How to Make Strategic Career Decisions, Even in a Crisis (Back to Work, Better)
When it comes to work, it’s easy to focus on the near term: the next meeting, project, promotion. The global pandemic pushed many of us even further into heads-down mode. But Dorie Clark, author of the book The Long Game: How to Be a Long-Term Thinker in a Short-term World, wants everyone to step back, take a breath, and start thinking longer term about what you really want to do and how to progress toward those goals. She offers advice on how to ignore social media distractions, balance priorities, cultivate patience, and make the right strategic decisions. Clark also wrote the HBR article “Feeling Stuck or Stymied.”
ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard.
When it comes to career, it’s easy to focus on the near term, the next meeting, project, promotion. The global pandemic forced us into even shorter-term thinking. We were all triaging work and life to make it through, which led many of us to burn out. A lot of people even quit their jobs. Our guest today wants everyone to step back and take a breath. She argues that it’s always a good time to think about long-term career goals, what you really want to do, and how best to progress toward those goals.
But it’s particularly valuable now as we figure out what the new normal is going to look like. Maybe you’ve realized you don’t like the work you’re doing. Maybe you do think you’re on the right path, but don’t feel like you’re progressing fast enough toward the C-suite or whatever your higher aspirations are. For everyone out there feeling confused about what they want and how to get there, this episode is for you.
Dorie Clark is a consultant who teaches executive education courses at Duke University in Columbia Business School. She’s the author of the book, The Long Game: How to Be a Long-Term Thinker in a Short-Term World and the HBR article Feeling Stuck or Stymied? Now’s the time to build your career with strategic patience. Dorie, so excited to chat with you today.
DORIE CLARK: How is it? It’s great to be here.
ALISON BEARD: So first, I have to ask the expert on thinking long term, do you struggle yourself with trying to balance short-term tasks, emergencies with your bigger career goals, especially right now?
DORIE CLARK: Well, I’ll tell you, I have never been good at medium-term thinking. That’s always the tricky part. But for long-term thinking, what I actually find incredibly liberating, I want to be preaching this gospel, is that if your goals are long enough, if you have 10-year goals, 20-year goals, the amazing thing is you don’t have to know how you’re going to achieve them.
People often get freaked out because they say, “Oh, but I can’t think that long-term. I just wouldn’t even know where to start. I wouldn’t know how to map that out.” Of course, you don’t. The point is you can create a direction that you’re aiming toward, and you have plenty of time to figure out how to get there. So I’m good with the 10 and 20-year goals. I say, bring it on.
ALISON BEARD: It feels though like there’s a lot of impatience right now. Either people want out of their jobs immediately, or they want to get back to normal back on that upward career track immediately. So what advice are you giving people today?
DORIE CLARK: Well, you’re exactly right. I mean, for the past 18 months, everybody has been stuck inside and stymied in many ways because of COVID. This has been a period more than usual, where we’ve been forced into reactivity. After a while, it does begin to feel demoralizing because in that situation, our agency is limited. We sort of have to do what we have to do.
So it’s really natural for people to want to take back the reins in some way. I think that’s appropriate. We do need to reclaim our autonomy for our own psychological well-being and also because… The truth is you can only be reactive so long. We need to start setting positive intentions for ourselves, I mean, ultimately, as long as we are cognizant that, yeah, things are probably not going to play out exactly the way we want or with exactly the timing that we want, it is a great idea for us to start putting a stake in the ground and saying, “All right, this is what I’m working toward. This is the one-year plan, the five-year plan, the 10-year plan.”
We can be nimble, but we can also set a vision. As long as we’re working toward it, it actually gives us back some of the sense of control that so many of us have been lacking during the pandemic.
ALISON BEARD: So that’s what you’re advocating for this sort of one-year plan, five-year plan, 10-year plan, 20-year plan?
DORIE CLARK: Absolutely. Of course, there’s not magic necessarily to those numbers. We can give or take in one direction or another. But ultimately, it’s looking at, where do you want to go in your life? Who do you want to be? How do you develop that? It’s so easy for all of us to go into heads down mode and just focus on executing our tasks, and that’s necessary sometimes. There are periods of time or periods in our life where we do just have to do that, but that can’t be the only way that we operate. We need to be setting those visions and intentions for ourselves.
