Estimated reading time: 8 minutes, 48 seconds

Look to Your Future

back-to-the-future-deloreanLast month, I attended the Hall of Fame induction ceremony for the alumni association at my alma mater, Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. My wife, Carole, was one of the inductees. It was a fine evening, with drinks, a nice dinner, and speeches from honored guests (most of which exceeded their allotted time limit). Normally, when captive in an audience, I tend to quickly zone out, daydream, think about our next vacation, or nod off. However, the first speech was pretty good, the next was very interesting, the third entertaining…..  heck, every one of the first 16 until they got to Carole’s (which was the best, of course) were excellent. I never got the chance to get bored.

Anyone familiar with SIUE knows that it’s not Harvard. It’s a Masters-level university with a regional focus, located in southwestern Illinois across the Mississippi from St. Louis. Most students are from the area, which is a mixture of urban, inner city, suburban, and rural populations. SIUE has a long-standing mission to improve the lives of the communities it serves through education, and it’s been highly successful over the past 50 years doing so. It is now receiving the national recognition it deserves.

The Alumni Hall of Fame inductees were all very successful in their respective fields. There were CEOs, inventors, educators, entrepreneurs, musical savants, a professional sports announcer, judges, doctors, and Carole, an oncology nurse (who also, not to brag on her, is a published author, innovator in cancer survivorship programs, and regionally and nationally known in her field). They were a diverse group, but surprisingly it turns out they had important things in common. That’s why I followed their words so closely.

Certain threads seemed to run through the induction speeches, which is what made them listenable to me and valuable to pass along. A lot of this is commonsense stuff, but hearing these points from a parade of success stories was what caught my ear. Note that the following themes are almost universally applicable, no matter what your profession.

  • Be a lifelong learner. Just graduating from high school or college, or completing a training course, doesn’t complete your education. You need to remain curious, keep an open mind, and challenge yourself to accept opportunities to learn in greater depth and breadth. Ongoing learning prepares you for greater responsibility and exposes you to different ideas, approaches, and people that can help you in the future.
  • Take advantage of mentors. Virtually every successful person I know, and nearly every single HOF inductee, can identify someone who mentored them early and throughout their careers. Now, there can sometimes be confusion about what a ‘mentor’ is. It’s not necessarily your immediate boss, your teacher, or the trainer who shows you how to write a business process. It’s generally someone at a level higher than yours who has been around, knows the ropes, has taken an interest in you and your career, and is willing to help you succeed though informal means. They’re usually very accessible to you, offering advice when asked and proactively making suggestions on different aspects of your work or things that affect your work.
  • Embrace change. Whether it’s a new boss, reorganization, big project, or new responsibilities, you should look upon changes as opportunities. Since the inductees were mostly middle-aged (most in their mid to late 50’s, I’d guess), they had the perspective of relatively long working careers to reflect upon. Nearly every one had experiences related to some sort of change, personal or professional, that allowed them to improve or move to a higher career growth trajectory.
  • Along the same line, several inductees made dramatic career moves that ultimately led to their success. Several were ex-military and used the training and discipline they earned in the armed forces to move ahead in the civilian world. Others began in one discipline and moved to another, notably one fellow who was a musician who transitioned into software development as the electronic world continued to affect his work. Careers aren’t always linear. I suspect none of us in the profession majored in ‘EDI’ in college, so by definition we’ve probably already made a career change to get to where we are now.
  • Each speaker made it a point to talk about the concept of ‘giving back’. Now, this may be one those points that ‘sound good, but I don’t see myself having time for that’, but keep it in mind for later. For some professions, such as the educators, nurses, judge, and people in those types of roles, it’s pretty natural and is almost built into their jobs. For others, it takes effort and the use of precious free time to give something back to their profession, community, or the less fortunate. It was pretty remarkable to hear how important this concept was to these successful people.

Those are just a few tidbits gleaned from the SIUE Alumni HOF inductee speeches. Is any of this stuff useful to you? I suspect you can extract some nuggets that might be able to help. Here are some practical suggestions I can make to you based on what I heard:

  • Have a vision for where you want to be in a couple years, and even what you want to achieve by the end of your career. After that, assess where you are, what you need to do to take the next step, and make it happen.
  • Share your goals with your manager. Many companies have talent management programs that use input from employees about their goals to plan career paths for their people. Additionally, your manager can provide feedback and make specific suggestions to help you reach your goals. I realize this can be a touchy subject on some teams. The last thing your boss may want to hear is that you have a goal to move onto the SAP development team, and you could have the feeling that it would be career suicide to even mention it. That’s up to you to assess, but if you’re in a progressive organization chances are they’ll recognize it’s in their best interests to help their people succeed and they’ll welcome the information you share with them.
  • Put yourself in position to make a move. If the next role you want is on another team, learn all you can about the position, the team, and its manager. If you need additional skills or education, find a way to acquire them. Make sure you maintain good relations with the members of your target team. Find a way to engage the team’s manager to discuss his or her thoughts about the position and to make sure the manager knows who you are. Again, this could be another tricky situation for you in that you probably don’t want your current manager hearing from another manager that you intend to leave your current role.
  • Don’t accept the status quo for yourself. Inertia is your enemy. The longer you stay in an unhappy situation, the tougher it is to make a change. The best time to try a different fork in the road is while you’re young, when you have a chance to not only carve out a new career but also to recover if things don’t work out.
  • If you aspire to management or a high level position, find a mentor. Some large companies have ‘mentorship’ programs, but in many cases it’s an informal relationship that just develops. So, what if you’re in a small company, you don’t have a mentor, but you think it’d really help you to have one? Well, I wouldn’t recommend sidling up to your CEO or owner in the cafeteria line and whispering “hey, wanna be my mentor?”.  What I do think would be helpful would be to review your contacts at work, see who’s at a level above yours who may be able to help you moving forward, and then start slowly. If it’s someone you occasionally see in the fitness center or cafeteria that’s been friendly in the past, maybe invite him or her to catch a coffee break with you just to see how receptive they’d be to moving outside their current relationship with you. From there, maybe ask if they’d be comfortable providing feedback on a presentation or some other business document, and see where it goes from there. Sometimes you’ll be lucky enough to have an executive or manager proactively show interest in you. If that’s the case, absolutely take advantage of that opportunity. Some leaders treat ‘mentorship’ as one of their key responsibilities and others are just ‘wired’ to be that type of person.
  • Give back. Help others, even if it’s a matter of just helping your teammate learn a new mapping technique or volunteering to coordinate preparations for your next team meeting. If you’re a manager or higher level developer, is there someone on your team or in another group that you’d like to mentor? I know time is precious, but it feels good to contribute in this way and it always pays you back in ways both expected and unexpected.

I certainly recognize the realities of the ongoing recession, tenuous job security, and intricacies of dealing with sensitive issues related to your goals with bosses of different styles and teams/companies of various sizes. The point is that it’s your career to manage, and you should find ways to take advantage of what’s worked in the past for successful people to help you reach your potential. I wish you the best of luck in doing that.

As always, any comments, questions, or suggestions can be sent directly to me a This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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