6 lessons that shaped my career
started my career out of university in 1982 and since then I’ve had a number of interesting roles across several diverse sectors. However, along the way I’ve learned my own lessons and developed my own beliefs about managing that journey and I thought I would write them down.
It’s my list, it works for me. You may have your own list that looks very different, but the process of thinking it through and writing it down was useful in itself as it clarifies how you approach issues and that’s a useful skill itself.
Anyway, here’s my list and I hope some of the pointers prove useful to yourself.
Don’t pigeonhole yourself
When I first began my career in the early 1980s, it was natural to pursue roles that directly reflected my qualifications and previous experiences.
On the face of it, this seemed totally logical, and my engineering degree certainly helped me progress in my first job. However, I came to realise that by sticking to a rigid mind-set of what I “categorised” myself as, in the long term I could potentially be pigeon holing my career, and, importantly, preventing myself from truly exploring my passions and skills. Ultimately you need to create more and more options for yourself, not close options down.
So, after nearly a decade at Schlumberger, I decided it was time for a change and in the early 1990s I joined McKinsey. The new role could not have been more different to the one I had left, as I worked on projects in different sectors and tackling different problems. While my earlier education and experience provided a fantastic working knowledge of one specific sector, this was not the science-based role I had trained for, or indeed would have ever envisaged myself to be in just three years earlier. However, making this transition proved to be one of the most valuable experiences of my career.
I learned new skills, new ways of dealing with business challenges, new ways of working in teams, new ways of presenting, new everything to be honest. As I got to grips with all this, I also became more confident in myself. That in turn helped me knock down many of the perceived barriers I thought were in front of me, realising they were only barriers in my own mind. As a result, I felt liberated to tackle things that in the past would have filled me with dread, and I think that helped make me a better person as well as a better professional.
Don’t be afraid to take a leap of faith
On a similar note, over the years I’ve learnt to never dismiss an opportunity out of hand, no matter how daunting that opportunity may feel at the time. Your future is not preordained but becomes the outcome of the decisions you can consciously take today. Following this mantra can take your career into new and exciting directions that you may never have thought about before.
This can include considering unfamiliar roles, but it can also mean taking the opportunity to work in new countries. I’ve been fortunate enough to work across Europe, Asia and America, and this has given me fresh perspectives on my own skills and the ways in which organisations can operate. Today, international mobility is on the rise and employers value adaptable, inquisitive candidates. Taking a leap of faith to work overseas – or work in a totally unfamiliar environment – will increase your cultural intelligence and your flexibility and it shows a new employer you are willing to push yourself as opposed to staying permanently in your comfort zone.
Don’t be afraid to take risks
Of course, some opportunities are easier to grasp than others. Early in my career I was self-conscious about pushing myself out of my comfort zone – it seemed an unnecessary risk, particularly at the time when I felt I was just starting to master the brief in front of me.
But after eight years of full-time employment, I realised that some risks are worth taking. I enrolled in a Business MBA at Stanford University, walking away from a lucrative and fast-track role with my then employer. At the time, my career was going from strength to strength and that could have easily convinced me I didn’t need to take time away in order to upskill. However, I also recognised I needed more options for the future and the course proved to be one of the best decisions of my professional life. It was a unique experience and has been absolutely integral to my career. Fundamentally, industries constantly change and roles evolve – but by pushing myself to upskill, I gained those vital business management skills which are required to progress in any sector, and also opened up the possibility of moving across sectors in the future.
The lesson I learnt here is that I should constantly try to push myself, especially when I feel most comfortable. It can sometimes be a gamble, but it’s certainly paid off in my experience. The world of work is inherently risky – you’re constantly dealing with shifting markets, competition and a host of internal factors. Those who play it safe will muddle on, but those who take measured gambles are often the ones who reap the largest rewards.
Surround yourself with the best people
Whether reaching out to find a mentor in my early days, or as CEO making hiring decisions to build a team I can depend on, I think a key driver of my own success over the years has been the people I’ve surrounded myself with.
Today, I look to hire colleagues who have a vision for the future, both in terms of their own career goals as well as for how our business should adapt to win. When building my team at IT company Xansa in the early 2000s, the digital revolution was gathering pace. It was key to me to find people who would not just observe the rapid changes in technology but tell me why they were important to our future and how we could apply them to our business. Today, employers’ preference for ‘digital makers’ over ‘digital observers’ has only increased.
