Spoiler: this isn’t about work. Well, it sort of is. But not completely. I think it might be more accurately filed under "self help".
There’s a lot of articles out there at the moment about people being unhappy at work. Obviously, this is also being driven by the conversations about returning to the traditional office ways-of-working. I think this "return to normal" might be making people suddenly re-evaluate their life choices.
Now, before I start on this advice piece, I’m not talking about specifics of how one might feel about one’s current job, or current boss, or short-term circumstances of what might be lots of legitimate concerns about personal specifics. I’m talking about a career in the industry, and how I think one can decide if it’s the right thing for you. Well, that’s what I’m going to start talking about.
Planners are no different from normal people (I promise) and the pandemic clearly had a bit of a negative impact on us too.
I’ve been a planner for 22 years. So, I’ve been doing this for a “generation”, according to the Wikipedia definition of the word. A generation. Blimey.
One thing I’ve noticed in all that time about planners is that most of them tend to be really good at, well, planning.
They’re good at working out how to set objectives and then devise mostly coherent strategies for how to achieve them, with success metrics and tracking mechanisms along the way for gauging how far along the path to success one is, as the said strategy gets
Planners, or strategists if you prefer that term (heads up – they’re exactly the same thing), tend to be pretty good at strategising on client business.
We devise all sorts of systems and processes, models and frameworks, arrows and chevrons to apply strategic thinking to the business or brand challenges of our clients. But there’s something curious I’ve noticed.
Planners don’t tend to do this when it comes to more internal agency challenges. And especially don’t seem to apply strategic rigour when it comes to their own lives or careers. They should.
What I’ve noticed in 22 years is that your chances of success at anything is enhanced when you treat it like a brief; when you apply the same rigorous planning that, hopefully, you would to a brief. Everything is a brief – or it can be.
Think about the output of the agency if you’re in the management team. What kind of work do you want to be known for (beyond, duh, good work)? What kind of clients do you want to attract? What do you want people to say about your company outside your four walls?
It can’t just be some wishy-washy, same old, same old about “the work” or “impacting culture” – that would be like a dentist saying their philosophy was to fix teeth. Write your clear objective down and then plan your "campaign" or "comms plan" for achieving it. I bet
that most companies have never done this. This is inexcusable if you have a planner on the management team. Write a brief for it, then execute against it.
Think about recruitment. If you head a department, have you set yourself an objective of the type of person you want to hire, beyond the job spec? Have you asked yourself what the end game is on the department you want to create, the balance it might have or what you want people to think/feel/do about the department you put together? In short, have you set objectives, identified success metrics, put tracking measures in place to see whether you’re achieving your goal. Bet you haven’t. I bet you’ve looked at every hire as if it’s an isolated brief. You haven’t thought about the overall campaign objective, you've just written a bunch of executions.
Most importantly, think about your own career. I’d posit a theory that a lot of people who aren’t happy in their chosen role or career have ended up that way because they haven’t really planned. That’s unforgiveable for a planner. What do you want from your career?
Where do you want to go next? What’s your end game for what you want to be known for? When do you want to retire? Do you really want to be doing this (whatever this is) when you’re 60?
Think of your career as a brief and make a plan. What’s the objective and what is the strategy to achieve it? That way you will know if you’re ahead or behind on it.
By the way, you can do this with anything. Even your life. Just write a brief for it. Your perfect home. Your ideal boyfriend. How can you know if you’re on track if you never laid the track?
And I’m talking especially to planners here. Everyone else has a bit of an excuse, but you don’t. I think it’s like that old adage my gran used to have about cobblers' children going barefoot. It’s weird to me that planners don’t tend to plan when it comes to their own lives.
Oh, and then make sure you’re a bit flexible. Whether it’s Clausewitz’s line about battle plans not surviving contact with the enemy or Mike Tyson’s thing about getting punched in the face, you should be prepared that things might knock your plan a bit off course. But c’est la vie. That’s the same for any plan.
I made a plan in 2006. I decided that when I hit the age of 33 (it was something to do with being the same age as Alexander the Great when he died or when Jesus was crucified... I forget which) I’d create a plan for my career. I’ve had a couple of bumps along the way (the wrong chief executive being put in place, some global pandemic and so on) but I’ve largely followed the strategic milestones. I have tracked the progress against my KPIs. I have adjusted strategy and execution to flex with circumstance.
So, please, don’t forget to plan. Planners are good at that. Or they should be. Creating the right strategy for your career will help to tell you whether you’re in the right one. Treat everything in life as a brief; you should know as a planner how to do that by now. It works, I promise. But there’s no need for chevrons – that’d just be weird.
Kevin Chesters is strategy partner at Harbour.