A lifetime of decisions leads to a career in innovation
by Peter Merrill
When you think about how to steer your career, it’s important not to steer too hard. Life presents many opportunities, and if you are trying to force your way through, you will miss the opportunities that come your way. I have a fortune cookie message that says, "The secret of a good opportunity is recognizing it."
The second principle I live by is to seek a job in which you will be happy, not one that merely pays big money. Too often, a big salary is the payoff for a miserable work environment created by an organization with high staff turnover. The illusion is that big pay enables you to purchase happiness outside of work while enduring misery at work.
Finally, choose a job in which you will learn, not one in which you are necessarily an expert. Look for unsteady ground and take risks. There is an old saying that you can gain 20 years of experience or one year of experience 20 times.
In this column, I’m going to take you through some of my practical career experiences and share the lessons I’ve learned along the way. See a useful, condensed list of lessons in the sidebar, "14 Lessons in Steering Your Career" at the end of this article. To this day, I still question some of the decisions I made, but I firmly believe that every decision is a right decision if you gain experience. You should never stop learning.
My first lesson: Try jobs that frighten you. This comes from my experience in high school working a summer job at a clothing store. I learned how to sell in this job, and it provided me indirect experience I applied throughout my career. You can read more about this in the sidebar, "Overcoming Fear."
My grandfather was a chemistry master at the school that taught Joseph Priestley, the father of modern chemistry. My first toy that I remember was a chemistry set. I found it exciting—it was my hobby and I also got to do it in school. Looking back, that was an early sign for me that if you want happiness in life, your job should be something you enjoy.
However, we all grow and change. As I neared high school graduation, I wanted something practical, not theoretical (plus, I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend my life in a lab washing bottles). I started to consider chemical engineering.
A lot of career experience comes indirectly, too. I was 17 and wanted to buy a guitar, so I worked a summer job in a clothing store. I can still remember how petrified I was serving my first customer. It was a men’s and boy’s store, and my first sale was a boy’s school blazer. I was so nervous I could hardly button up the schoolboy’s blazer as his mother watched intently.
The lesson here is to try jobs that frighten you. You must overcome fear. This doesn’t mean go for jobs for which you have no ability. I liked and understood clothes, but I had never sold anything. Selling is a necessary skill whatever you do. If it frightens you, overcome that fear.
After high school, I earned my degree in chemical engineering. I must admit, I didn’t enjoy much of it. But chemical engineering is the perfect training for quality management, and 20 years later, I found all that pain of flowcharting, process analysis and process control would equip me ideally for quality management. Next lesson: What you learn at one stage in your career will equip you to do something else later.
I left the university and joined the R&D department of a major corporation. I chose this because I liked the people I met there, and they are still friends to this day. The organization said employees going into R&D could expect to move into a completely different area after two or three years. I saw this as an opportunity to do something other than chemical engineering.
At the same time I got this job offer, my university offered me the opportunity to earn a doctorate. I said no—and it was one of the toughest decisions I have ever made. I still wonder whether I made the right choice, but the three years I had at the organization took me to South Africa, the United States and Scandinavia. Arguably, I learned far more working in industry than I would have learned in academic research.
While I didn’t pursue the doctorate, I did earn an MBA. I did this while I was working and, while it is tough, I recommend it to everyone. Your college qualification is probably narrow in scope, so you must broaden your scope. A management degree will help you do this, but you must pick the right one. Find an MBA program that has a human or behavioral science focus, not accounting. If you are in the quality profession, you must balance your process focus with a people focus to succeed in your career.
Wrong turns, more decisions
The corporation I joined for my first job was a chemical and textile organization, and initially, I worked on synthetic fiber R&D. The head of my department noted how my management degree helped me manage tough projects and enlisted me to help run a newly acquired textile business in northern England. Aside from my experience working in the clothing store in high school, I knew nothing about textiles. Furthermore, my boss, who had become managing director of the organization, said the place was a mess.
I moved to the new job and I did the only thing I knew how as a chemical engineer—I process mapped the new business. This was well before process mapping was common. Lesson: Skills you’ve acquired in the past will remarkably come into play at some time in the future as new opportunities arise. You just have to recognize them.
While this was happening, I was learning leadership outside of work as the captain of my rugby team. I learned that if you plan and organize for the people on your team, they will respect you as a leader.
My next experience is one most of you probably have had at one time or another—I took a wrong turn. I moved to a business on the textile side of the organization, which appeared to provide new learning opportunities. It was a textile merchanting business that had been recently purchased, and it gave me a chance to use my production planning ability (which I was good at) and to develop my sales skills (which were not good).
The problem was this job involved working with the wrong people. The general manager operated largely alone. He surrounded himself with employees who didn’t question his management style, and he saw me as a threat.
The up side was working in the fascinating industry of fashion. I traveled to London’s West End. I met fashion designers and worked with fabric and color. But I was unhappy. I wanted to run a business, but the road was blocked. So I was faced with another tough decision—I left the organization I had been with since graduating and in which I had many friends in other divisions.
