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Image by Roger Carvell, CC BY 3.0,

What advice would you give people starting a job in publishing? What gets people thinking about their careers? I was invited to participate in a panel for a major publisher, organised to present ideas about careers for their own staff. The event, which took place over a whole day, included several short sessions, including a panel session of four speakers (I was one) talking about aspects of their career, followed by a famous Paralympic gold medallist horse eventer talking about how she had battled against all the odds to win her several gold medals. Other activities included one-to-one coaching sessions, and tips on how to take part in a performance review. Was the event valuable? That is not for me to judge, but certainly I noted a few points from my own perspective, as a disinterested observer.

Firstly, the panel session. I found myself in a minority here, with most of the people stating how they employed various techniques to keep them at the very top of their game. They all had shelves of books they had read on management, or product management, or design. They used personal coaching and trainers; it seemed valuable to be using external coaches to inculcate good habits.

As for organising your work time, two of the speakers mentioned how they used one or other technique to prioritise tasks, for example, never carry over an important task for more than one week, because clearly it wasn’t so important as you claimed, or you would have done it. The third speaker revealed she had an “agile coach” to make sure she stayed on top of all her tasks.

There were several references to practices for improving your performance. One speaker used meditation; one speaker stated how he planned to make “the next five minutes the best”. This made me ask, rather uncharitably, what the last five minutes were like.  

These techniques were not only for work. The speakers stated they applied also to making their personal lives more effective (and you worried for their children at that point). One speaker, co-founder of a startup, stated that she prioritized things in the order, business – team – myself, meaning that the business always came first. Well, I’m not sure if I would agree with that prioritization; I would certainly put the well-being of a member of my team ahead of the advantage or disadvantage to the business.  

The Paralympic champion spoke movingly and powerfully about how she had been born healthy, then diagnosed with a disease that affected her nervous system and left her almost unable to walk. Fast forward just a few years, and she wins multiple gold medals in the European Championships and the Paralympics. This is an incredibly inspiring and moving story.

Well, certainly inspiring as a personal story. But in the context of a careers day, what does it suggest? It suggests to me that careers can be interpreted as a personal struggle in a highly competitive environment, with you pitched against all the other competitors. This is not a helpful analogy for an organisation career day. In the loo, I saw a small poster telling you how to get help if you had mental health problems. I couldn’t help feeling that if I were an employee of this company, I would feel more, not less, inclined to work harder in light of this presentation and, what is worse, competing with others. Yet we all know that corporate success comes from teamwork, not from one gifted individual.

In the question and answer session, the equestrian champion revealed perhaps unwittingly a slightly less one-dimensional view. Questioned about her success, she was unhesitating: she won because she wanted to win more than any of the others in the finals. OK, she did have a team, in fact a team of several people, including a nutritionist, a nutritionist for the horse, a coach, a trainer for the horse, and so on, and she acknowledged their help. She acknowledged her mother, who helped her every day. But it was clear this was a story of personal success. She did admit that her sports psychologist enabled her to change her focus somewhat, from “winning a gold medal” to something much more specific, carrying out the detailed tasks that would make such a triumph possible. The detailed tasks were achievable whether or not you won the medal. Here might be something that we can all take on board for our personal life; but it only emerged from the question sessions, not from the main presentation.  

Given this context of successful individuals describing their success, perhaps it’s not so surprising that I probably came across as something of a bumbling fool. As someone who creates to-do lists in six different software packages and then loses them all, as someone who has three calendars but can never find the relevant event in the calendar in front of me, I am no advert for organised thinking and actions. I do not meditate. I have no life coach, agile or otherwise. I make a list at the start of most days, but I find at the end of the day I have frequently missed things out.

Worse, I didn’t even mention one of my key conclusions about a career, which is that success in business is always a team affair. Those skills I don’t have are compensated in some way by the other members of the team. What the organisation achieves is not my work alone, but that of a group of people. The magic is that it all comes together to achieve a collective result. So to say that my personal career was a success of not is somewhat meaningless.

Could I take anything positive from this event? In the Q&A session after the talk, a couple of more useful points emerged. Firstly, one speaker, a former archaeologist, described how his several years of training had been completely vindicated the day he and his team managed to excavate a particularly valuable object in a single day, thereby thwarting a likely theft from the site by the modern equivalent of tomb robbers.

The other thing that reassured me was that most of the presenters admitted their career path was not particularly logical, even though we all of us tend to invent a joined-up narrative that gives it some sense of progression. In fact the chair of the panel admitted afterwards that he had two ways of describing his career either as a joined-up exercise, where everything magically comes together, or as a totally random set of jobs. Of course, the truth is somewhere in between. That’s not an easy lesson to communicate to a roomful of people in their twenties believing they can determine their career.