How to protect your leadership career


You have studied hard, worked hard, networked constantly and had some luck and opportunities along the way to get to where you are now in a position of leadership, working for an organisation that rewards and recognises you for your talents and experience.

You feel satisfied, motivated and good about yourself. Your career appears on track. You must have done something right. Why tinker with success?

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However, in what is now called the VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world, we need to be taking control to further build and protect our careers because of the inevitable change that is now affecting virtually every industry – whether from technology, globalisation, demographics, urbanisation, changing consumer demands or even terrorism.

Let’s define what we mean by the word “career”. It used to be that we joined an organisation straight out of school or university, intending it to be a job for life, worked hard and stayed long enough to be promoted based on experience and tenure – subject to career breaks for factors like family or travel. A career also often meant a peaking into positions of leadership in your 40s and 50s before tailing off into retirement in your 60s.

These days though, positions of leadership often arrive far earlier in your 20s and 30s and you may have peaked by your mid 40s. You may be then be retrenched or may just have career atrophy. You either don’t want to or can’t afford, psychologically or financially, to retire in your 50s, 60s and even 70s.

We therefore need to consider our working life and career over a much longer time span of say 50-60 years, but recognise that this could be in multiple roles in multiple organisations – and possibly including being an entrepreneur, an independent consultant, in transition between roles or taking various career breaks to experience other aspects of life. I highly recommend reading Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent book, “Unfinished Business”, about some new conversations we need to have about changing expectations around men, women and work generally.

Protecting your career

So, in this VUCA world, how do you protect your career – in this newly defined way? Key aspects I consider are important, are:

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1. Competencies and mega trends

Understanding and developing the competencies required in this VUCA world – and the wider mega-trends affecting society and business will provide a better context for your career planning. Competencies that are contained in the Korn Ferry Leadership Architect global competency framework are recommended for review – particularly competencies such as “Nimble Learning”, “Cultivates Innovation”, “Drives Results” and “Builds Networks”.

2. Self awareness

Our educational institutions and many organisations, unfortunately in my view, focus too much on technical and academic skills and not on the personality, values, potential derailers and thinking preferences of individuals – which all affect suitable role fit. Developing self awareness and understanding of how we work, often in conjunction with a good coach using appropriate profiling tools, is recommended to ensure career fit.

3. Strategy and branding

Developing your own career strategy – which in these days of “You, Inc”, must include a personal marketing and branding plan will assist the protection of your career. This will include networking covered below and your online branding – whether internally through social enterprise systems like email, Google Plus, Jive or Yammer and external social media such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

4. Networks

Constantly developing and maintaining networks of people who can support, mentor and coach you on this journey – both internally in an organisation and externally – will enhance learning and development. In an organisation, I recommend not only your direct leader but also your peers, a mentor from another area of the business and any internal coaching offered. Externally, an independent executive coach can be beneficial as can wider networks from industry associations, professional groups, previous work colleagues, and even fellow school and university alumni.

5. Execution and Results

No matter what your qualifications, tenure with an organisation or personality, the execution of objectives, deliverables and quantifiable results is paramount. These aspects will be a key factor upon which you will be assessed for retention, promotion or consideration for new roles.

6. Know your Numbers

No matter how creative, innovative, strategic and interpersonally skilled you are, every organisation has limited resources and is measured numerically in some way. The same principle applies to you – you must “know your numbers” and “value proposition” – in other words, what is the Return on Investment that the organisation makes upon you.

Adopting the above steps should assist in protecting your career. However, times change and the most important aspect is that you are agile and take control, no matter what is happening within an organisation or in the external environment.

And there is always an element of luck – some of which you will make for yourself.

Peter Black is the Executive Coaching partner of ALCHEMY Career Management, a firm of coaches and business psychologists who support individuals and organizations with career transition, executive coaching, Wellness@Work and change management programs. For further information, see