This was one of my hardest decisions. I am loyal, but there comes a time when you must leave. A speaker at ASQ’s World Conference on Quality and Improvement once said, "People don’t leave jobs. They leave relationships." Lesson: If the people you work with are not your type, get out.
So the chemical engineer became a fashion designer. After all, design follows the same process whether it is a chemical plant or women’s fashion. All the portents were bad, but I pursued it anyway. You can read more about my experience running my own business in the sidebar, "Entrepreneurship."
I, the chemical engineer, decided to become a fashion designer— despite indications that this may not be the best decision. My parents, who had never run their own business, were totally opposed to my decision.
Nevertheless, I cashed in my pension fund, spent half of it on a 10-year-old car and the other half on fabrics. I found a partner who knew garment structure, and I knew fabric and color. We designed garments, subcontracted manufacture and sold to retail. I learned how to run a business. Even if you don’t ultimately run a business, you can learn so much from the experience of operating a small business. It gives you a better perspective on the larger organization in which you work. You learn cash flow, inventory management, planning and costing. These are all things you must understand in your career.
Foreign imports started to take a bigger hold of the fashion industry. Although I had three good years behind me and had raised a young family while having an unpredictable income, I realized the future was not good. I closed the business, which was one of the more difficult decisions in my life. When you have built a business from nothing, it is one of the hardest things to let go. But letting go is a career lesson we all must learn as our career advances and we are given a department or a business to run.
I eventually let go of my business, and I rejoined the organization I had first worked for at a lowly position. Remember: Do that job well and keep looking for opportunities. I moved back up through the ranks and was eventually given the job of product development and managing sales for a leading U.K. brand. It was exciting and fulfilling, and all my previous experience—especially that of running my own business—came into play. Lesson: The broader your experience, the more opportunities will come your way.
But it was difficult to see a career path forward. Then I got lucky. As Thomas Jefferson once said, "The harder you work, the luckier you get." The chairperson offered me the job of chief executive. I knew that the life expectancy of the job was probably only two or three years, but I took it anyway. Lesson: Don’t be afraid to take a risk, but manage the risk. After two years, I started planning my next step.
My big learning opportunity in this position was in recruitment. You will be respected for the people you recruit to your team. Take time to do this right. Select five or six candidates, use a structured interview with scoring and see everyone on the same day. This pays huge dividends. On one occasion, I did not follow that process and regretted it later.
I spent my third year as a chief executive looking for my next move, and a job posting caught my eye. I decided to join Phil Crosby in Florida and had five of the most amazing years working with wonderful people and learning so much. Lesson: Find good mentors. That is when you learn the most. Crosby became a good friend and I still have many friends from that experience.
When Crosby retired, he sold the business and the new owners had an entirely different culture. I learned the importance of culture, which is so easy to take for granted when you have worked in a happy but work-focused environment. Within three years, 80 to 90% of the original employees left the organization—myself included.
I started my own training and consulting practice using the skills I had learned while working for Crosby. I had learned speaking and facilitation skills and continued to develop these in the field of quality management. Many think consulting is an easy and high-paying life. The majority of consulting practices fail after two years. If you are moving into consulting, know that you must constantly change as the industry changes.
Between 2000 and 2003, I had to figure out my next step. As you get later into your career, you find that the things you did earlier guide you quite naturally into your next step. At the same time, you must still invest time developing new knowledge. In my own case, my love of teamwork and quality management experience drew me quite naturally into innovation. However, my earlier work in R&D, and my experiences in entrepreneurship, sales and leadership gave me the ability to sell the concept of innovation to business leaders. It took a lot of listening to my peers for me to see the path forward. The door was open, the path was clear, but the secret to finding a good opportunity was recognizing it.
14 Lessons in Steering Your Career
Here is an empirical list of 14 points I have formulated from years of practical career experience:
- If you want happiness in life, your job should be something you enjoy.
- Pick a job you will learn from, not one you are an expert at.
- Look for unsteady ground, take risks and never stop learning.
- Skills you’ve acquired in the past come in to play in the future.
- Opportunity will come, and the secret of a good opportunity is recognizing it.
- The broader your experience, the more opportunities will come your way.
- You don’t have to be the best player to lead a team.
- Learn leadership.
- You will be respected for the people you recruit to your team.
- Take time for recruitment.
- Get an MBA with a behavioral science, focus not on accounting.
- You can learn so much from running a small business.
- "The harder you work, the luckier you get."
- All you did earlier in your career will guide you quite naturally into what’s next.
One more point I will give you: It’s desire more than ability that leads to success.
Peter Merrill is president of Quest Management Systems, an innovation consultancy based in Burlington, Ontario. Merrill is the author of several ASQ Quality Press books, including Do It Right the Second Time, second edition (2009), and Innovation Generation (2008). He is a member of ASQ and chair of the ASQ Innovation Interest Group.