How To Navigate The Messiness of What’s Next

A colleague asked me recently why I stayed so long with my last organisation, when clearly I was better off as a free agent. It would have been easy for me to rationalise my answers: the job wasn’t done, the market wasn’t right for me to move, I wasn’t ready. But, in truth, I was terrified of letting go, backing myself, and stepping into the unknown.

I should have swallowed some of my own medicine. A while back, I wrote about ‘where are you on the career curve?’ People continue to find it helpful to this day to make sense of their career path, especially the messy transitions than we all inevitably encounter. If you not sure what I’m on about with the curve thing, here’s a quick summary (or follow the link above for a fuller description):

The career curve is a simple way to describe the development stages we go through in a role, or chapter, in our careers. It’s based on the ideas of the great management thinker Charles Handy. The curve has three stages:

Career Curve 1

Let’s look at ‘What’s Next?’ This is the stage where you probably starting to get comfortable – you’ve gone through the growing pains, achieved some great things and learned a lot, and you’re maybe thinking “Hey, I’ve earned it! It’s time to kick back a bit.” But there’s a downside. Your mojo might be fading, and you might become more restless.I hung around this stage for a while, and it’s easy to do. But the smart thing to do at this point is to shift your focus and energy to ‘what’s next’, sooner rather than later, and prepare to let go, to step into the unknown. Otherwise, you can find yourself going in a slow decline, which can result in disenchantment and ineffectiveness. Not a great place to be. Believe me.

Career Curve 2

The challenge is to move onto a new curve – something that will test you, stretch you, grow you, scare you. Sometimes, you need to invent this yourself. Other times, you’ll find yourself pushed there. In either case, with insight, conviction and courage, you can let go of your old curve, get out of your comfort zone, and move onto a new curve, and keep on growing. Just as I did. Finally.


Career Curve 3

The area between the two curves is a potentially messy place, where you can get confused, stuck and scared. Here, you need to let go of something that still appears to have some mileage in it (note that we’re not at the top of the curve yet), and at the same time you need to step onto a new path that is fraught with unknowns. So it’s worth looking at what it takes to make that transition successfully.

Once the invitation to step into ‘what’s next?’ raises its head, it tends to hang around until you give it some specific attention. And, after a while, you’ll generally find yourself in one of three camps:

  1. You’ve firmly answered the question, and are getting on with their answer to ‘what’s next’. You’re on the next curve, and it’s a good one You’re thriving.
  1. You’re paddling hard, but your head’s just above water. What’s holding you down is the anchor of old ways of thinking and acting. You try climbing the next curve, but you keep on slipping back. Frustration and confusion linger.
  1. You’re in denial. What next curve? You’re stuck. Or, worse, in decline.

How do you get to be in the first camp? It’s all about taking charge, and doing the work. Here’s what I see if you are successfully navigating ‘what’s next’:

  1. You take action. You try something. Our most powerful insights have roots in novel experiences. Successful navigators of ‘what’s next’ craft deliberate experiments that test their skills, assumptions, and ultimately their beliefs about themselves and what is possible. It’s not necessarily about planning too far ahead though. Any step will teach you something, and will have knock on effects that you can’t possibly anticipate. You might end up in camp 2, but that’s better than camp 3. You’re moving.
  1. You cultivate deep and diverse connections. We can travel this territory alone, but it’s much richer and more helpful if we have fellow travellers around us. People who push us further than we thought we could go, give us the feedback we need to hear, ask us the questions that will help us think differently, and open doors to new possibilities. Cultivate relationships with not only the safe people, but also the ‘edgy’ ones – the ones who have different viewpoints, different experiences, different ways of operating in the world. By hanging around those people, you’ll see more, and go faster.
  1. You work at developing deeper insights into yourself and the world around you. Use the challenges your actions and connections bring up, and take the time to step back and reflect. What are you learning about your story? Your strengths? Your fears? Your brand? Your priorities? The opportunities for you out there? Tackle these and other questions and you’ll ultimately know yourself better, and be more informed to make the decisions for ‘what’s next’ for you that result in a sustainable and enjoyable next curve.

Action. Connection. Insight. If you deliberately combine these three elements over time, you can make your way towards ‘what’s next’ for you.

In my own career, I’ve tackled the question of ‘what’s next’ a few times. Over 20 years, I’ve moved from chartered accounting, to recruitment, to leadership and organisational development, across various roles and business structures. It’s not necessarily easy, but I’ve learned to notice my own signs that tell me I’m at ‘what’s next’, and can testify to how valuable it is to take deliberate action is (often in the face of huge uncertainty), while tapping into the wisdom of a multitude of diverse sources, and making the time to reflect and notice what I’m learning. These practices have stood me in good stead every time I’ve paid attention to the signs, and I hope it will for you too.

So, if you’re asking ‘what’s next?’ right now, you know what to do. What will be your next action?

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