November 8, 2017

Wise and Timeless Career Advice

Even though it was decades ago, I remember it like it was yesterday.

I was 29 years old, just finishing my Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology. While completing my degree, I was doing consulting work in Honeywell’s Corporate Human Resources Development department. In the course of working there I got to know a man by the name of Paul Elsen who was in charge of Executive Development for Honeywell.

As the head of Executive Development, Paul’s job was to track the careers of the top three to four hundred executives working around the world. He would note what business units and job functions each executive had experience with and what additional roles each should have to round out their experience and groom them for higher level jobs. He kept track of how each leader was performing, kept back up lists for each position, and he was a key input for all the decisions involving these executives and senior level openings.

Paul had been around Honeywell for a long time. He was a wise man who understood personal growth and career development deeply and he was kind and helpful. If they were to put an image next to the definition of “avuncular” in the dictionary, it would be Paul’s visage.

I had a lot of options for what I could do after I finished my doctorate and wasn’t sure what the best course of action would be. I called Paul and asked if he would meet me for lunch and he graciously agreed.

After getting our sandwiches and sitting down, I poured out my options in a fusillade. I could go the academic route. I could consult at one of the HR consulting firms. I could pursue a corporate job. For the latter option, I went through my perspective on the dozens of flavors of corporate jobs: large company, smaller company, type of industry, line HR job, OD job, and on and on. Paul was a saint for the equanimity he had listening to my overweening blather.

I don’t recall exactly, but I felt like I went on and on for ten minutes about what next move would be best for me. The entire time, Paul just listened, nodded occasionally and enjoyed his sandwich. When I ran out of breath or decided I should start eating my own lunch, I finally said, “Paul, what’s your advice…what’s the best move for my career?”

Paul set his sandwich down, wiped his mouth with his napkin, and said, “Figure out where you want to live. Go there and get a job.”

I’m guessing a slack-jawed look accompanied my internal sense of vexation. “Wait. What?” I said, “That is not what I asked. I want to know, of all the options I am considering which will be better for my career?”

“Figure out where you want to live. Go there and get a job.”

He said it again. “Figure out where you want to live. Go there and get a job.”

I said, “I am not getting this.”

Then he explained that I was solving for the wrong thing. He’d watched hundreds of men and women “manage” their careers and take jobs that they thought would be good for them and would help them climb the success ladder, even though doing so would mean them running businesses they had no passion for, going to places that they had no desire to be and living in climates ill-suited for them, far from family, with no sense of place. As a result, they spent decades of their lives being miserable.”

He went on. “If you get a job where you want to live, you will be happy. Besides the cream really does rise to the top and the career stuff seems to take care of itself, especially when big chunks of the rest of your life are on solid ground.”

But Paul, I said, in your job, don’t you do the opposite…moving people all around the world to grow and develop them with no real regard for where they want to live?” “Yes,” he said, “that is my job and what companies need to do to drive performance and develop their bench. But you shouldn’t really leave your life and happiness in the hands of a corporation or even someone like me. Take responsibility for identifying a way to live that makes you happy and build your career around that, not the other way around.”

“Take responsibility for identifying a way to live that makes you happy and build your career around that, not the other way around.”

I didn’t fully realize it at the time how wise his counsel was, nor how far ahead of his time he was. It is easy to see how Paul’s advice is perfectly aligned with the guidance given in recent years by organizations like The Energy Project, which helps individuals and organizations design smarter ways of living and working.

As for what I did, I knew an urban environment close to the ocean and mountains was where I wanted to be. Paul’s advice, in part, led me to turn down opportunities in Minnesota, Texas and Michigan and instead pursue a job in Boston. It turned out to be one of the happiest times of my life. And, by the way, the career stuff worked out too, though not directly through the job that took me out to Boston.

Fortunately for me, I asked the wrong question to the right guy. Instead of career advice, I was given wise, life counsel that has shaped my decision making for decades.

How about you? What was the best career/life advice you were given?

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