Kick-Starting Your Career[1]

29 April 2011

Prepared by: Mark Thomas


The modern career is a portfolio of roles, rather than a career in the classical sense. To have a rewarding career you must build your portfolio over time and give it constant attention. If you are not giving it the attention it requires it will stall. In this paper I describe five strategies to kick-start a stalled career.

Some important comments up front:

  1. There are no guarantees in life or here! Building your career will require taking some risks and because you are taking a risk the outcome may not be as desired or planned. That is the nature of risk. If you don't want to take any risks in your career, that's fine, but the likely outcome is career stagnation.
  2. These comments are based on my observations and experience. Your experiences will be different. Think of the strategies outlined in this paper as ideas that you can use and adapt to your own situation to kick-start your career.
  3. Many of the points discussed are unconventional. I believe there is no point providing you with something you already know, because those will not kick-start your career, because they have not kick-started your career already or you would not be reading this paper. Rather, my objective is to outline five strategies that are new so you can kick-start your career.
  4. If you passionately disagree with the strategies in this paper that is a terrific outcome! To be a success, you need to have passion. If you disagree with this paper you probably don't need the strategies outlined as you have your own. Having passion and enthusiasm about yourself and your career will lead to success!


You have got to be the one driving your career, or at least you are projecting the image that you are in control of your career. This perception or reality is critical from three perspectives.

Firstly, whose career is it? If you are not in control, then ask yourself who is in control of your career. If you are living the career that someone wants of you, then you have a hard conversation ahead of you. In my experience I have helped several people in this situation. The common theme is the person is living the career that their parents wanted them to have. They love their parents dearly and are very thankful for the assistance they had given to them in starting their career. Their parents had supported them through university. They had taken a high profile role in a prestigious organisation because it was what their parents wanted; or more often the case, what they thought their parents wanted. They even are good at their job. The only trouble is they are miserable and they see no chance of a rewarding career ahead of them. When we speak about what they want to do with their career it often is variations on a theme. At the seat of the problem, usually, is they have difficulties admitting they are living someone else's dream. It usually takes several hours of robust discussion to uncover the truth that they are living the life their parents wanted for them. Once that simple fact is realised, we can start planning for the career they truly want. The first step is to map the short and long term career goals; then we can deal with the next problem; discussing career goals with the parents. What do you think happens? The parents only wanted what is best for their son or daughter. Of course they would! Their definition of "best" sometimes is different to my client's. Once this self-realisation process is completed, my client becomes very happy and can see their career advancing quicker than it would have if she had stayed in the prior role, because they are following their dream.

Another example is my father. I remember as a young boy my father telling me how he had been offered the opportunity of a promotion. At the time, and for the rest of his career, he was a storeman for an engineering firm and although he was miserable in his role, he was good at it and he had the qualities of the promotion he was offered. The promotion would mean for him to move to another city. He had turned down the job because he had young children and he did not want to upset their life. I was 10 years old at the time. So my father did not fulfil his dream, and it was his dream to get this promotion, because of his children! Then, as I do now, all I wanted was for my father to be happy. We would have followed him to the moon!

My point is to be honest with yourself. It's your career. Don't live someone else's dream. Find your career goal and go get it!

Secondly, don't be a victim. There are many things that will happen to you that are outside of your control. Don't worry about those. You have no control over those events. What matters, is how you react to the events outside of your control. There are two ways of thinking about this point.

Occasionally, I get the opportunity to work with someone who has lost their job. Generally, they have been retrenched, or there is some other reason. The typical reaction is to waste valuable time wallowing in self-pity and to describe their departure from their previous role in such a way that makes them appear as the helpless victim; "I was retrenched". What these people fail to do for several months is to grasp the opportunity. For those people who were retrenched, the reality is that we all will be retrenched a couple of times in our career! It's not your fault! Use the retrenchment payout wisely and wear retrenchment as a badge of honour. Tick the box – "well that's one of the three[2] retrenchments I will have in my career".

My advice is to take the positive position, "I knew[3] that retrenchment was coming, but I decided to stay on in the role and finish the task". What's the message? It is not "I had no idea I was going to be retrenched. It came as a complete surprise" which translates into "I am a victim and I am not aware what is happening around me". Rather, the positive message is "I was aware that retrenchment was a possibility, but I was dedicated to stay and fulfil my role for the company to the bitter end".

Now some people will lose their job because they made a serious mistake. For those who in this situation, my message to you is the same that I give to my children..."making mistakes is how you learn". So my advice to people in this position is to turn the situation around; "I made a mistake and these are the insights I learned from that situation ....".

My message is to turn the situation around. Turn the negatives into a positive!

Thirdly, don't panic. You always are in control. I learnt this lesson as a futures broker many years ago. It was the day the first Gulf War started and the financial markets were in free-fall. Fortunes were being lost second by second. There was panic in the pits and there was panic on the phones as the clients called in to find out what was happening and they were trying to stop the losses. I remember my voice quivering while I spoke to a client who was losing a lot of money. After I hung up the phone my manager took me aside and said "Mark, you have got to be the voice of reassurance. No matter what is happening around you and no matter what emotion you may feel inside, you are always in control." That was a very valuable experience. By being the reassuring voice of reason when everyone else was losing their control we were very successful.

My message here is to always be the calm voice of reasoning especially when those around you panic.

