Building Your Base
Listening to a senior executive reflect on his career pathway at a student careers night for my son, I found myself captivated by his story. He was invited to help the boys plan and get inspired about life beyond school and to give them the 'If I knew then what I know now' talk. The interesting point about the night was that the year 10 boys were in the back disengaged and the year 12 boys who probably needed it most were noticeably absent. However, I was amongst many other parents, focussed on hearing his insights. He had a unique ability to self-reflect and give constructive advice on how to forge a successful career.
He graduated as chemical engineer from Melbourne University, become a Rhodes Scholar and later went on to be successful in business. He painted a picture of himself at school participating in activities that he didn't necessarily enjoy, nor did he ever imagine that some of those he would revisit later and love. He rowed at school but wasn't passionate about it, never won a race in year 12 and yet went on to row with and later become President of the Oxford University Boat Club. He shared one thing he believed was important to his personal growth. He always had a desire to look beyond the approved path and recognised that he wanted to do a broader range of things. His key message was the importance of building a strong base, getting as many opportunities to learn as possible when you're young because you never know where those skills and experience will lead you later in your career.
I can safely say that my career pathway hasn't been anything of the magnitude of the keynote speaker! Although we share some similarities and I want to take you on my journey and perhaps it might influence you.
As a final year orthoptic student, I had a clinical placement at a clinic in East Melbourne under the supervision of an experienced and well-respected orthoptist. The Ophthalmologist (who now is in his 70's) was a great teacher and a truly inspiring and motivating man. Undoubtedly in my view, I had the best placement of any student in the year. The work was interesting and challenging and it became evident quickly that as a student, I still had so much to learn. As the year came to a close, a new graduate position became available. I wanted the job desperately as full-time jobs at the time were scarce.
I had a competitive streak, so I worked extra hours in an effort to master skills that you never seem to get enough practice with at university. These were skills like retinoscopy, retinal photography and anything that could possibly give me an edge. Ultimately the hard work paid off as I landed at full-time job before I graduated. The learning curve was steep but I had support and good mentors to guide, challenge and encourage me. I am indebted to them for what they taught me.
The most valuable lessons I learnt working there were; 1. If you want to be a good clinician, you need to think about whether what you are seeing is making sense or not. 2. Do it right or not at all. There is zero value in doing a test poorly so endeavour to master your skills and be the absolute best at what you do. 3. If you feel valued, respected and challenged, I guarantee you will work harder, be rewarded and ultimately be a better employee. 4. Never stop learning because it pays off. 5. Find a mentor that you respect wholeheartedly. If they're generous, open and truly honest, they will play a pivotal role in shaping your career journey.
Leaving there are seven years was a hard decision at the time. I knew that I needed to spread my wings, grow and make a change. Using my knowledge from that job, I moved into the refractive surgery field to expand my skills base. The patients were vastly different to what I had been used to. They were young, tertiary educated, demanding and frequently challenged me. They wouldn't accept a 'trust me' philosophy like many older patients had previously in general ophthalmology. The whole experience was such a contrast to what I had experienced before. It was a flashy job with lots of perks and annual international conference trips that provided an exciting change from a more academic focus.
After three years, my career path unexpectedly took a dramatic turn when my family and I moved to Singapore for what was going to be 'a few years' as an expat. I had lived in the same house my entire childhood and never lived outside Melbourne as a young adult. The changes were both exciting and incredibly daunting at the same time. I spent the next 10 years living and working in Singapore, Bangkok, Washington DC and then finally back home to Melbourne. After three short years at home, I headed off again this time to Tokyo and on to Singapore.
Moving countries and summoning courage to find a new job every time reinforced that I could add value, gave me confidence in my abilities and validated what I believed I could do and offer. With each new job came new discoveries, new friends, new skills and a patchwork of unforgettable career opportunities. Putting myself out there in a foreign country to get employment was incredibly challenging, but on reflection enabled me to have some of the best experiences of my life.
After four years back in Australia, I've taken the time to reflect on my career journey so far. If I had to share my version of 'If I knew then what I know now' talk to you it would be this;
1. Have the courage to try new things and if it doesn't work out it's not a failure, but an experience to guide what you do next.
2. Always try to do something beyond what you have already mastered otherwise you will never grow.
3. Take on a job or a leadership role that is challenging and is outside your comfort zone. You will be surprised what you can do.
4. Sometimes you won't see the benefit of something you learnt earlier until much later in your career.
Andrew Michelmore AO said on that careers night that many young high flyers come to him and want career guidance. He asks them what kind of job they want and many of them tell him straight up that they want a job like his. He says don't be impatient. There is plenty of time. Build your base like a pyramid. Get as much experience as you can across broad areas. Be prepared to look beyond the approved path because it's all those early experiences that help build a profile that ultimately shapes who you become.
What experiences have helped shape who you are? Is there a person in your career who has mentored you or changed you?