At one point in my career I had a boss who came to me and asked me to participate on a team whose mission was to understand the driving forces for changes to our industry and the impact of those changes on our business strategy. I thought shouldn’t this be a role for someone in marketing?
Luckily, I kept my mouth shut and decided to take on this unique opportunity. It turned out to be a highlight of my career. This assignment really forced me to get out of my comfort zone and collaborate with others whom I didn’t normally work with, allowing me to see the industry from a different perspective.
My boss, without directly saying so, was trying to help me broaden my fairly narrow view and limited understanding of our business. What better way to accomplish this than by working on a project that required me to think from the outside in.
If we want to increase the breadth of our contribution and add greater value in our careers, expanding our perspective becomes critical. For any business to be successful, the leaders of that business have to not only understand the external perspective, but really internalize that outside view and then incorporate the implications of that perspective into the business strategy for how products and services are created, developed and delivered.
I offer two suggestions for helping us to get that “Outside In” career perspective:
- Expand your network connections. Many of us think we’re pretty well networked, but if you really examine your network by mapping it out, you’ll probably find that many of your connections are in specific insulated “hubs” – such as those you work with, neighbors who live next to you, perhaps a social group of like-minded people or a church group of like-minded believers. In my example above, I was able to work with a wide customer base with which I did not normally interact, colleagues from other parts of the world who brought a non-U.S. perspective to the table, as well as consultants and vendors who could tell us how our industry was viewed from a completely different angle.
The idea of thinking from the “outside in” is often why senior executives turn to external executive coaches for help with their own development. The external coach is not burdened by living in the executive’s world every day and can help the client expand his/her perspective by challenging current assumptions and beliefs.
- Acquire broader business acumen. There are a variety of ways to do this, but I think one of the best is pushing ourselves to not only participate in a cross-functional project, but perhaps by making a lateral career move into a completely different function, where we can apply our acquired wisdom and experience but still have to learn the technical details of a completely different skills domain. I once had a boss who was V.P. of Human Resources and convinced our division president to allow him to fill in as the V.P. of Marketing for a lengthy transitional period while a search was conducted for a new marketing leader. This role allowed my boss to develop new relationships, gain visibility with different executives, build new functional competence and be seen in a different light. Over time, he continued to build a wide variety of functional experience and eventually moved into a succession of general management roles.
Even if a move like the one described above may not be realistic in your case, there are other ways to increase your business acumen: join networking groups outside your functional expertise, continue your business education, take on shorter-term assignments that force you to develop a broader skill set and work on the development of a new product or service offering which will require you to think more holistically about the business.
The best way to ensure vertical growth in our careers may be by making a few wide lateral moves. Don’t just follow the money, but rather the path that provides breadth of exposure and experience. You may find whole new career paths open up that you might not have even considered before.