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Managers Mark

Friday, August 1, 2008 - 09:52

Ambitious managers looking to make a mark need to work on their strengths and weaknesses to enhance their careers. By Fiona Gillies

So you've got a great job and you're good at what you do. You hope to have a long and successful career in management. But how do you make sure you get the career you want?

In this time of low unemployment, finding just another job in management may not in itself be hard. But landing the job you really want isn't always so easy. How do you make sure that you're the person who stands out from the pack?

It's up to you to make the best of your talents and ensure that when the right job comes along, you're the one who gets it. Here are some expert's tips in six key career building blocks to help take control of your own destiny and make your mark.

Networking/relationships

While it's most definitely a buzzword, experts agree that networking is one of the most important ways to enhance your career.

At work, Management Consultant James Adonis recommends associating with managers two levels above you; hang out with them, talk to them, and try to get on projects they're involved in.

"If a manager resigns or goes somewhere else, stay in touch with phone calls," he says. "Have breakfast or coffee every few months just to maintain the relationship because most jobs are filled through word of mouth, not by advertising."

Outside the workplace, the best way to network is through associations. Become a member of your local industry association and attend events. Take it a step further and join the association's committee to forge stronger ties.

"The more involved you can get with your association, the more profitable it will be in the long term," says Adonis.

He warns that networking is more than swapping business cards. "It's not about saying 'hi' to as many people as possible. It's about having really good conversations with two or three people who you then stay in touch with. The key is to build relationships, not a big database."

Kate Durward, an Executive Manager at the Commonwealth Bank, describes networking as "the thing that gets you from job to job, from opportunity to opportunity".

"In my whole life (apart from my first job in banking), I've only ever applied for one position through a job ad. Every other job has been through my network. There is still an interview process, but if you are introduced to a role, you've kind of got a head start; so you find out about jobs before they're fully formed, before they're advertised."

Updating your skills

In order to remain competitive, it's essential for managers to continuously update their skills. But educating yourself doesn't necessarily mean studying for an MBA. There are hundreds of short courses on skills such as relationship building, negotiation, facilitation and presentation.

James Adonis says that while universities can teach theory and technical skills, 'soft' skills are often lacking.

"Managers will be infinitely more valuable if they can show evidence that they are a great facilitator or a master at negotiating," he says.

"It doesn't matter what course you choose, what senior managers want to see is proactiveness. If a resume shows a person will invest their own money in their education development, an employer will love it."

Adonis also recommends reading one management book each month as well as subscribing to management newsletters, magazines and industry journals.

"The more that a manager can read, the more interesting they will become," he says.

Kate Durward has just begun an MBA course at the age of 45, and believes that waiting until now was a wise move.

"Every unit I have done so far, I've gone back to work the next day and applied the knowledge," she says. "Some people I've met doing the MBA, I don't think have enough management experience. They learn the theory, but I don't believe they can apply it in real life. So I think it is possible to do something like that too early."

Career choices

Do what is right for you. Don't be afraid to opt for a small organisation if it suits you, and don't be afraid to make unusual moves, such as a step backwards or into something new.

Commonweatlh Bank's Kate Durward says experience with a small organisation can be very valuable. "There's a lot of opportunity to move around within a small organisation," she says. "It really does give you exposure to the way a business operates from one end to the other and it's very difficult to get that in a large organisation until you are in the senior ranks.

"Then again, I'm mentoring a guy who joined the bank straight out of uni on the graduate program and the best thing for him is to be with a large company, so there's no single answer for everyone."

Durward says it can be beneficial to step back in order to move forward or change paths slightly. She consciously did that twice when she was younger; once to improve her software and programming skills, and once to join a larger organisation.

"It's not something I would recommend too often, but when you're young, weigh it as a consideration. I know plenty of people who have done it and none of them regretted it in the long run."

Knowing when a job isn't right is another important skill. Durward says she became general manager of a software house in the early 1990s but quickly realised she'd made a mistake. "At a general manager level, it's incredibly important to be a very good salesman, but that didn't sit well with me. I recognised it wasn't a good fit and made a conscious decision to move out of that."

Mandy Scotney, now Executive General Manager Retail with travel company House of Travel, joined Flight Centre at a period of rapid growth, which she describes as "one of the best things that happened to me", while Durward got a job with a new bank, National Mutual Royal, when the industry deregulated in 1985, then joined IT service provider EDS in the late 1990s shortly before the Commonwealth Bank outsourced its IT operations to EDS.

Says Durward: "If you see an opportunity to be involved in major change, that's something I'd always say put your hand up for. It can only help your career."

