Short term and long term employment strategies

Strategy is how you achieve goals. Career goals are based on a choice of career. That's the first, sometimes extremely difficult, bit of planning most people do. It's also the one where you learn how easy it is to make mistakes in employment choices.

It's tougher for younger people, because the whole workplace is redesigning itself. Teenagers now are jumping on a moving vehicle.

'Short term' and 'long term' can mean different things to different people. To a teenager, five years is a long time. Generally the idea of long term means a definite period , like finishing a university course. Short term means anything less than something identifiable as a finish line.

That's unfortunate, because employment goes on for decades. The known time frames, for younger people, are too short, so the thinking doesn't go beyond the basics.

Fortunately that idea of short term and long term cures itself. A job is got, and from then on, it's a series of moving targets. Priorities are broadly split by work and daily life into short term needs and ambitions, and long term ideas, rather than definite targets.

Added to which, life gets in the way. A family, job issues, personal affairs, all intrude soon enough.

Just to make things interesting, if you don't have goals and ways of achieving them, you can find yourself just running on the treadmill for ten or twenty years. That's a really good, effective, surefire way of missing a lot of opportunities.

Short term and long term strategies have to be able to get through the obstacle course. Sometimes getting from A to B isn't the problem: Getting to A can be tough. Sometimes the job that gave you the goals disappears. Sometimes you have your own problems, and they eat up all your available time.

Starting a strategy from scratch

It's probably best to approach any strategy from scratch. No preconceptions, just learning conscientiously. Like you were a kid trying for a first job.

If you remember, the problem with getting that first job was lack of experience and/or qualifications and lack of opportunities. Then the interviews didn't go so well. Then, eventually, you broke through. You learned quite a bit, consciously and otherwise, about how employment works.

At that time, either with parental support or some other way, you had a roof over your head, and were being supported in your daily needs. As an adult, you need to do that as well. You've learned that life has a habit of adding situations to your existence, like finding rocks in an ice cream.

First move:

Nail down anything likely to interfere with your goals. Get rid of bills, nuisances, timewasters, and if possible just stay out of all difficult situations. Make sure life isn't laying any land mines.

Then start figuring out how to achieve your basic objective, and look where you're going.

Say you want a good income, decent job, and some professional achievements as a businessman. Your goal is to become a manager, say, of a retail store, then a regional manager, etc. Maybe even start your own franchise, when you have the capital.

You're currently a plausible career candidate to do just that. You're a section supervisor, a good one, and you're really on top of your job. You don't have an MBA, any higher management experience, or any real credentials for your goal. You do have to get them, because you've noticed that all your senior people are really highly qualified, and do know their stuff.

So you start on the MBA, and try to hustle for some temporary management experience. This is stage one of your ultimate objective.

And that's all that happens.

It's a step and a bit, but it's not the whole story, is it' The qualification, and the experience, make you a bit better off than you were, but it's hardly even the start of what needs doing. It's also time consuming, and you're now very well aware of the effects of doing a degree while doing full time work. You're beginning to suspect you might just be following a trail of bread crumbs. (Meaning you have learned something: To be sure of what you're achieving) You definitely don't want to put in all that time for nothing.

You need a road map, to be sure you're getting somewhere. The best people to provide it are those who are where you want to be.

Find someone in management you trust, who's prepared to help and advise, who can spell out how to get where you're trying to go.

Turns out the MBA is just the beginning, and you're told you'll have to have some good, solid accounts experience, learn the whole operation, see how it all fits together, or doesn't, and do some time as a real manager, in your line of business.

No surprise there; of course you do. In fact, you'd be crazy not to do all of that. What's the use of a manager who can't read accounts, doesn't know what the HR issues are, etc. Very little use at all, as a matter of fact, and managers who don't know things like that tend to disappear, fast. They're liabilities, and without exception, lousy managers.

The target seems to have moved? No, it hasn't. You were a bit superficial about your strategy. What needs doing tends to dictate how things get done. The fundamentals of your approach are OK, to a point, but you have to be able to recognize your objective for what it actually is. Managers have to be able to operate across the entire spectrum of their responsibilities. You can't really be a 'bit of a manager'.

In practice, you need both the skills from the MBA and the practical experience regarding how to use these skills effectively. The MBA is actually teaching you the language. The experience means real work, and nothing else. That means knowing everything involved in your business to a reasonable level of competence at least.

Now another practical problem arises. How to get that sort of experience? You've done a bit of accountancy, but you've done no HR, no sales, no public relations, and mainly done administration.

Your friendly manager smiles, for some reason, and takes you to see the Human Resources Manager. He, not you, explains what you're trying to do, and the HR Manager also smiles, and says she'll see what she can do for you.

You find that you're now moving all over the place, getting that experience, and getting feedback from highly experienced managers and staff. You're learning a lot, almost immediately. The people you're working with seem to know everything, sometimes before it happens.

Think about this situation for a minute: these are the sort of people you intend to manage. Competent, effective people. Can you do that without an equal level of competence of your own? Good business, and good management, works entirely on competence.

The smiles were because they know exactly what you're going through. It's what they had to do. This is more than learning 'how to do a job', it's about competence, and about understanding the job. Expert managers don't become experts by accident.

You will notice that the theory and the practice have become much more complex, almost instantly. Your strategy was primarily aiming to do something, not dealing with how to do it. This is a bit like lateral thinking: decide on your objective, then find out what needs to be done to achieve that objective.

The other misconception was that the manager's job was an end in itself, a sort of finish line in a sprint. It's more like a marathon. People burn out because they run out of steam, or thought they were running 100m when they're running 1000Km.

There also wasn't much thought about the fact that a manager has to be a manager, having arrived at that point. You've picked an objective where competition for positions is ferocious, and the only way to really stand out is with solid, verifiable, experience and achievements.

You could have done the MBA, continued to do odd jobs here and there in managerial positions, and after getting your MBA, been totally uncompetitive against people doing what you're doing now. You wouldn't have had the experience, obviously, but you also, fatally, wouldn't have had anything like the necessary level of competence.

You might be the greatest manager the world has ever seen, but you'd have had no hope of proving it. Remember, there's money, assets, and liabilities involved here, and people don't like guessing who they're putting in charge of them.

That's part of what 'Look where you're going' means.

The other part is even tougher.

To get anywhere, you have to monitor your progress. Ask directions, get second, third, and fourth opinions, but keep track of yourself.

You can test how you're going, too. You express an opinion, and are surprised that six experienced people you know well all disagree, and all for different reasons.

Have you missed something? In all probability, yes, particularly if you don't understand their opinions, or weren't even aware of their points of view.

Careers spring surprises on people, and the people who survive those surprises are the successful ones. This series of different, unexpected, perspectives is an example:

In real business, it could mean out of a job, because your senior manager thinks your opinion is downright dangerous, or because your clients think you're way off the mark. In a listed company, the market can dump your stock if you make a wrong move, or a move they don't understand. That can cost millions, in seconds.

The first move in your strategy will have shown you a fundamental rule:

Think, listen, and learn.

Think about what you're doing.

Listen to what's being said.

Learn, or lose.