When we do, it enables us to shift direction sometimes in tiny, almost imperceptible ways, but they’re ways that compound over time that enable us end up a lot closer to the direction that we want.
ALISON BEARD: We’ve heard a lot about the great resignation. I think a lot of people are thinking, “Yes, I want to do that long-term planning. So I need to quit my job. I need time to reset.” Do people need to do that? Is that the right move?
DORIE CLARK: So if you truly hate your job, it may be the right move to leave it. But in general, I like to advocate a little bit of caution with these things. My first book was called Reinventing You. One of the principles around reinvention, and I think what holds a lot of people back, frankly, is that they assume, “Oh well, it has to be all or nothing. I need all the metaphors, right? I need to jump off the cliff. I need to take the leap.”
These are very dangerous and frightening metaphors, right? I wouldn’t want to do that. Who wants to leap off a cliff? I think that there’s actually a lot of the middle paths that we can take so that you don’t have to either be cowering in the corner or leaping blindly. So I think a lot of this applies during the COVID or post-COVID period, which is that there are ways to test your hypotheses strategically so that you can make moves.
One of the principles that I actually advocate for is applying the 20% time concept to our own lives. So this is something that some of you may have heard about from Google, where famously, they encourage their employees to allocate 20% of their time to more speculative projects that are outside their technical job description. This is how Google News was created. This is how Gmail was created. It has the potential to be the kind of moonshot bets that turn into something really interesting.
And I want to argue that we should all be doing this for our own careers. Nobody is going to tell you to do it. Nobody’s going to hand you this time. But if you actually carve it out and vigilantly guard it, where you’re using 20% of your time to learn about new things, sharpen your skills, take a class, learn about a new subject, go out and network – those are things that are going to prepare you for the future and enable you to make a smooth transition to either a new job or a new industry if you feel that’s appropriate.
ALISON BEARD: Google workers are getting to do that during the hours that Google is paying them. So for those of us who can’t take that 20% from work who have children or other family commitments who want to get a workout in once in a while, who need to do shopping, housework, how do we make that time?
DORIE CLARK: Yeah. So I love that caveat, Alison. Actually, just to complicate the picture even more, so a really interesting thing about Google and 20% time, a study actually suggested that even today, in the company that is theoretically advocating this for its employees, only 10% of Googlers actually do it. Only 10% actually take advantage of 20% time.
To me, that shows a couple of important things. Number one, it is never easy, regardless of what is being said around you for people to actually resist the urge to just be doing their job. We have pressures. We all have commitments and responsibilities and, oh my gosh, the inbox is overflowing. I really need to get back to people.
So this is something that requires intense discipline and willpower, we have to recognize that 20% time, it actually may, in some ways, mean 120% time. This may be nights and weekends, and there are obligations that people have, for sure. I would also argue that there are waves in our lives and responsibilities. There are times when things are just not possible. If you’re caring for a sick relative, for instance, or you’ve been homeschool ing kids or things like that, it really may not be possible to do much else.
But once that moment shifts and that moment passes, it is important for us to recalibrate. If we’re thinking in career waves, we need to recognize, “Okay, I may have been over-indexing on family time or whatever obligations during this period. Now it is perhaps time to write the balance and to focus a little bit more on professional development and long-term planning.” One of the classics when it comes to thinking about career development is the so-called Eisenhower matrix popularized by Stephen Covey, which talks about the urgent versus the important, and it’s always the important that gets left behind, and carving out 20% time and really making an effort to do it is a way of saying to ourselves, “Look, even when there are intrusions and incursions into our schedule, even when sometimes we’re not able to do this, the moment we are able, we’re going to get back on the horse, because this is something that is genuinely valuable and worth allocating time and resources for.”
ALISON BEARD: Yeah. I’m going to write my novel when my kids go to college.
DORIE CLARK: That’s right.
ALISON BEARD: How much power do workers have in all of this in terms of crafting their own jobs within their organizations and figuring out new and different career paths? Do you think that the balance has shifted away from employers thanks to the rise, for example, of the gig economy?
