How to Build a Career

How to build a career

My first job was as a Saturday clerk at my local grocery store, aged thirteen.  I love to work, I’ve always understood the huge social value that working brings to our psychological identity, our sense of self.  People like to be identified by their role, or their approach to their role.  My professional choice to be an organizational psychologist is testament to my extreme geekiness about work – I simply delight in seeing people in the right job. It’s like rhyming poetry to me, or a room of perfect 90 degree angles to my neat freak husband.

Honest, passionate, providing and contributing to my family, providing and contributing to the world, making my mark, hardworking, loyal, reliable, leaving a legacy, ambitious – we show who we are at work.

What do you want to get out of work?

But building a career is a craft.  Some people are completely satisfied with a reliable income that allows them to focus on their personal life – holidays, gardening, family.  Some people want more and should give more –  both types of approaches to work, life, community and family are needed for modern life.  When I coach people who are looking for work, I often ask them the following questions:

Plot the journey

  • What are your survival jobs?  What would you do to make a living if there were few options?
  • What jobs are entry level to your career of choice?
  • What jobs help you transition?
  • What is your dream job?

Now, some people know what their dream job is, and we have to work on understanding how to get there.

Others are able to think of jobs they can get (i.e. survival or entry level) but not how they might use those jobs to progress.

For some people it’s the same job from survival to dream, but the dream is to be doing it with the right team, with the right level of security and pay.

Accept that the real journey will be twisty and turny

We are all different, careers go up, they go down, they have lulls, they take a back seat while we do other things like grow families, take care of people and study, and other times careers have massive injections that we weren’t expecting.  Periods of unemployment can be soul destroying and can take a lot of recovery time.  Career building isn’t a natural skill, seeking advice and recommendation is a good idea.

Talking to people about how they got their job and how they built their career can provide the magic insight you’ve been waiting for.  I always say to people, don’t be embarrassed – often people are flattered to be asked and love talking about their journey!  One of the learnings to come out of such an endeavor is to realize that people very rarely have a straight line to the job that they want, and that our definition of dream job is really personal.  I met someone recently for whom being a biochemist is a survival job!

Confide your dreams

I always secretly wanted to write for a living.  I used to dream about being a writer, whilst becoming a psychologist.  I always thought I would have to labor away writing something fantastic in my own time and then do the rounds with rejection after rejection.  Since my lucky career break of BBC 2’s ‘Employable Me’, I now have an agent who is trying to fix me up with publisher lunches to discuss options!  However I am too busy writing my PhD, which is actually as long as a book, and now the whole thing feels completely realistic.

But I had no idea that this pathway would develop when I was 25.  I still used to dream but I would never dare tell anyone.  I’m telling you now because I’m not embarrassed anymore – I think it will happen and what I’ve learned for myself is that the more I talk about my goals the more likely they are to arrive.  Talking is like planning for me.  Don’t be shy!

We often feel secretive and anxious about our dreams, or like we must hide the light of our true potential under a bushel.  We wait to be ‘discovered’, too anxious to chase the goal with confidence, or unsure how to take the first step.

Ambition is a dirty word for some social groups, for women, for some communities (“who does she think she is?  What has she got to write about?”).  It’s taken me until my 40’s to accept that ambition is not a dirty word for me (thanks Reese Witherspoon, your speech should be required watching for all school leavers)

Imposter syndrome is a common issue for people when they finally get the job they want, achieve the goal – we can’t quite believe we’ve got there, we’re worried about being ‘found out’ – what if it’s all a mistake and suddenly everyone realizes that inside I’m still a 14 year old too overwhelmed to go to school? I personally have a coaching or mentoring session for imposter syndrome on average every 2 years!

Shine your light

The world does not thrive when its inhabitants are punching at 50, 60 or 70% of our weight.  By challenging ourselves and lifting each other to work at our best we make our best contribution to our communities.  I have been blessed with so many mentors who helped me take the next step.  They were rarely my ‘boss’ in a formal sense, wisdom comes from a wide range of sources.

I learned early in my career to cherish when someone confides their dream in me.  A chap on one of my first ever employability courses, from West London, told me many years ago that he wanted to be a cartoonist. We worked backwards from this dream and he considered different pathways to get there.  When I waved good bye to him he was starting a job in a supermarket, with his dreams validated and some passion in his heart to work his way through. I was delighted ten years later when my colleague called me excitedly.  “Nancy, turn on the TV”!  Rastamouse, a children’s cartoon about a mouse in a reggae band that fights crime.  His dream came true.

Don’t underestimate the power of volunteer, survival and entry level jobs

A fantastic job for me was support and care work for people with disabilities when I was 18 and 19.  That job taught me the values that I have aspired to throughout my own career to date – respect and care for individuals, the need for systemic solutions, discipline and self-correction to honor those who depend on us, accountability, reliability and the ability to build rapport with a wide range of people and connect to the value in each human.  It was pivotal in my decision to become a psychologist and dedicate my career to working out how to systemically include people who are diverse and bring unusual talents.

It’s remarkable to me how the themes of my life have remained consistent, through care work, childcare, NYC server, volunteer work, recruitment, management, employability, management consulting, diagnostics, entrepreneurialism, etc.  Was Employable Me a random event?  Who knows but I spent a year at drama school before I went to Uni to study Psychology. Even though I left that career path (ungracefully, with tantrum and tiara) the performance skills have come full circle.

So, my final advice on building a career is to consider all 4 steps from survival to dream, and to go to whichever level will provide immediate access, delivering that role whilst staying true to your values and planning the next step.

Never be afraid to work for free and prove your worth – either a part time shadowing gig, one day a week work trial, pilot program delivering for cost only, apprenticeship.  Talk to people about what you want to do, embrace your passion and ambition, you never know who your next fairy godmother will be.  I recently sent the CV of a young neighbour who is a fresh media grad to 8 media producers I know with a nod that this chap is worthy of my recommendation, on the basis of the voluntary work that he does in his community. One of them responded immediately with an interview invite.  My most recent hire at Genius Within shadowed me for 6 weeks, 2 evenings a week running workshops and by the end of it I could see he was reliable, honest, committed, passionate and able to communicate with skill and flexibility. Of course I offered the next job along to him!

Careers are built around identity, jobs are won and held on character and good relationships.

Hold your course and stay true to yourself

When a job, company or boss doesn’t fit your values, don’t be frightened to walk away.  I turned down a career building job in a great industry because the salary wasn’t right and the boss told me I should consider myself lucky with the lower amount since he knew I wanted to get pregnant!  I was in the doldrums for a while but my next job was a self employed gig with an excellent mentor and long time collaborator, running a project that I still use as an example when I lecture on cultural change.

When I was a four year old child I wanted to be Debbie Harry – a female leader who was unafraid to stand in front, a punk artist challenging the status quo.

I still aspire to Debbie Harry, but I am also secretly harboring a dream to be my cat.  His life is peachy.


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