Career choices: a linear path or add a little colour?

By Heidi Sundin

Looking for a role is a challenging process. As I’ve looked for roles at different points in my career I’ve often had the feedback ‘you’re very colourful’, ‘I don’t know how to place you as you’ve done lots of different things’, ‘you need to pick one path to go down’.

A linear career path takes more of a straight line with fewer twists and turns into related or different fields. There are loads of benefits to taking a more linear approach such as incredible depth of knowledge in one subject matter area or skill set, networks specific to your subject matter, building a portfolio of demonstrated success in an area, developing heuristics to create short cut solutions when familiar problems arise, and clear next steps in your career.

It is always a delicate balance to strike between working on something that you love and are passionate about, making money, and making ‘sensible’ choices that enhance your CV. For many people the linear path will be aligned with their passions and that’s wonderful, but for many others the steps in their career can take a more meandering path.

The advice one receives in making these choices is often conflicting, with “helpful comments” such as:

  • ‘There’s no such thing as a linear career path – don’t let anyone tell you that’
  • ‘Follow your passions’
  • ‘Life’s too short – love what you do’
  • ‘You need depth – stick with it even if you hate it’
  • ‘Choose a career based on the characteristics that are important to you’
  • ‘Keep moving – if you stay still too long you get overtaken’

Mostly in my career have taken a path that is winding. There are common themes and principles in my choices – I find really interesting and complex problems to solve where I believe I’m best placed to make a real and tangible difference through a strategic, engaging and collaborative approach, with disciplined project management and execution.

The question of whether to take a more linear career path or to follow your passions that may take you in different directions is a personal one to answer and comes down to what’s right and authentic for you.

One of my favourite books is Sideways To The Top by Norah Breekeldt. The book follows the paths of 10 exceptional women who have become leaders in their field – either CEOs or owners of their own firms. Breekeldt explores the concept that the path to the top is not linear and rather may require sideways moves. The sideways moves that these women have taken shows how they built their breath of skills, experiences and networks necessary for the CEO role – and got to the top in non-linear and unpredictable ways.

What makes you exceptional through your non-linear path?

As a non-linear candidate you can provide great benefits to teams and organisations – that are not always obvious from reading your CV. So if you’re like me and you’ve chosen a path that’s the road less travelled here are some of the great things that give you an edge to add to your narrative.

High level of comfort with uncertainty and agility: In today’s organisations with so much change, transformation, disruption and convergence of industries – if you’ve worked in lots of different environments it can often mean you are more comfortable with change and can adjust to restructures more easily. The fact that you have moved outside comfort zones could mean that you are more comfortable taking risks and going hard after opportunities.

Depth in variety: A non-linear path may also mean that you have depth in variety – you know about a lot of things. You may not be the subject matter expert on every topic but you know about how to bring the right people to the table, how to read situations and how to get things done regardless of the circumstances that you are presented with. You can figure out how to solve most problems – because you’ve worked in lots of different areas and usually have a diverse network that you can draw on.

See the linkages and make connections: You can connect the dots which is important for general management and leadership, work across multiple disciplines and speak the language of the disciplines that your people and teams are specialists in. You may see convergence opportunities – because you can draw on different industries and identify how they could fit together. This has the benefit for bringing new ideas and ways of looking at things to an organisation that may be doing the same things in the same ways.

Empathy and consensus building: Getting things done requires seeing the world from another person’s perspective, getting behind the language that a certain discipline may use, and really listening to what someone is saying. Personally I have worked for government, non-profit, academia, professional services and corporate – so I have the ability to try to put myself in the shoes of the person I’m negotiating with to understand what they are really trying to say. The non-linear path can often give you a deeper empathetic understanding that the linear may not.

In my view good organisations will build teams with a combination of employees and leaders with linear and non-linear backgrounds – as this provides a wonderful opportunity to bring new ideas, approaches and viewpoints to deep knowledge and experience.

My tips for the colourful

A couple of hints to make sure that you are able to keep moving forward, sideways, upside-down or which ever direction you would like:

Listen to feedback: Feedback is a gift and while sometimes the feedback you may receive during the recruitment process can be uncomfortable – it is very useful to understand how best to pitch your skill set and experience. Thank you to those recruiters who have taken the time to provide such frank and constructive feedback to me and other candidates.

Listen to yourself: Ultimately you’re the person who has to wake up every day and find inspiration to work on something – so listen to others but most importantly listen to yourself – choose a path that is not just about success but also about fulfilment.

Know your narrative: Since you may not always be the obvious choice it is important that you are well equipped to speak to your strengths, passions and the value that you can bring to an organisation. Make it easy for people to see why you’re the right choice, not necessarily the obvious one.

And finally a tip from Dominic Moore, specialist in search and recruitment:

Keep your networks fresh: Those who know you best know how to use your varied and complex skills to their fullest. Applying for roles when you are colourful can be difficult so be prepared to dig a bit deeper into the ‘hidden’ market to find the opportunities that make the most of who you are and what you do best.

I’d love to hear your stories on how you’ve made choices in your career. What has been some of the feedback, advice, comments you’ve received?


When one teaches two learn – tops tips to be a good mentor

By: Heidi Sundin

Over my career I have been fortunate enough to benefit from many great mentors, and I feel it is important to play that same role for others just starting out in their career or aiming to advance.

There are many benefits to being a mentor. For me, my greatest satisfaction comes from seeing others succeed. There are other surprising benefits as well. As your mentees start to develop in their career and become more senior they can often move out of the mentee role and into trusted friends and colleagues. Recently I had the experience where two of my former students reverse mentored me acting as a sounding board to provide a different perspective. I am also truly inspired by many of my mentees and former students, they often go in different paths that you could never have imagined and show talents and creativity that challenge your own assumptions.

