Finding Career Fulfillment

Career Planning


Who Am I? What Do I Want to Be When I Grow Up?

My personal brand was “well rounded, decent at a lot of things but not an expert at anything.” I worked at a financial services company in an operations role. I was focused on titles and promotions, and my career eventually plateaued. Others had established strong personal brands based upon their career values and satisfaction attributes. They rose higher and faster and were more fulfilled.

At 40, I finally figured out that that I wanted my brand to be “people leader, people developer, and coach.” I want to be the person that helps everyone reach their full potential and be wildly excited everyday about the work they’ve chosen.

In the previous blog I talked about what personal branding is, how to figure out what your brand is now, and how to change your brand. It is a blend of self-exploration, career pathing, and deliberately defining and promoting your personal brand. Rather than using studies and discussing tools, I want to use my personal journey as an example and point out where in hindsight I would do things differently.

When it was clear that I would never be the starting shortstop for the Chicago Cubs, I struggled with what I wanted to be when I grew up. In high school, I knew that history, English, and literature classes came easier to me than math and science. I also knew from some experiences outside of the classroom that I seemed to possess some people leadership capabilities. My undergrad college decision came down to where I got in and felt the most comfortable.

During my freshman year in college, I had to quickly pick a major. I chose business because several of the people in my family were successful businesspeople, and I thought that must run in the family. I landed on Management Information Systems because I was enjoying the emergence of home desktops and I was especially enthused about playing fantasy baseball on the internet. I made my first job decision based on what company was going to pay me the most, spurning another company where I made a personal connection with those involved in the interview process, and I got the sense they were genuinely disappointed.

Eventually, I landed at a company where I felt comfortable and I could see the opportunity for promotions in a structured ladder-like format. In my effort to chase the next promotion, I blindly stumbled into a job that I ended up loving. After a couple of highly successful years, I was rotated into a new role because I was a valued resource and was needed in a new line of business. When I ended up getting my sixth new boss in 3 years, I decided to opt for a lateral position in a new area because I was told it would be “good new experience” for me. My career eventually plateaued, and I became very unhappy with the lack of progress. I was basing my feelings on the outcome of being promoted for years.

Do you see the theme? I was caught up deploying an external locus of control and allowing circumstances and flimsy logic dictate my thought processes and career path. Had I been deploying an internal locus of control, I would have understood that I could influence the events and outcomes around me by deploying a personal brand. Not to get promoted, necessarily, but definitely to find happiness in my career. I needed to be brave enough to frequently explore what I was thinking and feeling, to strategically map out a plan based on that information, and to intentionally execute that plan.

There were signals along the way that I ignored. In high school, I was a leader on the baseball team, despite being one of the lesser talented players, because I pushed and motivated others. In college, I was on the executive board of my large fraternity despite not oozing with enthusiasm over collegiate Greek life. Early in my career, when I found out what corporate life meant, I questioned whether a career pivot to teaching and coaching baseball was right for me. I would quickly dismiss those questions when thinking of the sacrifice in time and money I would have to make for that change. While getting my MBA, I was not necessarily concerned with being the smartest person in the room, but when it came to group work, I was the glue. And finally, as my personal career soared and then plateaued, nothing was more intrinsically pleasing to me than to work on developing an employee and watching them fly. Had I been brave and intentional about the path for my career, I would have paused and explored what all of this meant. It is never too late to start listening, and I am so thankful for the wonderful coaches that helped me explore this while I was going through the yearlong coaching certification program.

Had I picked up on the signals and spent the time and effort to explore them, I would have recognized some things earlier on in life. I should have realized that I took more career enjoyment out of helping those people unlock their potential than I cared about my financial results or how I was perceived after an important presentation. I didn’t want the spotlight, I wanted them to excel in the spotlight. It is never too late to have these insights, and I am thrilled to have become a coach, but there would have been some benefits to recognizing this earlier on. Had I spent the time to explore what I was feeling in my early 20s about teaching and coaching, I could have chosen my path directly rather than allowing events around me to dictate my path. I would have realized, with some deep exploration, that I love history but don’t actually want to teach it. And I could have latched on to my love of coaching. Had I been armed with great self-awareness, I could have been very intentional about my career planning and personal branding.

So how could I have branded myself as a people leadership expert? I could have:

  1. Observed those around me to figure out who had similar interests, seek their guidance, and express it as a long-term interest of mine.
  2. Researched talent development and coaching, communicating my interests, and sharing information internally.
  3. Taken steps to make my outward facing personal brand match my interests, through blogging on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter. Rather than getting my MBA (which is what everyone else said I should do).
  4. Gotten a full-time graduate degree in talent development and coaching like the Masters in Learning and Organizational Change at Northwestern, where I got my coaching certificate.
  5. Become an active participant of an organization like the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) or the Association for Talent Development (ATD), rather than attending financial services conferences.
  6. Developed a specific messaging plan around my brand and communicated it broadly.

It is never too late to figure out what you want to be when you grow up, and I am thrilled to be on this path. However, had I taken the time to slow down and really consider my interests at the beginning of my career, strategically and intentionally plan my career path, and create a focused personal brand supporting my career desires, the mountain I am climbing would not feel as tall or steep.