When Senator George Mitchell graduated from Maine's Bowdoin College in 1954 or Georgetown Law School a number of years later, he had no idea that one day he would become the lead investigator into steroid abuse for Major League Baseball. Nor could he have imagined becoming chairman of The Walt Disney Company, U.S. Senate Majority Leader, or chief negotiator to bring peace between Northern Ireland and Ireland. Had he set his sights on these lofty leadership positions, he almost surely would have come up short.
Despite advice from career experts to set specific long-term career goals with interim milestones to measure your success, this is not how extraordinary careers really unfold. Great careers are built block by block, experience by experience. Exceptional performance in one assignment opens up opportunities for the next. Often, as in Senator Mitchell's case, the subsequent possibility couldn't have even been imagined before it presented itself. Only in retrospect can extraordinary careers be understood logically.
If you want to increase your odds of generating the kinds of career opportunities you desire, take a look at Senator Mitchell's example. With his legal training, he served as a trial attorney for the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. After two years in Washington, he became executive assistant to Maine Senator Edmund S. Muskie from 1962 to 1965, giving him his first exposure to the workings of America's most exclusive club.
From Distinction to Distinction
He returned to Portland, Maine, and had practiced law for 12 years when he was appointed to the U.S. Senate in 1980 to complete the unexpired term of Senator Muskie. Senator Mitchell was elected to a full term in the Senate in 1982 and went on to an illustrious career spanning 14 years.
In 1988, he was reelected with 81 percent of the vote, the largest margin in Maine history. He was elected Senate Majority Leader in 1989, a position he held until he left the Senate in 1995. For six consecutive years, he was voted "the most respected member" of the Senate by a bipartisan group of senior congressional aides.
He further distinguished himself as chairman of the Northern Ireland peace negotiations, helping the long-feuding parties achieve an historic accord. His track record in diplomacy having been established, President Bill Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Barak, and PLO Chairman Arafat requested that Senator Mitchell serve as chairman of an international fact-finding committee that examined the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.
Senator Mitchell's credibility later made him the ideal choice to become chairman of the board of The Walt Disney Company at the moment when the chairman and CEO roles needed to be separated to address shareholder concerns. Today, between Disney, Major League Baseball, and his role as a partner in a prestigious Washington law firm, Senator Mitchell is intensively engaged in his responsibilities, a position that serves as an inspiring role model for anyone committed to excellence and career success.
Pair Specialization With Certainty
How can you increase your odds of generating the kinds of opportunities you desire? Start by adopting a new way to evaluate career turning points. A useful lens through which to view your career and to make career decisions is with the question, "Will this new role (or project or company) increase or decrease the number of options likely to become available in the future?"
If the answer to this is "yes," that's much of what you need to know to encourage you to accept the opportunity. Answering "no" does not automatically mean that you should decline the opportunity. It does suggest that you need to be certain that a narrowed set of future alternatives is something you're comfortable with.
For example, if you're graduating from an M.B.A. program and go into management consulting, the breadth of industry exposure, the problem-solving experience, and the additional training you'll receive over the subsequent three to four years will prepare you for a wide range of positions and industries that you could credibly move into later. By contrast, if you decide to move into derivatives trading, your set of skills quickly becomes specialized. In this case, your career progress will be achieved largely by becoming a more skilled trader with responsibility for ever expanding pools of capital.
One path is not necessarily better than the other. But the point to remember is that the more specialized you become, the more certain you need to be that the direction you are heading is one to which you are committed.
Advancing Past a Career Conundrum
Another way to protect yourself from becoming too specialized too early in your career is to get broader responsibilities or move into a new function. The conundrum, however, is often that you can't get the new job without the experience, but you can't get the experience without the job. When seeking to fill a specific position, companies typically look for someone internally or externally who has done the job successfully before.
This square-peg-in-square-hole approach is the way that most companies select someone for a position, expecting that hiring an experienced individual will have an immediate impact on performance and mitigate the risk of failure. While logical for a hiring company, this thinking presents a barrier to the ambitious employee who is looking to expand his or her responsibilities and create career options for the future.
It is genuinely difficult to move from one functional role, such as sales or finance, to another, such as marketing or operations. And it's always difficult to get that coveted first general management role. But you can achieve these career milestones and solve the conundrum by taking a "building block" approach. This works by breaking down the role you desire into the specific competencies required for success and then seeking opportunities to get experience in each.
For example, to be a successful corporate development executive you need to combine elements of strategic planning with deal making. If you've never led this function but would like to, you may be able to create the opportunity to move into this role by breaking the process into its component parts and gaining experience or at least exposure across the multiple areas that comprise corporate development: Corporate strategy, target company identification, competitive analysis, deal proposal, company overture, financial analysis, negotiation, due diligence, closing, and integration.
Piecing Experience Together
During a search for the chief corporate development executive for a major media company, the ultimately successful candidate was hired on this basis. While she had never been in the role before, nor had she actually led the execution of an acquisition or major investment, she was the right person for the job because of her experience in each of the component parts of corporate development.
Her experience happened to have been in consulting engagements for different clients over seven years. Strung together, she had done market analysis, company prospecting, deal structuring, negotiating, and all the other key corporate development steps for a wide range of media and entertainment clients. She was able to put her experience together and win the coveted position. She has been able to seamlessly lead the company's corporate development function ever since.
By making career decisions based on how greatly a proposed move expands the number of career options and applying the building-block approach to move systematically from one role to acquire the broad range of competencies required for more senior roles, you never know where your career path may lead. Like Senator Mitchell, it may take you to the U.S. Senate or to a leadership position in Major League Baseball.