Disrupt Your Career

Last week in lessons learnt we delved into the 3 critical success factors that will enable you to map out your career – satisfaction, serendipity & strategy. Not everyone has to abandon the traditional path, of course. Certainly if you’re working toward an ambitious and potentially achievable goal, such as managing a division at your company or winning a ‘C-suite’ job in your industry, disruption is unnecessary. As per last week’s blog you pursuing a deliberate strategy: when you are getting better at what you are already doing and providing more value to existing customers. But if as an individual you’ve reached a plateau or you suspect you won’t be happy at the top rung of the ladder you’re climbing, you should disrupt yourself for the same reasons that companies must.

There are 7 steps that will guide your disruption path:

There are two fundamental types of risk to consider when contemplating some kind of disruptive action: Competitive risks and Market Risks. Competitive Risk refers to the risks involved with entering an existing market with a competing product. This is the risk I faced when I was climbing the ladder in Corporate. I had made leaps across Sales, Marketing & Innovation. A risk when one considers the talent pool I was competing against were at times a specialist in their field. But still manageable especially if you are within the one company who are helping you manage your career path.

Market Risk is what you assume when you effectively create a new market, by identifying a need that is not being met and creating the product or service that addresses this need. This is what Netflix did when it spotted the opportunity to deliver videos cheaply and directly to consumers’ homes, eventually forcing Blockbuster to adopt the same modus. But by then it was too late for the latter to succeed. A Market Risk that I have confronted is moving from the Corporate World to the Consulting World. Providing a service that is seen as generic (like facilitating) is a less of risk than providing thought leadership; yet the intrinsic and external motivation can be greater with the latter.

My family has often enquired why I don’t pursue the Competitive Risk and it may be something that I revisit. An emergent / disruptive strategy is one I am embarking on now where the market risks are higher but it is important for each individual to evaluate what is best for their individual circumstance.

Another key element of ensuring you take the right risks is to make sure you’re exploiting your particular skills, or ‘distinctive strengths.’ If you try something you’re only moderately good at, you’re increasing the risk of failure. “A distinctive strength,” says Whitney Johnson, “is something that you do, that others within your sphere do not. Pairing this strength with a need to be met or a problem to be solved gives you the momentum necessary to move into hypergrowth, the sweet spot of the S-curve.”

On a personal level, the first step to charting your own advantage is to identify what you do particularly well and what makes you feel good about yourself. This could be, for instance, whether you think you’re better at teaching or learning, buying or selling, leading a team or creating on your own.

If you find this difficult to identify, you might find clues to the answer by asking yourself what exasperates you about others. What is the thing that you have super powers in and everyone else finds it difficult? It may not be because these people are deficient in a particular skill, but rather because you’re unusually good at it.

Or think back to your childhood to try to identify something that made you different or even a bit of an oddball to your peers. Alternatively, it might help to take notice of what people compliment you about (and often you dismiss). You may think little of their praise because you think of this attribute in yourself as unexceptional – but that could be because it comes naturally to you. People tend to overvalue what they aren’t and undervalue what they are. It is quite likely that the compliment is pointing you towards an area of your greatest strength. In fact it is quite likely that your superpowers are not on your resume. Because you ignore them.

A shortage of money is a powerful incentive for ensuring you have the right business model. A shortage of knowledge about, say, a particular process, can lead you to think outside the box and produce a novel solution. And a shortage of available time can force you to find others who are better suited to certain tasks or have the time to help you.

Feeling insecure might drive your determination to push forward with a new challenge. Constraints invite all of us to make choices and to own those choices, a critical developmental milestone without which we cannot scale and jump to new curves.

Entitlement – the idea that you deserve or are owed something or are in some way privileged or superior – can be a “career killer”. It manifests itself in several ways. With cultural entitlement, we have such a strong sense of belonging with our peer group or clique, and such a powerful sense of its capabilities, that we may tend to think poorly of those outside the group and ignore or even be unaware of their ideas. And if our plans seem to be working out well, we don’t feel the need to look beyond our own social and geographical borders for other people’s ideas. We believe that success comes naturally from within and always will. Instead we should make a sustained effort to experience other cultures – in the broadest sense of the word – by networking outside our usual realm either professionally or even geographically.

