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Applying Design Thinking to Career Management!

Author : Dilip Saraf
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Although the phrase Design Thinking has been bandied about lately in many discussions that go beyond product design, its origins date back to the concepts of systems thinking. As contrasted with Linear Thinking, Systems Thinking is a discipline that requires anyone engaged in making decisions about any topic or matter to look at all the implications of a change as that change affects everything that the item being changed touches. In a complex system there are many elements that make that system behave the way that it does. Each component of that system plays a role to influence the systems outcomes, both in real time and, often, later, many of which are difficult to model to make predictions. But, what is difficult to escape is the inexorable ways in which a complex system faithfully plays out its function to create the outcomes that are inevitable. Those who cannot go beyond their ability to engage in linear thinking blame such outcomes to the law of unintended consequences!

Use cases of what happens when we engage in linear thinking abound in our everyday life: Here is a more dramatic example of how linear thinkers who hunted predatory wolves as a sport without giving any thought to how it impacted the surrounding ecosystem can be surprised by the transformation it caused when they applied system thinking to the same sport! This video (4:34) is illustrative of how we can change what we do if we apply our mind differently to consider all aspects of how a system behaves, now and with time.

Career management can also be viewed as process of understanding how different factors can influence your career trajectory if you view it as a system that evolves as you navigate through your career and as you execute your plan from the early stages of your career lifecycle.

Early Planning:

Regardless of where you are in your career and regardless of what career you plan to follow it is a good idea to start with the basic understanding of how you can design your own career by knowing what prepares for your future success. Pepsis Indra Nooyi lays out the framework of five Cs that every leader must consider as a basic building block of their leadership:

  1. Competence: In any pursuit you plan to call your career path you must excel at what you do. Starting from your first job you must engage your full potential to learn all that there is to learn about the subject that engages you in your career only to excel at it. I call it Personal Mastery. Even though a particular subject may not be the one that takes you to the checkered flag in your career, mastering what you engage in sets the tone of your future success as you navigate through your career path. It is not what you mastered in the process that matters as much as the process of learning how to master something that takes you to the finish line.
  2. Courage/Confidence: Nooyi pairs these two attributes together to impress on aspiring leaders that having courage to take a stand gives you the confidence you need to support that stand and to differentiate yourself from others. Lack of confidence can make others think less of you as a leader and can undermine your own ability to make a change and to get things done your way.
  3. Communication: In my own view this is one of the most underrated skills in leadership development. In my coaching practice Ive found that the main reason people get into trouble and cannot extricate themselves from it is because of their limited ability to communicate effectively. Their relationships with those with whom they work are influenced by their ability to communicate what they have on their mind. Deficit in this important skill can be a major factor in how your career progresses. Written and oral communications are critical in any leaders skills repertoire.
  4. Compass: By this term Nooyi is referring to your integrity. Your inner compass often tells you what is right and what is not. Those who follow their inner compass in how they make choices in their life and in their career can make the difference between success and failure. Many, who take shortcuts in their life and career by compromising their principles, often end up paying for it when it is too late for them to do anything about it. In contrast, when you make the right choice guided by your Compass, you may see the fruits of that choice much later as things come together for you at the right time (We pick our joys and sorrows long before we experience them. Omar Khayyam)
  5. Change: Although in Nooyis original cluster this C is for Coaching, I have changed it to highlight what is even more important. In my view coaching is important (as is mentoring), but often a good leader can coach by example and by their followers seeing them as their role models. In my coaching practice many leaders ignore the importance of what it takes to make a change and how their leadership can make a difference to the entire organization if they know how to manage that change. Most leaders come short on this front, and countless who suffer because of it come to me for guidance to sort through the confusion they experience under their leadership.

Although I have listed these skills as preparatory to ones leadership development, it is never too late to understand their importance in your career growth and to learn how to master them on your own.

Career Management:

Equipped with these critical skills the next frontier is then mapping out how you want to navigate through your career obstacle course to reach the finish line in your professional career. Although there is no real finish line in ones life, often, in a career there is a time when one considers retiring from it. So, before that event occurs most want to reach a certain level of career success. This requires planning, diligent execution, and hard work with the ability to pivot as things change.

Let us look at one object lession that involves a client of mine: Joe first came to me about eight years back (then 41) when he was a strategy consultant at a major consulting company. His kids were growing and he was tired of constant travel that his job required. Looking ahead, he wanted to settle down at a corporate job as an executive, aspiring one day to run a company as its CEO. Joe was clear about what he wanted, so we made a career plan, starting with how to go from consulting to a corporate job as an executive. This is not an easy transition, especially for a strategy consultant because their role often ends when they present their strategy to their clients and let the client do the dirty work of implementation and achieving the results of that strategy.