DORIE CLARK: Workers actually have a lot of power right now. I’m honestly not sure how long that is going to last, but this is a special moment. Studies have shown that anywhere from 25 to nearly 50% of employees in this post-COVID or late COVID, or however we would say it moment are strongly considering leaving their jobs. If you are an employer and you see that, that is going to devastate your talent pipeline. You can’t afford for that to happen.
So therefore, when an employee comes to you, before, you probably held more of the cards. Now, if an employee says, “I like working for you, but I’m actually thinking that I need a raise.” Or, “I like working for you, but I really don’t think it’s going to work for me to come back to the office full time,” you are going to be a lot more amenable, assuming that this is a reasonably good and valued employee to their requests.
So I think it’s actually a very unique time where if you’re an employee and you actually like a job well enough that you could imagine staying in it, ask for what you want, map it out. As long as it is somewhat reasonable and somewhat plausible, the chances are high that your company does not want to lose you in this moment, and they will be far more willing to exceed your request, especially professional development opportunities or a chance for you to work on projects that build skills that are of particular interest to you.
ALISON BEARD: Unless you want time for a side hustle that will eventually launch you into a totally different career path and help you leave the organization.
DORIE CLARK: It’s true they do not like that. But one of the things that I always like to advocate. There’s a Venn diagram that we can think about. If we harken back to junior high math, a Venn diagram is two circles that overlap, and there’s this kind of magic area where the circles overlap.
If we think about one circle as your company and what’s in your company’s interest and one circle as you and what’s in your interests, where a lot of employees, I think, frankly, go wrong, is that for really long periods of time, the two circles are exactly on top of each other. They subsume their needs entirely to the company, and they forget about developing skills or abilities or networks outside of what their current job requires.
That’s great up until the minute it’s not, because if you get laid off or if things at your company change, and all of a sudden, there’s a reshuffling or something like that, you’ve put all your eggs in one basket, and it’s just no longer relevant. But if if you’re taking 20% time, if you’re applying it to something that simultaneously is beneficial to your company now in the present moment and to future directions that you may want to explore above and beyond what the company is doing, then that’s a win for everyone. That’s not in the least unethical.
ALISON BEARD: But what if you’re working for an accounting firm and your side hustle is baking?
DORIE CLARK: Yes. Some folks have side hustles that they’re cultivating that are completely different than their day job, the good news in a situation like that is your accounting firm is not going to worry in the least that you are taking their intellectual property, that you might steal their clients there. They’re going to be like, “Okay. God speed with the baking.”
Actually even in that situation, there are skills that you can be developing that can help you in both contexts.
If you’re starting your own side hustle, and let’s say it is baking, the literal part of baking is not something that’s going to be relevant for your day job, but building relationships and connections and how to get better at doing that.
Even if the audiences are different, the skills about how do you make those connections, that’s a very transferable skill. You’re probably going to need to learn more about marketing, social media. Those are things that can actually be helpful to you in terms of understanding what your company is doing. So there’s often a lot of crossover.
ALISON BEARD: You keep mentioning nights and weekends to do all of this long-term planning. Is that really healthy?
DORIE CLARK: Well, I think for a lot of things, it’s a question of, what is the balance, and how do we sort of toggle back and forth? A concept I talk about in The Long Game is thinking about being in heads-up mode versus heads-down mode. This is a concept I first heard about from my friend, Jared Kleinert. I loved the formulation, because I think where a lot of people go wrong, frankly, I mean, sometimes I hear from friends and fellow professionals who say, “Oh, I’m so frustrated. I’m doing all this stuff, and nothing’s sticking, nothing’s working.”
You dig into it a little bit. What you realize is yes, they’re doing their thing. It’s not that they’re wasting their time watching cat videos. But the problem is that if we really want to be successful professionally, we need to learn to not just do one thing. For a lot of people, they get comfortable doing one thing, and then they just keep doing that thing, and they don’t realize they have to shift.
So what I love about Jared’s formulation is that when we’re in heads-up mode, that is the time when we need to be expansive. We need to be meeting people, talking with people, looking for ideas, seeing what’s out there. What’s the next product project? What’s the next big thing I want to dive into? That’s great. That’s very exciting. It’s called sort of extrovert mode. But then we also at a certain point, need to shift into heads-down mode, which is about execution, which is about getting things done, moving things forward, because if all you do is heads-down mode, you’re probably just going to keep plowing on a strategy that at a certain point may stop being effective.