Despite what its name and description might suggest, the S-curve of disruption isn’t actually a smooth, continuous, onwards-and-upwards growth process. “Disruption by definition involves moving sideways, back, or down, with all the negative connotations that conjures, in order to move forward,” says Johnson. Furthermore, you might need to make course corrections, so reversing or moving in a new direction are key parts of the disruption process.

You can do this in a planned way by deciding in advance what you hope to gain from the process – “a sort of business plan for your backward move.” For example, as a manager, you might decide to allow employees to rotate into each other’s roles, knowing that in the short term, there may be an impact on revenue. But in the long term, the ideas and experience that flow from this could deliver big rewards.

Beware the undertow of the status quo. Tilt the odds in your favour. Lots of people may like you right where you are. You might like you right where you are. But there is no such thing as standing still. And sometimes, sideways turns into a sling shot.

Sometimes too there is failure. Whenever we start something new there is this fantasy of a perfectly linear world. Sometimes dreams come true. And sometimes they don’t.

Brene Brown stated that failure is particularly acute for corporate professionals. When the ethos is kill or be killed. Control or be controlled. Failure is being killed and it can elicit massive shame.

When I fail I am not only embarrassed but also heartbroken because I envisage a future where goals are exceeded and fulfillment is at a zenith. And where I may be hailed the conquering hero! And I didn’t and I wasn’t. It is important to grieve. And then you have to ditch the shame. To buy into the shame we allow the failure to be a referendum on us. And we can no longer ask the question about the fundamental truth did I learn because of this failure.

The most important thing I have learned is that whether I see the experience as a failure or a success, I have a choice.

Paraphrasing John Milton: “the mind is its own place, it can make up heaven or hell, a hell or heaven”. “The mind is its own place”. It can see success in every failure and a failure in every success. As you climb up your learning curve what will you make of your success?

As a disruptor you are on a journey to discover a yet to be defined world. You are taking on a market risk where no one else has played. This requires an emergent strategy.

Rather than performing detailed market analysis and developing a step-by-step plan to achieve a goal, disrupters are flexible. They take a step forward, gather feedback, and adapt accordingly. Probably finishing in a place that was not anticipated.

We all like to make plans for a disruptive future but this means we cannot see the top of the curve from the bottom. Sometimes you cannot see the bottom from the top.

A parallel exists in disruptive careers. Because we’re not following traditional paths, we can’t always see the end from the beginning. As John D. Rockefeller wrote, “If you want to succeed, you should strike out on new paths, rather than travel worn paths of accepted success.”

Einstein, one of the greatest thinkers and disruptive innovators of all time, once said: “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” While he may have been clothing himself in modesty, there’s no doubt that exploring and learning are critical attributes of the disruptor. Curiosity and a willingness to learn are among the leading predictors of C-suite career success. More than this, a willingness to accept that what you discover may not be what you expected, can lead to fantastic breakthroughs.

Like when I left Fosters. After the rush of feeling independent and superlative. It dawned on me that I could no longer ring people and say “Mark Truelson, Fosters”. It was just “Mark Truelson”. Somedays that wasn’t enough. And in other days the anxiety was so high that I felt like I was on a rollercoaster that was not going to come down. The zero cash flow. The mounting debts. The lack of clarity. The lack of belief. It doesn’t mean you don’t disrupt. It just means that if it feels scary and lonely you are probably on the right track. In fact if you don’t have that feeling in the deepest part of yourself, you need to so as to avoid dying just a little. That is why we call it the Disruptor’s dilemma. Whether you innovate or not, you risk downward employment mobility.

Back to Blog

Get Mark's thought-provoking exploration straight into your inbox