Beware of Bad Career Advice!

Call me old, cynical or just plain curmudgeonly but I am on my last nerve reading about “business” people with almost no business experience who are “transforming their personal brand” and offering “business” and “career” advice to the masses. Pardon the quotes but it is the only polite way I know of calling it the way I see it.

What offering came close to pushing me to the edge today? This, from a “career strategist” on LinkedIn:

“Instead of ensuring that the role is a good fit for you, make sure the MANAGER is a good fit for you. It is crucial that you fully vet the person who will have a big hand in your career success. Make sure there’s good synergy, chemistry and respect for each other.”

Oh, please. I find it cruel to suggest to young people that they look for a fit with a manager when they look for a job. That manager could leave for greener pastures in two weeks; then what do you do?

There is no question that a good manager can have a tremendous impact on a young and developing career. I’ve written about some sensational managers I’ve had, managers who have changed my path! But I’ve probably learned just as much from those awful managers I’ve endured, lessons that also prepared me for larger roles. I learned how to hold my tongue and my temper. I learned how to craft a cogent argument to sell my idea or project from another’s perspective. I learned empathy for someone very different than myself.

Focusing on the fit with a manager is bad career advice. Unfortunately, there is bad career advice everywhere.

The quintessential bad career advice for my generation was best depicted in the classic film The Graduate. Benjamin Braddock, having received his bachelor’s degree from Williams College, is alone, adrift and unsure about his future, and is the center of attention at a graduation party at his parents house:
Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?
Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?

Now maybe plastics would have allowed Benjamin to make his fortune, who knows. I know the bad career advice I got early on probably would have allowed me to make my fortune had I followed it. My uneducated but well-read stepfather kept insisting there was a great future in computers and he was right…but not for me. My career success depended on a focus on people and process and, while I might have been able to make that happen with a computer science degree, the very fact that he suggested it meant the option came off the table.

There are lots of people and resources that offer career advice that may not be for you or might be downright bad advice. How do you separate the wheat from the chaff?

Here are a few suggestions I would make on how to get the best advice possible:

• It is worth your while to find a mentor. If you can, find more than one.

Many colleges offer alumni mentor programs. Some industry associations offer similar programs. Perhaps you developed a strong relationship with a manager who is in a company you’ve left and you can call him or her. You need to find people in your field – but not at your company – to talk with about your career goals. Now follow up and not just when you have a problem. Fit in time with these people regularly. Buy them a cup of coffee once in a while.

• Stay connected to your own industry through the trade press. If you’re thinking about changing industries, learn about that one, too. The more information, true knowledge and vocabulary you have, the better armed you are to ask questions.

• Network, but do it strategically. Learn what events are important (by reading and understanding your industry and talking to your mentors) and attend those.

• Turn to people who are successfully managing their career, including some of the inevitable twists and turns. These people don’t necessarily have to be in your industry. Better judgment comes from making mistakes and learning from those missteps.

• Invest the time to learn about yourself.

I am NOT one of those people who would ever advise someone to do what you love and the money will follow. But I do think it’s important to have a good understanding of one’s own strengths, weaknesses and the places where we tend to misstep. Get as much feedback about your own performance as you can. Work on your problem areas!

Every job you take won’t be the perfect job but it will offer you an opportunity to learn something new, it will connect you with new people and you will grow. Even – or especially – with a bad manager. Suck it up. You won’t be there forever!

“I think that’s the single best piece of advice: constantly think about how you could be doing things better and questioning yourself.” Elon Musk

Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • Darnell Newsum says:

    Now, this is helpful career advice. Learning to manage ourselves is so important. Your wisdom is truly appreciated. Thanks!

  • Elizabeth Novak says:

    This was a great post. Perhaps people should spend more time researching the people who are giving them advice…their background, their experience, their successes and failures.

  • Wonderfully practical and realistic advice, Kathi. And insightful, as always!

  • E Amalia J says:

    You know when you are really thirsty in the summer and have a cold beer? That’s how satisfying was for me reading this article!

  • Susan Saegert says:

    Thank you for putting this out there! I agree that this is really good career advise and your ideas on how to gt good advise should be heeded. I may agree even more about the need to avoid bad advise now that consulting has become for many an entry level job with confusing financial incentives for the consultants often. those of us who work in institutions that sometimes decide that they need to change the way the employees behave offer such packages as for your benefit. But I’m not really sure that is always or even usually true. So I’d really endorse the part about finding out about those you listen to as mentors.