goals in place we can develop the skills we need over time. People are simply too addicted to instant gratification and that, these days, includes careers. It’s great to be impatient and it even works to be a little frustrated (highly motivational). But everything involves an apprenticeship. You can’t cut corners in this respect.

Comment From Liz: I often see that we need personal “brands” but I don’t feel comfortable promoting myself. Do you have any tips?

Robert Kelsey: Hi Liz, You put quote marks around “brands” when I’d correct that to encompass “personal” so its “personal brands”. That means this is YOUR brand, for YOU. It doesn’t have to be any more public than you want it to be. By setting long-term goals you are deciding what sort of person you want to be. This may change over time and room for adjustment is needed. But goals are there to establish some principles and get you going. And that involves calculating your preferred future self, which is a holistic quest inevitably involving an element of public perception. So who do you want to be? And how do you become that person? This is 90% internal, but it will inevitably involve external elements – not necessarily in terms of self promotion but, for instance, in how you dress or hold yourself, or even speak. It’s all part of Brand Liz.

Adi Gaskell: Excellent stuff, hopefully useful advice for you Liz. We have a fresh question coming in from Andy about that prickly topic of failure.

Comment From Andy: There is a lot written about failure being good, but it doesn’t feel like that in my workplace. Is it possible to overcome this as a (lowly) individual?

Robert Kelsey: Hi Andy, Undoubtedly, failure can be painful and disabling. It can undermine our confidence and sap our will to continue. And, yes, many organisations have an intolerance of failure that can generate a paralysing fear of failure. Can anything be done, especially as a junior? Well, first ensure that you have your own goals that are independent of the organisation you work for. They are the goals by which to measure yourself, not those imposed by others. They should be long-term, detailed and all-encompassing. Second, realise that – with respect to these goals – any setbacks are simply feedback moments, requiring you to learn the lessons, adjust, and carry on. And by carrying on you’ll soon outgrow any organisation that has an intolerance for innovation simply because it cannot accept failure. So it could just be that your attitude to failure is ahead of your employer’s: in which case you need to find an employer with a more enlightened view (or stay and try and, slowly, convert them to your way of thinking).

Comment From Andy: I suppose the “innovators” lot is always going to be a tough one. I’ll keep plugging away. Thanks for your detailed response Robert

Adi Gaskell: Superb answer Robert. This topic of failure feeds into our next question from Joe around the kind of expectations we have when entering the workplace

Comment From Joe: I haven’t entered the workforce yet, but a lot of my friends are disillusioned already. Is a dream career unrealistic?

Robert Kelsey: Hi Joe, Unrealistic by what timeframe? You need to set strong goals but also give yourself time to achieve them. Notice something about authors, TV presenters, actors, entrepreneurs etc – most of them are at least in their 30s if not 40s and 50s. What they had, however, is strong goals and a worked-out path for achievement. They also had resilience so were able to use setbacks as feedback moments. Also, with strong goals you feel something of the feeling of achievement just knowing you are on the right path.

Adi Gaskell: It takes a long time to become an overnight sensation :). Autonomy is often billed as one of the most motivational aspects of modern work, and Chris has an interesting question about this in relation to “intrapreneurship”.

Comment From Chris: Can you be an entrepreneur from within an organisation?

Robert Kelsey: Hi Chris, It’s tougher – that’s for sure. No matter what organisations say, most want you to – primarily – toe the line. But the answer is still yes, but cautiously. You need to establish yourself as a “trusted advisor” to seniors first – by understanding the organisation and helping it achieve its goals. Only then will you have won the right to a hearing. And at that point, anything is possible. Also, as your career progresses the more entrepreneurial you will have to be – helping organisations add value, not simply executing others’ plans.

Also, coming back to Adi on autonomy – yes it is motivational but autonomy also comes from within. If you are pursuing your own goals over the long term, then one cranky boss making you stay late isn’t going to worry you too much. You know where you’re going and you’ll know whether this organisation is right for helping you along that path.

