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How to take charge of your career—and plan for success

Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
You can’t simply sprint to the top.
  • Piyush Gupta
By Piyush Gupta

Group Chief Executive Officer, DBS Bank

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

In theory, most of us understand the importance of career development.

It’s ironic, therefore, that so few of us actually have a solid approach to putting career planning into practice. For most people, careers tend to develop through accident and inertia—it’s something that happens to you, rather than something you actively shape.

I’ve often been asked questions like “Should I be a specialist or a generalist?” or “Should I stay with one organisation or move?” Frankly, there is no one answer to these questions. What is important, however, is that you must take charge of your career, take ownership for shaping it, and make developing it a priority. And there are some thoughtful and clever ways of doing this.

Plan backwards

The first premise I have is that careers need to be thought about from long term to short term. Start with a simple exercise; ask yourself “What would I like to be doing when I am 50?” Then start working backwards from there. What do I need to be doing when I am 45 that will position me to achieve my goal at 50? What about the period before that, when I am 40? And so on, till you come back to “What does my next job/assignment need to be?”

In most cases, there will not be a specific answer, but rather, a range of choices. In other words, you will determine that you should be doing one of two to three things in your next role. What you actually wind up with is a blend of your thinking and some serendipity, based on what opportunities come knocking.

Experience matters

The second premise I have is that it is useful to get a broad range of experiences, from front office, middle office and back office functions. This is true whether you are a generalist or a specialist. In addition, multi geography experiences and people management experiences are important. In my own career, I found that taking on a strategy/planning role every few years was critical to gain perspective, and this made me a much better business manager. Also, participating in task forces and projects was a great way to gain new insight, besides providing organisational visibility.

If you are not doing well in your current role, it becomes much harder to shape your future roles.

When looking at a new role or job, always ask the question: what additional development is this new role going to bring me? It could be improved people skills, geographic diversity, or functional learning. Once you have a good sense for what kinds of roles would be appropriate for you, you can then move to the harder bit, which is to determine how best to get these roles. I have some tips that are not necessarily scientific, but quite pragmatic.

However, before I get into them, I want to make one caveat, and that is about performance. All career planning moves work on the presumption of high levels of competence and solid job performance. In other words, if you are not doing well in your current role, it becomes much harder to shape your future roles. You earn the right to seek your next role based on strong performance in your current one.

So what are these tips, then?

Strategic networking

The first one is “networking.” Networking, in my definition, is not just knowing a large number of people, but ensuring that people who are relevant to your job choices know you, and develop a healthy respect for your capabilities. This is often very difficult, because these people may have nothing to do with your current job; in fact, they may not even know you exist.

The reality of life is people give jobs to those they know.

In the 1990s, I used to be chief of staff and head of strategy for the Citibank business in India. As part of my career thinking, I figured out that my next job needed to be an assignment that was overseas. However, it was very tough sitting in Mumbai and trying to figure out how to get an overseas assignment. So I made a list of six people in the Citibank system whom I thought could be helpful in getting my next assignment, and I thought to myself, “These people don’t know me.” My personal goal was that by the end of year, they should all know who I am and have a positive impression of me. I worked at it very systematically. If somebody came, I made sure I went there and met them. If somebody sent an email, I made sure I wrote back with an intelligent, thoughtful response. I was able to connect with those people in the course of the year.

The reality of life is people give jobs to those they know. Networking is not just a question of making friends. It is about winning respect from a broad body of people.

Finding the right mentor

The second tip I have is called “coat-tailing,” or to use its more acceptable nomenclature, “finding good mentors.” In many companies and organisations, people build their careers because their bosses do well. If your boss does well and you’ve been helpful, the boss will generally help you move up the organisation.

In my first few years in banking, I was being mentored by someone who ran technology and operations. As he got promoted, he kept taking me up to bigger and better jobs. However, a few years later, I realised that his career path was stuck in a domain that was not what I wanted to do long term. So I decided to move on. This was not being disloyal; he became one of my closest friends and still is. But I had to find another mentor who could grow me in different paths. As long as there is nothing bad in your intent, it is not a bad thing to find the right mentors who can take you up and show you new things.

What’s the big picture?

The third idea is “being plugged into the system.” This requires a couple of things. Firstly, always have the big picture perspective. You’ve heard of the elevator pitch —you’re stuck in an elevator with a senior, you’ve got 30 seconds, what can you say to make an impact? That is a real test on whether you’ve grasped where you’re standing relative to everything else happening in the company. Can you have a “big picture” conversation? How does your work fit? What is the line of alignment in the long run? The truth is most people do their jobs and get caught up in the thick of things. It is always important to take time to reflect on what’s the big picture.

It is also helpful to be in the know. Take time to find out what’s going on in your company, and figure what changes are coming down the pike. Make sure that others know your career plans, these include your bosses, HR folks, and the heads of the areas you would like to join in the future.

The risk-reward payoff

The last idea is around “taking risks with your career.” There is often a clear risk-reward payoff. Many of us prefer to stick to a safe path; the downside to that is that the rewards would tend to be more controlled. Those who are willing to step out of their comfort zone and do the new or challenging thing usually make a lot more progress in their careers.

I made a calculated risk to join DBS in 2009, just shy of my 50th birthday. This was not easy to say the least, especially when I’d spent the bulk of my career at Citi. As it turned out, the last five years have probably been the most rewarding years of my career, with the ability to work on a great platform, to lead far-reaching organisation change, and to really make a difference.

This post first appeared on LinkedIn.

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