Typically, people see their careers from start to finish with little or no change beyond the usual aspirations (in the case of accountants or lawyers, this might be partnership). Others move from one area of expertise to another, they reinvent themselves or change roles or responsibilities. But change is never easy, especially for professionals. Most tend to find a comfort zone and operate within it. Others require constant challenge and find it difficult to work without one.
Some executives will very successfully do the same job throughout their career and will never seek to change. Nor would they see a need to do so. But others will find a career changing moment (for better or for worse) at some point in their lives. This could arise for different reasons. It could be as a result of an unexpected opportunity (sometimes even pure luck), a change in the legal/regulatory/business landscape, personal circumstances, or even simply, ambition. Such a career changing moment does not necessarily mean a change of job. It could be, in the case of a manager, a change of role or responsibility, or in the case of a lawyer or accountant, a progression from one area of specialisation to another. Sometimes even a single encounter (or particular work experience) could make the difference.
Throughout my own career I have met many professionals (including senior executives), from different backgrounds and from varied careers. The ones I have found most successful are those that were prepared to take bold decisions that then tended to map out their career trajectory. My own experience shows that successful careers usually have 5 year cycles. In other words, one can be at the top of one's game for 5 years before things start to change. That is when invariably one needs to adapt and find the next challenge or opportunity to stay at the top. Indeed, everything has a cycle. The investment market has a cycle (bull and bear), the insurance market has a cycle (soft and hard), and politicians and governments have a cycle (defined by their own electoral appeal). The key is in knowing when that cycle peaks and responding (not reacting) to it before the competition does.
From all the factors that make a successful career, I see boldness and experience as the most important attributes for career advancement. In the earlier years, one has to necessarily be bold. A young professional has to make himself be seen and heard unless he has the (unlikely) good fortune of a support network around him. As his career path progresses, experience then becomes the overriding factor that tends to drive success. The saying about old pilots and bold pilots comes to mind here.
Interestingly, whilst people in their 50s will normally not see career change as a positive thing, it is probably the time when individuals are most prepared for it should they wish to take that decision. At 50 most executives would have achieved some level of financial security, have older children, and have had the benefit of experience. The risk associated with change is therefore far less of a risk because of that, whilst the potential rewards will usually be much higher.
Of course, it will depend on ambition too. Most people will never contemplate change because in their 50s they might be looking forward to and planning for retirement. Others may actually see their 50s and early 60s as the best (or last) opportunity to advance their career or make serious money. That is where the combination of age and experience can drive success. I have known very successful entrepreneurs who have achieved their success in their 50s and remain so in their 60s and 70s.
One should not be put off by age. One is never too young or too old. Alexander the Great conquered much of the known world as a young man in a 11 year military campaign and he did so with an army he had inherited from his father Philip II. The vanguard of Alexander's army were veterans that had fought in continuous military campaigns for over 30 years by the time Alexander died (aged 32). The ancient sources tell us that many of these men were in their 60s and even 70s by then. They were known as the Silver Shields and Alexander used them decisively to achieve victories in the battlefield. It is not too difficult to see why. The Silver Shields had the experience of fighting in every condition and against any enemy (including the use of war elephants). In the thick of battle where two armies advanced at each other in military formation with spear, shield, sword and grit, experience could make the difference between defeat and victory. Alexander's Silver Shields were never defeated. They were so feared and their loyalty to Alexander unquestionable, that after his death, it was decided to break them down into groups of 3 or 4 and send them out on dangerous missions where their numbers would be dissipated.
The Silver Shields were not the only famous veterans of ancient warfare. When the fate of Greece hung in the balance following the massive Persian invasion led by King Xerxes, it was the heroic last stand of the 300 Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae that captured the imagination of ancient historians and contemporaries alike. These were not young men but experienced soldiers, all with sons old enough to carry the family responsibilities forward. They were hand-picked by Spartan King Leonidas who himself was aged around 60.
If fortune does favour the bold, one is never too young or too old; in fact, quite the opposite. Boldness is a state of mind. An older professional brings intellectual capital to the job that a younger person may not yet have but the younger person has nothing to lose and a lot to gain. Success also requires focus and judgment. Young Alexander when told by his veteran Macedonian general that he would accept the Persian King's peace offer of half his empire "if I were Alexander", responded "I would too, if I were Parmenion" and continued to conquer the rest. Alexander's mistake, however, was not appreciating where the dividing line between boldness and hubris lay. In the end, he paid a very heavy price - he died young (probably poisoned by one of his battle weary companions), his empire divided between his generals and his family (including his young son and heir) murdered.
This article is dedicated to all the 'Silver Shields', past, present and future.
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