At the same time I’ve always prioritised personality fit when assembling a team, since achieving results in any business often requires a mixture of individuals working together seamlessly. You need to get a wide range of skills, experience and ways of seeing the world around the table. But this can bring conflict so it’s important to find those who can respect a counterview and work with it to find a better solution. I’m proud to say that my senior team here at Hays is the best I’ve ever worked with, not only because it comprises of people with world class technical and operational skills, but also because we have hired personalities that complement each other so well. It’s not about agreeing with each other and forming Groupthink. That’s dangerous. It’s about being open to an alternative view and working with that.
Of course, ultimately employees need to buy into their leaders. The best leaders I’ve worked under have all strived to be authentic. Yes, they’ve been fantastic at their job, but they’ve also accepted that people want to be led by someone they trust. They’ve been confident enough to recognise their own limitations and where their staff can plug their gaps and they’ve not been uncomfortable with that. At the same time, these leaders have exuded reliability under pressure – and have been honest enough to not only admit when they’ve made mistakes but explain how they’ve learned from them.
I’m sure you’ve all heard of the phrase ‘hire people who are smarter than you’. Well I think it’s true and I’m a firm believer in doing just that.
Stay true to your North Star
I’ve always been careful to stay true to my ‘North Star’ – that guiding light that drives my long term vision and personal values. But organisations need a North Star too, and at Hays our North Star is ‘to place the right person in the right job every time’ – which defines the true essence of why we exist. By following that route we will build a bigger and focused business as well as a reputation for doing the right thing for all our customers. It makes sure we don’t lose focus or get side-tracked by tangential opportunities, or deviate when faced with choppy waters. Having worked across a wide range of sectors and markets, I’ve pursued a range of North Stars at separate organisations and they’ve all been unique. However, one thing is common and that is in my experience, the people and companies that do best are those that keep true to their North Star, and avoid the temptation to veer off course when the going gets tough.
In business and in our careers, we can often be overwhelmed by a deluge of differing opinions and noise, but maintaining a focus provides a guiding light and the opportunity to simplify a situation and decide on the best course of action in the midst of the confusion. Setting out a single key priority, either for career or business has enabled me to navigate the various crashes, boom periods and personal setbacks of the last 30 years.
Don’t push yourself beyond the limit
Yet while focus on your North Star is crucial, you should never spend your entire time in pursuit of it at all costs. Sometimes it pays to pause and reflect, even during the working day. Completing one task and immediately rushing onto the next one can lead to fatigue, burnout and leaves no time to “check-in” with what you’re trying to achieve in the first place.
Throughout my career I’ve seen even the best colleagues and leaders succumb to pressure as they relentlessly pursue targets. Remember that the majority of stress is subjective and under your own control, so where possible I prioritise downtime non-work activities to give me the space I need to just absorb things. I’ve found that taking a break to go mountain biking for example can help me switch off so that I return to tackle objectives with a fresh mind. What I’ve also discovered over time is that these “downtimes” have also sparked some of my best thinking.
As I said at the beginning, this is just a list that works for me and won’t necessarily for you. However I can point to numerous examples of where I think good things have happened as a result of following the above so it has delivered and I feel better for it. Part of the value has certainly been in identifying my own building blocks that will define my own approach to business leadership, but the process takes time and in my case certainly hasn’t happened overnight. I’ve carried these lessons with me throughout my career, and despite traversing many different sectors and countries during the last 30 years, they’ve certainly helped me achieve my goals in each role and industry. I hope they prove useful for you in your own journey – wherever it takes you.
About the Author
Alistair Cox ist Chief Executive Officer of Hays plc and a chartered Engineer with an MBA from Stanford University. Alistair’s early career was in various field engineering, management and research science roles with British Aerospace and then Schlumberger. Following his MBA, Alistair worked for Mckinsey & Company before joining Blue Circle Industries, where he was the Group Strategy Director and then the Regional Director for Asia. Prior to joining Hays plc, Alistair was Chief Executive of Xansa plc. This article was originally posted to LinkedIn.
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