In addition the simple process of routinely checking-in with someone and focusing on professional development shines a light on your own development. It keeps oneself in check – one of my favorite sayings is ‘when one teaches, two learn’ and this is very true when you’re mentoring.

So, what do you do when someone asks you to be his or her mentor?

Typically the mentoring arrangements as falling into three main categories: informal, formal self-managed, formal program.

Recently a colleague asked if I could mentor a staff member of his. She and I met and she expressed that she had never worked with a female manager before and had very few senior professional female role models. I thought I would share my top tips in how I approach being a mentor in a more formalised way.

Make sure the chemistry is right

In taking on a regular mentoring commitment you are going to invest time and energy into another person’s career development. It is important that the there is a ‘fit’ between you and your mentee. So before you make the commitment ensure that you have a good rapport, do some research on your mentee, and ask for some recommendations if possible.

Be clear upfront what your mentee is looking for

At your first meeting it is important to clarify what your mentee is looking for. Do they want a formal or informal arrangement? How often do they want to meet? Ensure that you set the expectations early on around these items and that you talk through how to set up meetings, how to reach you, your expectations in terms of your mentee’s meeting preparation and follow up, etc.

There are no hard or fast rules on this, tailor these expectations depending on what your mentor is looking for. Some mentees I meet fortnightly, others every two months and some once a year.

Build a roadmap to see where you are going

I generally start by understanding where my mentee is in his or her career and where they see themselves in different time horizons. While they may not have thought about it before and may not know what they want to do, we will often focus more on the characteristics of what a great professional future looks like, rather than a specific role.

This helps to identify how you might best help them, what skills to help them develop and how you might be use your network to connect them. The roadmap should be clear, but flexible and individualised for each of your mentees.

Be purposeful with your meetings

I always start every meeting with the question ‘what would you like to get out of today’s meeting’. Even if I have in mind what I think we should focus on, ultimately the mentees should drive the agenda and their own development. This builds a habit of the mentee being independent and self-driven which then filters into other parts of their career. Encourage your mentee to come with one to two items of focus in each meeting. Work through these items and at the end of the meeting check in that the mentee feels you have covered those items.

I usually set ‘homework’ for my mentees, usually one or two questions to reflect on and talk to at the next meeting, and check in with this at the beginning of the following meeting.

Make a lot of notes and as these notes build over time, you can recap with your mentee how far they have come.

Share your experiences and draw on resources

In my view time with your mentee is about them so be considered in how you share your experiences and advice. Focus more on helping your mentee approach and solve issues (how to think – not what to think). In terms of skills and experience development – draw on your networks and the many freely available resources. I often steer people towards interesting books, articles, TED talks and MOOCs (freely available online courses) where there is a skill gap.

I’m always happy to have a coffee with someone and do some informal mentoring, but more recently I prefer a slightly more formalised arrangement because I find it makes the most out of the time together. But it is not for everyone – so pick the mentoring arrangement that works best for you and make the best contribution that you feel is right for you and your mentee.

Share your experience of how you work with your mentees.

How an executive coach can help you

By: Heidi Sundin

Much is written about the importance of mentoring and sponsorship to ensure women reach the higher levels of management. I also recommend working with an executive coach as you enter into executive roles.

Many people find themselves as managers and executives because they have shown exceptional technical skill and achievement. Through their technical success they have been promoted to higher levels in an organisation and find that they are taking on management and executive roles. Often this can happen without much consideration or training for the skills required to manage and lead – which are very different from the technical skills they have mastered.

As I have moved into senior management roles over the last few years I have worked with three executive coaches, and met many others, and I wanted to share some of my experiences working with an executive coach for those who many be considering working with a coach.

Focusing on your own values and what you stand for

Have you ever sat down and purposefully thought through your values? Or articulated with great clarity what you stand for? When I first started working with a coach I thought our sessions would immediately jump right into aspects of decision-making, negotiation, people management, etc. To my surprise our first sessions focused much more gaining a deeper understanding of my values, level of confidence, and what I stand for. As a leader much of what is going on inside affects what is happening outside and it is important to gain a handle on this before working on the more advanced management skills.

Flexibility in leadership and management style is critical

We all have our own way of interacting with others and first time managers often rely on their natural ability and talents. This is great and can work in many situations. What I have found as I have worked in different types of organisations with different organisations cultures, however, is that not all styles work in all situations. Working with an executive coach will help you understand what your style is and how to develop some more flexibility in the styles you have available. This means you are better able to read a situation and draw on a variety of communication, management or leadership style and tools that may be more effective in any given situation.

Work on different skills at different times

Initially starting out with the coach, the focus was to understand more about myself and the kind of leader I aspire to be. This is an important step. As your confidence as a leader develops and is grounded in your values, you can move to focus on other development areas such as presence and influence skills, advanced negotiation, how to be more effective in executive meetings, delegation techniques and delivering impactful speeches and presentations.

Working with a coach is different to having a mentor. Your executive coach will often have deep corporate and executive experience and be well trained in coaching, communications, management and behavioral sciences. As your relationship with your coach develops you may also find yourself working through specific scenarios that are happening at work, with your team or with your colleagues. Using your coach as a sounding board with these situations can often help give a confidential and independent perspective leading to a more positive outcome.

Coaching is an investment and in my experience – one well worth making to become a better leader.

Share your experiences of working with a coach or the questions you have about working with a coach.