So, the first priority for us was to prepare Joe to showcase his ability to execute strategy and show success with his leading the change. This we decided to do at his consulting company and that undertaking took Joe about a year of doing consulting work as he was implementing a change at his own place of work. This success allowed us now to fashion a rsum that allowed Joe to be credible as a leader, who can execute changenot just strategize about itand to compete with others in the job market.

Once he landed a role as a VP of business development at a pharma company we aggressively created a plan for his next role as an operational leader, followed by leading a product development and management role, first in the US and then in other geos. This progression took about six years and within this period Joe had established himself as a credible executive in his industry.

Looking ahead we realized that Joes prospects of becoming a CEO at his own company were limited by factors that he could not control. So, Joe decided to look for outside opportunities where he could pursue becoming CEO. Late last year Joe found an opportunity for pursuing a COO role at a fast-growing biotech that was racing to go past a $2B/Yr. mark. Joe made the cut and he is now getting his feet on the ground to show what he can do as its COO. I fully expect Joe to become its CEO in the next 4-5 years.

As you can see from Jos real-life example here, designing ones career takes diligent planning, working hard to deliver, exceeding the expectations you create, and pivoting at the right time to maximize your career momentum. All of this required re-invention, planning, pivoting, and being patient to remain open to any opportunities that were worth pursuing, but on a plan that was cast in stone. Throughout this planned journey Joe had fun, learned much about himself, and realized that applying Design Thinking to ones career it is possible to go after what you wish to pursue and become. You, too, can do something along these lines; anyone can!

Good luck!

About Author
Dilip has distinguished himself as LinkedIn’s #1 career coach from among a global pool of over 1,000 peers ever since LinkedIn started ranking them professionally (LinkedIn selected 23 categories of professionals for this ranking and published this ranking from 2006 until 2012). Having worked with over 6,000 clients from all walks of professions and having worked with nearly the entire spectrum of age groups—from high-school graduates about to enter college to those in their 70s, not knowing what to do with their retirement—Dilip has developed a unique approach to bringing meaning to their professional and personal lives. Dilip’s professional success lies in his ability to codify what he has learned in his own varied life (he has changed careers four times and is currently in his fifth) and from those of his clients, and to apply the essence of that learning to each coaching situation.

After getting his B.Tech. (Honors) from IIT-Bombay and Master’s in electrical engineering(MSEE) from Stanford University, Dilip worked at various organizations, starting as an individual contributor and then progressing to head an engineering organization of a division of a high-tech company, with $2B in sales, in California’s Silicon Valley. His current interest in coaching resulted from his career experiences spanning nearly four decades, at four very diverse organizations–and industries, including a major conglomerate in India, and from what it takes to re-invent oneself time and again, especially after a lay-off and with constraints that are beyond your control.

During the 45-plus years since his graduation, Dilip has reinvented himself time and again to explore new career horizons. When he left the corporate world, as head of engineering of a technology company, he started his own technology consulting business, helping high-tech and biotech companies streamline their product development processes. Dilip’s third career was working as a marketing consultant helping Fortune-500 companies dramatically improve their sales, based on a novel concept. It is during this work that Dilip realized that the greatest challenge most corporations face is available leadership resources and effectiveness; too many followers looking up to rudderless leadership.

Dilip then decided to work with corporations helping them understand the leadership process and how to increase leadership effectiveness at every level. Soon afterwards, when the job-market tanked in Silicon Valley in 2001, Dilip changed his career track yet again and decided to work initially with many high-tech refugees, who wanted expert guidance in their reinvention and reemployment. Quickly, Dilip expanded his practice to help professionals from all walks of life.

Now in his fifth career, Dilip works with professionals in the Silicon Valley and around the world helping with reinvention to get their dream jobs or vocations. As a career counselor and life coach, Dilip’s focus has been career transitions for professionals at all levels and engaging them in a purposeful pursuit. Working with them, he has developed many groundbreaking approaches to career transition that are now published in five books, his weekly blogs, and hundreds of articles. He has worked with those looking for a change in their careers–re-invention–and jobs at levels ranging from CEOs to hospital orderlies. He has developed numerous seminars and workshops to complement his individual coaching for helping others with making career and life transitions.

Dilip’s central theme in his practice is to help clients discover their latent genius and then build a value proposition around it to articulate a strong verbal brand.

Throughout this journey, Dilip has come up with many groundbreaking practices such as an Inductive Résumé and the Genius Extraction Tool. Dilip owns two patents, has two publications in the Harvard Business Review and has led a CEO roundtable for Chief Executive on Customer Loyalty. Both Amazon and B&N list numerous reviews on his five books. Dilip is also listed in Who’s Who, has appeared several times on CNN Headline News/Comcast Local Edition, as well as in the San Francisco Chronicle in its career columns. Dilip is a contributing writer to several publications. Dilip is a sought-after speaker at public and private forums on jobs, careers, leadership challenges, and how to be an effective leader.



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