Self improvement

Aside from formal courses, there are many other ways to improve skills, such as becoming a master at job interviews.

James Adonis says a woman he knew went to an interview every Friday. She was invariably offered the jobs, but didn't take them.

"She told me that one day her dream job would come along and she wanted to make sure she would be the best interviewee they'd ever seen," he says. "It's not the best person who gets the job, but the person with the best interviewing skills."

Another important way to improve is through feedback. "The higher people move up the corporate ladder, the less feedback they get, but the more they should be seeking it," says Adonis.

Managers should seek regular feedback from both their employees and their superiors, as well as from interviewers after unsuccessful job interviews to find out why they missed out and how to do better.

Dr Anne Junor, Senior Lecturer in Human Resource Management at the Australian School of Business at the University of New South Wales, says that awareness is a crucial self-improvement skill.

"Have your antenna out and be very aware of trends, developments and undercurrents," Junor says. "My sister calls it 'earwigging', which is keeping your ear to the ground, listening in and making sense of half-overheard conversations.

"Awareness also includes understanding how you come across to others and the impact of your behaviour and attitudes," she says.

Self-promoting behaviour

Don't be afraid to talk up your achievements and become known as a top performer. James Adonis suggests writing articles for industry publications to get your name known, or getting yourself on the speakers list at an industry conference.

"The benefit of this is that you'll be promoting yourself to potentially hundreds of companies at the one time."

Adonis also recommends behaving as if you already have the role you aspire to. You can do this by dressing the part and showing initiative. Let people know you're ambitious. Put your hand up for opportunities. And be flexible.

When Mandy Scotney started her career with Flight Centre in New Zealand, she made it clear she wanted to progress. Her first management role involved a move to the city of Dunedin.

"It's not the most glamorous location, but I was willing to do that to get on the management ladder; I was managing an agency within nine months of joining the business," Scotney says. "Had I not been willing to be flexible, that wouldn't have happened."

Junor, as a lecturer in HR, recalls a simple but effective act of self-promotion at a recent conference. "Someone had their photo on their business card. I thought, 'What a good idea. I will immediately remember the face to that name'."

Junor goes on to say that the aim of making yourself unforgettable to others should also be applied to your resume.

"In your CV, create a sort of pen sketch of yourself and what your objectives are, so you stand out from anybody else, and people can recognise you from the way that you've described yourself."

Adonis recommends listing your accomplishments on the front page of your resume, in place of the usual name, address and education. "Most recruiters don't get past the first page, so you really want to hook them in straightaway. If the first page is captivating, they will want to read on."

And make sure there are no grammatical errors or spelling mistakes, he stresses.

Mentors

Any ambitious manager should have two mentors, according to Adonis: one within the company, two levels higher and preferably within another division, and one outside the company, in any position. Meet up every month or two to discuss where you are at and exchange ideas.

"There are two keys to finding a great mentor. First, the mentor must have achieved what you aspire to and, second, you must be able to get along with them."

Kate Durward agrees that personal rapport is essential. "There's no point choosing a mentor who is really important in the organisation if you can't actually talk to them," she says. "And that works both ways. When I'm mentoring people now, I will only mentor people I have a personal rapport with."

The less-travelled path

Undertaking a volunteer telephone counselling course to help people in crisis is not a regular career move for managers, but Mandy Scotney says it has been an enormously valuable step for her.

Last year, the 38-year-old single mother decided that becoming a volunteer counsellor with one of Australia's best-known welfare groups was a good way to combine learning new skills with doing something positive for the community.

"I would say, without a doubt, that I am a better manager as a result of doing that work, because I'm a better listener," Scotney says.

"Management, at whatever level, is about people and relationships; it's about engaging the people you work with. The skills you learn doing telephone counselling are all about listening to and acknowledging people. Apply that into the work environment and it's really powerful."

James Adonis applauds Scotney's decision to add telephone counselling to her list of skills, not only because it has made her a better manager.

"There's an increasingly bigger focus in the corporate world on social responsibility," he says. "In an environment where generation Y, especially, are becoming more and more critical of companies that aren't doing enough for the community, having a manager who obviously does it in her spare time is quite inspirational."

Durward credits a Toastmasters public speaking course she did in her early 20s with making a huge difference to her success.

She says she would recommend a similar course to anyone serious about management and urges managers to practise public speaking as much as possible.

"Once you are in management, even if you aren't standing in front of an audience presenting, you are actually always presenting," Durward says.

"You are always on show and people will always critically look at the way you present yourself, the way you speak, the way you run a meeting. And it does affect your credibility."