Three simple steps that can help advance your career by Dan Richards

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Three simple steps that can help advance your career by Dan Richards

Dan Richards

Three simple steps that can help advance your career

by Dan Richards

Faculty member, Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto; author of Getting Clients, Keeping Clients

In today’s reality, what does it take to achieve a fulfilling and successful career? Having built and sold two startups and after 25 years as a member of the marketing faculty at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, earlier this year I was asked to serve as faculty advisor to 35 first-year MBA students undertaking an internship this summer.

Among the topics in our conversations, we have discussed three keys to being proactive in managing careers – carving out thinking time, asking the right questions and building a support system.

Carve out thinking time

When he ran Microsoft, Bill Gates famously took a week off each year to reflect on the future, going to a remote location to read and think. In the email that emerged, he shared his thoughts with Microsoft’s senior team. Along similar lines, a recent New York Times column advocated that we all take a weekly “Shultz hour”, named after George Shultz,  Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State in the 1980s, who carved out an hour a week for quiet reflection.

Today, everyone feels like they’re drowning in the volume of online communication. As a result, many of us have become so immersed in sending and responding to emails that we’ve gotten out of the habit of stepping back and thinking hard about the important issues in our businesses and careers.

So that’s the first step – periodically carve out the time for reflection. Once a week (say on Sunday night), I suggest that students take 30 minutes to shut off their phones, go for a walk and allow themselves to step back and think, carrying nothing but a notepad and pen to make notes of their thoughts.

Ask the right questions

For this break from your routine to produce results, you have to ask the right questions. Whether you’re committed to the company you’re working for or exploring alternatives, I believe that once a week people at every stage of their careers should ask themselves five questions. Writing down answers in a notepad you keep for this purpose, these questions can be summarized by the acronym CLEAR.

In the last week:

  • What did I contribute to my company and my team?
  • What new skill did I work on and learn?
  • What idea did I explore?
  • What did I do to advance my career?
  • Who did I reach out to in order to expand my network?

Next, you ask the same questions going forward.

In the next week:

  • What will I contribute at work?
  • What new skill will I learn?
  • What idea will I explore?
  • What will I do to advance my career?
  • Who will I reach out to in order to expand my network?

Build a support system

Whether it be a new diet, exercise program or way of working, everyone recognizes how incredibly difficult it is to make fundamental changes in our routines. Some of this stems from the power of inertia and entrenched habits, as we start with enthusiasm but quickly return to our previous routines. When trying to implement change in our business lives this is compounded by time demands that make it all too easy to revert to our previous ways of operating.

To maximize your career outcome, you need strategies to stay focused on the things you need to do differently. One of the best ways to achieve this is to recruit three to six friends and colleagues who you like, respect and trust to create a performance team, meeting for 90 minutes every month or two to share ideas, monitor progress and hold each other accountable.

Accountability groups are described by Harvard Business School’s Bill George in his book, True North Groups: A Powerful Path to Personal And Leadership Development. In performance team meetings, each member commits to paper and then talks about:

  • What did I commit to doing the last time we met?
  • What did I actually do?
  • What results did I see
  • What did I learn?
  • What will I do differently in the period ahead?

Let’s recognize that there is no surefire formula for career success – it’s impossible to eliminate the element of random chance, both positive and negative. That’s why even when you’re moving in the right general direction, you have to stay flexible to capitalize on unexpected opportunities. In fact it’s useful to think of planning your career as using a compass rather than a road map; rather than focusing on the precise route you’re taking, think instead of whether you’re going in the right general direction.

Being proactive improves your odds of professional success as you shape events, rather than haplessly float with the tide. This puts you in position to get lucky, capitalizing on fortuitous events as they present themselves. By using this simple three-step model – take the time to reflect, ask the right questions and establish a support system for implementation – you will maximize your odds of a successful and fulfilling career.

Executives, consultants, lawyers and human resources experts contribute to the ongoing Leadership Lab series.


Dan Richards is a 20-year veteran of the investment industry and a faculty member in the MBA program at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. He has served as CEO of a major distribution firm with 3,500 financial advisors and is an expert on sentiment among Canadian investors. MORE

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