Comment From Chris: Makes sense Robert. Get some money in the bank first. Thanks.

Adi Gaskell: That’s an excellent point about earning the trust of your employer. We have another question here from Daniel that is along similar lines, but this time on earning trust before you even join.

Comment From Daniel: Is an internship a good thing to do?

Robert Kelsey: Hi Daniel, It depends. At Moorgate (my PR firm) we, instead, take people on full time but for a trial period, so they are properly paid and properly part of the team. Around 75% make it through the trial to become an Account Exec. I see too many CVs with the odd week here or there making the tea (usually for a family friend), so – as an employer – I’m a sceptic. Yet if the training is real – involving developing skills towards what you want to achieve, then great. But as a system, I think it a little unfair – and I think that’s being increasingly recognised. Tip: pitch smaller employers but in the right field – someone without the fat to abandon you to making the tea. They’ll throw you right in the deep end and you’ll get real skills/experience.

Wayne Ellis via Twitter: Are we finally in the “free agent nation” that Dan Pink predicted a decade ago?

Robert Kelsey: Hi Wayne, We’re getting there. But I do think people need to think about skills and experience, as well as freedom. If you know that freedom is coming – that you can become a freelancer or start your own business – then you simply need to develop the right skills for that goal, which could involve a period with an employer (a personal apprenticeship, if you like). Another aspect to this is scale. By staying in a company – for say five years – the scale of what you can achieve beyond it may be that much larger. I had a friend start a business straight after college – he was dealing with micro businesses and small traders. You know what – he still is. Whereas those that started a business later – once they’d learnt to deal with C-suite executives – started businesses further up the foodchain. Worth noting.

Adi Gaskell: Super answer Robert. I appreciate we’re running close to time so I’ll rattle on with the next question, this time from Jess

Comment From Jess: I’m setting myself up for a radical career change into business administration, what should I be concious of to avoid stalling and to help identify fast-tracking opportunities within the new career?

Robert Kelsey: Hi Jess, The biggest thing you need is a career path – but one you create yourself. So calculate what that path looks like over the next 10 years and make sure you stay on it (though with some flexibility, of course). What I like about this is that it gives you judgement and helps with your decision making. If it’s on the path – it’s a yes etc. Of course, things don’t always go to plan but, even here, you will be able to tell what’s on and off the path. And of course you can always set that 10 year path every year, so you are always 10 years from achieving your ultimate goal (though making very strong progress in the meantime).

Wayne Ellis via Twitter: Robert Kelsey: we need to think about skills and experience: good advice.

Adi Gaskell: Sage advice Robert, start at the end and work backwards. We have just about enough time to squeeze one more question in from Adam on starting a business with student debt

Comment From Adam: I don’t feel I can start a business with so much student debt. Is it possible?

Robert Kelsey: Hi Adam, Then don’t start a business yet. Why not start a business in five years but go and work for someone now that will give you the skills you require? I always say that there is no harm, at your stage, in letting other people pay for your mistakes. By that I simply mean that, if you were running your own business and making the inevitable learning errors, they could harm your future prospects (though you can always recover). So why not see job one as the apprenticeship for running your own business? It’s a great goal – strengthened not lost by some experience in the workplace, which also means you’ll be earning and paying down that debt. Hope that helps!

Adi Gaskell: Super advice Robert. Ok, I think that’s about all we have time for. I’m sure Robert’s fingers must be about to fall off. Don’t forget that Robert has recently published an excellent new book called The Outside Edge. If you would like to buy a copy, if you use ‘VBM41’ as the discount code you can receive a 30% discount. I’d like to thank everyone for participating in what has been a fascinating hour, and most of all to Robert for giving us his time and insights today.

Robert Kelsey: It’s been a pleasure – happy to take more questions via Twitter @robertkelseywsy



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