Improvisation

Think Tank

Do You Have a Career Plan? That's Nice. Now It's Time to Improvise.

What's the Big Idea?

Ann Veneman has broken so many glass ceilings that she is understandably asked about her career strategy quite often. One would assume that the former Secretary of Agriculture had a very clear career plan right from the start. And yet, Veneman tells Big Think her approach was very unorthodox, as she rose to a cabinet post in the White House and a top leadership position at the UN.

According to Veneman, career success for her was a matter of taking advantage of opportunities, not having a set plan. 

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What's the Significance?

When was a young lawyer in California she never had the goal of becoming U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. And yet, when she was offered the opportunity to work on trade and international issues -- which would be an important stepping stone in her career -- she recognized the opportunity.

"Had I said no to that," she tells Big Think, "I would not have done any of the things I've ended up doing and so I often look back at my life and say it was not about having goals to do these things, but taking advantage of opportunities that came my way."

As Veneman notes, this is not advice that you will hear very often. If you're an ambitious business school graduate, for instance, you probably feel the pressure to develop a very clear career strategy, and stick to it. Make VP by age 30. Here is an 87-step process "you can use to go from student to CEO." 

And yet, in today's economy of pop-ups and start-ups, it is a much needed skill to be able to improvise. You might have your sights on an executive position at a Fortune 500 company, but by the time you have ascended the latter that company could be history. After all, the longevity of companies simply isn't what it used to be, as billion dollar industries vanish and new ones come out of nowhere. 

In this context, you simply cannot afford to be so goal-oriented that you lose the flexibility to change course, particularly when an opportunity suddenly arises. 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @Daniel Honan

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