Career opportunity: Swing like Tarzan

By | September 3, 2017

Swing like Tarzan. A consulting partner gave me this advice (hat tip: AG) when I asked him how to navigate my consulting career. At the time, I was staffed on the same project for a while and did not want to get pigeon-holed. Wanted to be a consulting generalist and experience different clients, industries, and functions. Was suffering FOMO.

Common dilemma: This is a common question for consultants or ambitious MBA types. Do you stick with your current strength / project, or stretch to a new area which may be more fun, have growth, but also be bit scary? My argument is that you can make incremental steps to get to that end goal.

Don’t let go of 1 vine, without having the next. Seems like sensible advice for any trapeze artists. No one likes to fall. Secure the new project, job, role, gig before letting go of the old one. Jon Acuff says basically the same thing in his book, Start (affiliate link), telling you to get 50% income from the side-hustle before leaving the existing job.

Pivot to the project you want. If you want to transition from 1 industry / function to another, don’t switch both at the same time. Pivot to your next project, DON’T JUMP. As an example, assume you are on a Telecom cost reduction project. If you want Financial Services strategy, then take an interim step. Go from 1 to 1.1 then 2. This means your next project should be Financial + Cost Reduction OR Telecom + Strategy. Change one variable, not both.

Plan ahead. Running with the Tarzan analogy, think 2-3 “swinging vines” ahead. We have little control of the medium term. You control what you are doing now (short-term) and where you want to go (long-term). Everything else is variable.  Do good work + know where you are heading.

Stay motivated. Let’s face it, doing the same thing over and over gets boring. If intellectual curiosity is the key to career success, we need to stay self-motivated. We need to find new ways to keep the fire going. Making smart tactical decisions does not mean selling out. Just be smart about getting to your end goal. Think deeply, then execute.

You are not stuck. This is all about career capital and momentum. Tell your manager what you want out of your career. Network with other departments. If you are good at what you do – the last thing the company wants if for you to be unhappy. Make a reputation for yourself as someone who pitches in, finds new work, and makes a difference. Don’t brood and sulk. Do.

Don’t be “overly clever”. Know what is good and helpful, then crush it. Focus on skills, networks, and do the work. If the company is growing, get on the rocket ship. If the company is just floating side-ways, find a breakout role and make the most of where you are. Like the Stephen Stills song, “Love the One Your are With.”

Strategic Flexibility. Finally, let’s remember what Peter Drucker said about setting yourself up for success:

“The question that faces the strategic decision maker is not ‘what his organization should do tomorrow.’ It is, ‘what do we have to do today to be ready for an uncertain tomorrow’?” — Peter Drucker

Keep going. Our careers are a series of S-curves. Keep forward momentum. Do great work, have fun. Move to the work you most want to do.

Question: Is this the approach you have taken with your career, or do you think this is too timid and incremental?  

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4 thoughts on “Career opportunity: Swing like Tarzan

  1. Kanishka

    As part of a smallish consulting firm, we don’t have the flexibility to choose domain specific project. Consequently my projects have ranged from investment strategy design to micro market retail. What that’s allowed is an exponential functional gain in knowledge. At the same time, I do get sufficient partner time on execution, which may not be possible in large firms.

    The career management strategy you talk about is quite conservative, IMHO. It boils down to two things – (a) self belief, and (b) organizational tolerance for failure.

    1. consultantsmindadmin Post author

      Thanks for reading, I think it’s awesome that you get such a diverse, and impactful apprenticeship through your work. That’s ideal. I also agree this is a conservative approach.

      Maybe because I am Gen-X, and mid forties – I believe that people can sometimes be too impatient with their current employer, and overlooking incremental opportunities (swinging vines) right in front of them.

      Self belief. Yes. Organizational fit (including tolerance for innovation). Yes.

  2. Cecilia

    Four years ago I brazened a conversation with a senior partner that I wanted to move from Financial Services with my Finance background in to Consumer Goods and Supply Chain, he said ok but “let’s do it one at at time”. At that time I didn’t quite appreciate it and was a little annoyed we couldn’t do it all NOW.

    As I meandered my way through a new industry sector then eventually a change from Financial to Supply Chain advisory, I built my reputation and network over that time, delivering to my strength whilst breaking in to new stuff with less (-ish) ‘holy crap I’ve no idea what I’m doing moments’!

    Coming from a large firm, it certainly can be hard to not get shoehorned to what you have become known for. The most valuable piece of advice I got imparted: Think where you want to be in three years, not three weeks.

    1. consultantsmindadmin Post author

      Winning. Thanks for the story. Yes, for those new coming into big 4 life – it can often seem like a fairly inflexible, almost bureaucratic process getting staffed on new projects, but good firms make it happen. Thanks for the story.

      Keep going.

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