But if all you do is heads-up mode, you’re not going to get anything done. You’re going to be this kind of irresponsible dreamer.
ALISON BEARD: What about those people who have their plans and are so laser-focused on the big long-term goals that they get frustrated by their lack of progress in the short term? Your article focused on strategic patience. I enjoyed working with you on it. So tell us a little bit more about how you cultivate that.
DORIE CLARK: Yeah. So it’s very common, and I can absolutely relate that if you are excited about a goal, if there’s something that you want to accomplish, I mean, of course you want to accomplish it now.
Ultimately, I think where we wrong is that we fixate sometimes so much on what the ultimate goal is that we are not satisfied with. In fact, we sometimes don’t even notice progress that is not literally achieving that goal. But because the goal is enormous, it could take a long time. It could take years to get to that thing.
So we’re going to be frustrated for a very long time, and that’s actually what leads a lot of people to give up, I think prematurely. So one strategy that I talk about is looking for raindrops. What I mean by that is that I have seen time and again in my executive coaching clients and the folks that I work with in my recognized expert online community, so 600 plus people, so I’ve seen a lot of examples of this, that when progress starts to come, we have to really attune ourselves to looking for signs of that progress. It’s almost invisible at first.
When it starts to come, it really is like a rainstorm starting where at first you’re like, “Is that a raindrop? I can’t really tell.” And then, “Oh well, I think that was one.” It might come in the form of all of a sudden, like, okay, maybe you start to get more LinkedIn invitations from strangers, and the strangers have somehow heard about you, or they’ve heard about your work.
Maybe it’s that you get a nice note from a client because somebody’s starting to really appreciate what you’re doing. Maybe your boss gets a compliment about you from someone, and then they pass it on and tell you. These are the small signs.
ALISON BEARD: It can be frustrating in this digital age though when you see lots of peers, contemporaries sort of showcasing their rainstorms or big score to use another analogy. How do you deal with that social comparison?
DORIE CLARK: Oh, it’s so frustrating, and this is actually part of why I think strategic patience is so important for us now. I mean, of course, just as human beings, we’re a little bit impatient. That’s kind of hardwired into our DNA. But social media, Instagram, all of the instantaneous ability for us to compare ourselves has not helped, and it’s actually just accelerated these feelings that we’ve always had.
So it’s easy to start to question yourself and wonder, “Oh my gosh, why are they getting it, and I’m not getting it? Why is it working for them and not for me?” I think really Alison, there’s three antidotes that I would suggest. One, as we talked about is looking for those raindrops to see small, tiny signs of progress, and to really look for them. Another is to actually make sure at the outset of your quest, that you have a reasonable sense of what the scope is of what you’re trying to accomplish.
A great anecdote, Jeff Bezos in his 2018 letter to Amazon shareholders talked about a friend of his who hired a handstand coach. She wanted to become proficient at doing a handstand in yoga. The handstand coach said that the average person, if you have them guesstimate, they will say, “Oh, it should probably take about two weeks to get good at doing a handstand.” The actual truth is it takes six months of daily practice to do it.
ALISON BEARD: That does not surprise me. It requires a lot of core strength.
DORIE CLARK: It is insane. I’ve tried to do it, and I am terrible. So it’s a pretty big commitment. But if we apply that lesson metaphorically to the rest of our lives, just think about what we envision. I mean, everybody knows like, “Right. Right. Success is not overnight.” We’ve got that part. But when they say not overnight, they’re thinking two weeks, and it’s six months. That is a factor of 12. It’s a 12X difference.
So having a clear sense of the scope and the timing is really important. Then finally, I’ll just say, it’s really useful here to develop a strong network, not just of friends that believe in you, which of course is important, but especially people who are knowledgeable about your field and your industry and who are not just going to be blind cheerleaders, but are going to be yes, rooting for you and supporting you, but also that they personally have a sense of, well, what would work in this industry, or what is a good idea in this context and can actually help guide and advise you. If you have those ingredients, it becomes a lot easier to answer the question, is this path not working, or is it just not working yet?
