How to chart a successful and rewarding career path

Instead of moulding your CV to fill a position, true career success starts with looking inside you, says Paolo Gallo, author of The Compass and the Radar

I have been a Director of Human Resources in different countries and companies for close to 20 years and I have two very simple – and powerful – questions for you:

  1. What do you need to have a successful career?
  2. What does it actually mean to have a successful career?

Of course, we all need to have the knowledge and experience to perform in a given role, which I consider a ‘necessary but insufficient’ tool. So, what else is needed?

Decode the big picture and increase your value

I believe you need two tools: the first one is the ‘Radar’, meaning the capacity to see and decode the big picture. We are all focused on our roles, in the challenges and dynamics of our respective organisations, and at times wasting energy and sleep from toxic people.

While this is, of course, important we also need to fly higher and anticipate what’s coming next, rather than simply hoping that business as usual is still ok. Think, for example, of Nokia, Blockbuster or BlackBerry: these companies were in vogue for a long period of time but they missed the big picture and are now either out of business altogether, or are languishing behind competitors.

The same concept applies to our careers. Let me go one step further – you should be the Portfolio Manager of your own career, and you have a kind of moral duty to increase your value.

Let me explain – increasing your value does not mean increasing your salary. It means learning every day, establishing relationships based on trust, creating value for your clients and communities. Rest assured that once you increase your value, the financial reward will come. If not, you can always, and kindly, say goodbye and work somewhere else.

A well-functioning Radar will help you see dangers and opportunities and ‘anticipate’ changes in the job market. The technological changes of the fourth industrial revolution are disrupting job markets and roles. We must understand and anticipate the changes rather than just wait and see if these changes will affect us. They will…. rest assured.  

Take decisions that are consistent with your values

The second instrument is the ‘Compass’. This signifies a set of moral values that give you direction as well as deep and authentic self-awareness coupled with empathy.

Take everything you thought you knew about finding a job or advancing in your career and throw it out the window. Instead of seeing what’s out there and then moulding your CV to fill that position, the first step is looking inside you, not out.

Define your values, what you stand for, where you find meaning in life, and go from there. This means discovering your passions and talents, and translating these into your strengths, with discipline, focus, effort and, yes, sweat. In my 30 years of experience, the most profound career takeaways are all about staying human, prioritising what’s really important, and being consistently true to yourself throughout your working life. Freedom to me is not doing what you want when you want – this defines only the behaviour of teenagers. Instead, freedom is about taking decisions that are consistent with values. When managing your career, with increasing life expectancy and exponential speed, you also need to put your cura personalis at the centre of your career, which means taking care of yourself from every standpoint – physical, emotional and spiritual.

Three questions to ask yourself each day

Among the million conversations we have had in our lives, which one was the most impactful?

For me, it was one I had with my father when I was six years old – 50 years ago. My father made a major commitment to my twin sister and I when he promised to be there for our first day of school. He worked in Sao Paulo, Brazil and only came back home to Milan, Italy, twice a year, in August and at Christmas. The big day finally came, but when we woke up that morning our father wasn’t home. We were crushed, but despite our disappointment, we still felt excited to start school. Well, the first day flew by, and when the final bell rang, my father was waiting for us at the school gates. I was overjoyed to see him. On the way home, we bombarded him with our stories: what we’d done at school, the names of our new classmates, the teacher, the blackboard with all the coloured chalk, the map of Italy on the wall. Our stories continued at home, too, during lunch with the family. When the meal was over, my father looked me in the eye and said: ‘Paolo, starting tomorrow, don’t talk about what you did, but ask yourself what you have learned, if you helped other people and if you love what you’re doing, because nothing else matters.’

So, in your career, use your own Compass and Radar, and don’t forget to ask yourself every day if you are learning something new, helping other people and loving what you do. This is the art of building a rewarding career while remaining true to yourself. Learn, help, love: quite simple…isn’t it?

Paolo Gallo is the author of The Compass and the Radar and teaches regularly at SDA Bocconi School of Management and for Hult Ashridge Executive Education. His past roles include Chief Human Resources Officer at the World Economic Forum in Geneva and Chief Learning Officer at The World Bank in Washington DC.  

AMBA members can benefit from a 30% discount on the RRP for this book, as part of the Book Club. Click here for details.

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