ALISON BEARD: One problem with long-term career planning is that you can set goals. I want to be a director. I want to be CEO. But you don’t have control over that entirely. Those decisions are in someone else’s hands. So how do you help people think about the agency that they do have?
DORIE CLARK: Gatekeepers are incredibly frustrating. Because you’re exactly right, there are so many jobs, professions, milestones that we want to achieve that frankly are just in the hands of certain people, and they have certain tastes. They might like you or not like you, they might like or not like your style or what you represent. Even if you are objectively good, it still might not be “enough”.
We need to recognize that there are multiple paths to success. If we say, “I’m going to get a job at Apple, and that’s it. That’s the only thing that will make me happy.” Well, that’s actually pretty dangerous. You are putting a lot of power into the hands of one company and frankly maybe one person, and it’s an easy path to disappointment if for some reason, which perhaps has nothing to do with you, it does not work out.
But instead, what I argue is that we should try to be just directionally correct in this. There are actually a lot of ways to make things work if we’re willing to open up our frame. —Even if there’s a thing that you want to do, a particular path might not be right, a particular path might be blocked. But there’s usually a way to find your way in. Maybe you don’t get the job at Apple. Fine. Okay. Could you be happy working at Google? Could you be happy working at a design firm that works with Apple? Could you be happy perhaps in academia or being a journalist at a tech publication that covers Apple? There’s a lot of possibilities.
ALISON BEARD: For the people you meet who are dysfunctionally trapped into the heads down, short term, get through it, don’t want to plan, don’t want to think about the future, what advice do you give? How do you get them to sort of break out of it and get the balance right?
DORIE CLARK: Yeah. So you know any theory of change management fundamentally is, number one, is the person motivated enough to change? Has the problem become acute enough that they’re willing to do what is necessary? Number two, are they aware of what they could do to make that change? Then number three, are they willing to give up the benefits that they are accruing from those behaviors and sort of that cost benefit analysis.
So in the case, which I think is, is often very common among successful professionals of being addicted to heads-down, just, oh, I don’t have time for strategic thinking, there’s a few interesting things at play. I found a study from few years ago. It was enormous. It was a 10,000-person study conducted by an organization called the Management Research Group. It said that 97% of executives, of senior leaders said that strategic thinking was the most important thing they could be doing in order to advance the future of their organization., and yet there was a separate study that was done, and almost the same percentage, literally 96% of respondents in that survey said they just didn’t have time for strategic thinking.
Two things that are really crucial when it comes to our inability to make more time, to carve out more time for strategic thinking, one is that there is a form of status that comes from being busy, researched by Silvia Bellezza from Columbia Business School has shown that, especially in America, but also in other Western cultures being viewed as crazy busy actually signifies high social status and that you’re in demand.
So it is a way of both signaling to others and perhaps more profoundly to ourselves that we are needed and we are important. That can be a hard thing to give up. The second thing is that oftentimes in professional life, in life, in general, we don’t know the answers. We don’t really know how to increase sales 30%. We don’t really know if I should quit my job, or if I should stay in my job, or if I should launch this new initiative or just forget about it for now and focus on making the things I’m already doing better. There’s a million strategic questions, and we don’t know.
Rather than facing them and facing the discomfort of that uncertainty, it often is emotionally easier to just keep doing what we’re doing and to tell ourselves that there’s no time for strategic thinking. So we have to face those things head-on if we’re actually going to get past it to the point where we really can carve out the white space that we say we want and that in fact we do need in order to make sure that we are not optimizing for the wrong things.
ALISON BEARD: Yeah. Well, you’ve given us so much good advice, testing hypotheses, thinking in waves, looking for raindrops. I’ll definitely put it to use, and I hope our listeners will too. Dorie, thanks so much for being on the show.
DORIE CLARK: Alison, thank you. It’s great to be here.
ALISON BEARD: That’s Dorie Clark. She’s the author of the book, The Long Game: How to be a Long-Tterm Thinker in a Short-Term World. You can find her article, Feeling Stuck or Stymied in the September, October magazine or on hbr.org.
If you like this episode and want to hear more, like my interview with Emily Esfahani Smith about rethinking our relationship with work, please subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Adam Buchholz is our audio product manager. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast I’m Alison Beard.