Talking to people about their careers I find that most are waiting for their career to come to them. I blame the graduate trainee process that many companies have. Think about what happens. During your final year of university, the major corporate employers for your discipline come onto campus and interview students. If you are (un)fortunate you are offered a role, such that once you have completed your exams you can commence at that organisation. When you commence, you will spend a period, from several months to several years, moving around the firm gaining an understanding of it, the various roles that are available to graduates and corporate life in general. After the induction period you then are placed in a role and you commence your career. Two or three years down the track you become frustrated and you want to change jobs. You buy the paper, perhaps talk to a "head-hunter" and pretty soon you land a job as a "graduate recruit" in another organisation. This time, there is no induction period, you just start in the role and for two to three years you are happy. But then you become frustrated; and you learn about the (un)fortunate side effect of being the successful graduate recruit. You don't know what you want to do and you don't know how to get another job because you no longer are the graduate recruit and you haven't developed the skills to land that job. Believe me, I have experienced it myself and I have seen it many times. While I do not regret being a graduate recruit, I probably would have taken control of my career many years earlier than I did if I had not been a successful graduate recruit! Why do I say this? The reason is that it was too easy at the start of my career. Graduate recruits have their career launched by someone else and do not develop the tools to control their career until much later. Looking back, my career would have accelerated if I had taken control much sooner than I did.

Beware of agendas. If someone offers you a job, which is a great outcome, whose problem are they solving? Is it your problem or their problem? When faced with the situation of being offered an unsolicited opportunity, where do people go for advice? Often it's their peers or it's their supervisor. Let's take the supervisor first. When faced with this situation what will the supervisor think? Will it be; "That role would be terrific for Mary! Even though Mary's departure will leave me one head count down for three months, and that project she is working on will fall behind schedule, and I'll miss my performance KPIs this year, and hence my bonus will be cut, I think that Mary should take the role"? Or perhaps will it be "If Mary takes that role it will leave me one head count down for three months, and that project she is working on will fall behind schedule, and I'll miss my performance KPIs this year, and hence my bonus will be cut, I think that Mary should stay and not think about taking any roles"? The reality is a mixture of both or neither. But the question you have got to ask yourself is whose agenda is being progressed by the response? And for those of you who's first reaction is to ask your peers, ask yourself this question first; "if my peers are so insightful, why are they still my peers?"

My message is when seeking counsel, find someone who has been successful and is independent and therefore has no agenda other than your success, such as a mentor or career adviser.

Tip 1: Corollary: NO WHINGING

There is a corollary to "be in control" and that is "no whinging". Don't concern yourself with the success or fortunes of others because it is outside of your control. Perhaps they were lucky, or perhaps they were in control of their career, or perhaps they were better than you.

Often, during the first couple of mentoring sessions I have with people, a seemingly unfair comparison is made between the person and someone else in their workplace; for example "why did Annalise get that promotion / pay rise / project[4],because everyone knows she is not worthy / I am so much better....". My response to this comparison is to say that life is unfair. Often I use another example of when I was a futures trader. Working in the futures pits, you had a fair idea about how much money every individual was making for their firm. And, being the type of industry where showing off one's wealth was commonly regarded as an important activity, you also had a reasonable idea of how much money people were making. At that point in time my salary was $30,000 a year and the person beside me in the pit was earning a salary that was several multiples of the amount I was earning and we were doing the same job and earning the same revenue for our firms. Was I upset? No. The day I learnt this person's salary I remembered my thoughts when I was interviewing for that role, which was "I will do anything to become a futures trader!" I was happy to accept the salary that was offered to change my career. My conclusion about the situation was very insightful, as it turns out, and has served me, and those who seek my advice, very well ever since. My conclusion was "that person was a better negotiator than I".

But the realisation that life is unfair is only half the solution. The second half of the solution is what you should do about it. That's reacting to the situation! And when people who report to me come to me wanting me to right a perceived inequality my response is "bring me the problem". What I mean by that statement is; first have the success and then be willing to walk and then approach me. Remember the key to negotiating – the person who has the dominant position in a negotiation is the person who has the ability to walk away. Seeking redress for a perceived career inequality[5] is a negotiation. Until you do that it is too easy for me to decline your request in the knowledge that you will stay in your job. If however, you are able to demonstrate that you are a valuable contributor to the team, I will take notice of your request; but my first reaction is to argue against you. Here is the power of knowing your value on the job market; or in other words be willing to walk; you can give me a factual argument that will make me pay attention. You don't have to line up another job or threaten to leave for another job, just know your value in the market. But until you have this knowledge, I have the power. But once you are in a position to walk, the position of power shifts to you.


Building your career is a marketing exercise where YOU are a single product brand; a brand of 1! What this statement means is the brand that you have to create is a unique product where there is one unit available only; you. So, like it or not, you have to market yourself and there are a couple of aspects to marketing yourself.

Firstly, you have to develop a compelling proposition that is differentiated from your competitors! Your unique compelling proposition is communicated to the world through your resume and your "30 second ad" and your LinkedIn page.

Unfortunately, most resumes are written to make the writer's mother proud! These resumes contain pages of great achievements about the person; their academic qualifications and awards; and the achievements they have accomplished in previous roles. This information is all good but is of little interest to most employers. And by the way, there are 100+ other resumes in the recruiter's hands of people who have better qualifications / awards / achievements than you. As I tell my son; "even if you are the fastest person on the planet, it won't last forever and soon someone else will be faster and then you have the warm glow of past glories while the new fastest person has the endorsements". Don't throw away your achievements, but they will only get you the job with someone who values those achievements. A better approach is to prepare a resume that tells the reader why you are perfect for the role! To do that you have to do your research, also you have to tailor your resume for each role you apply.

Furthermore, don't lie, but be in control. Remember the advice from above, but never lie. Lies are so easy to uncover with a phone call or an internet search.

The 30 second ad is commonly known as the elevator pitch. This is the pitch for your brand. In those 30 seconds you have to covey; who you are, what's so good about you (ie why I should listen), and where you are going. That's a lot of information to put into 30 seconds, so you need to judiciously edit your accomplishments. Also you cannot make it up on the spot. You need to spend the time to draft it and learn it. Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of England (1940-1945 and 1951-1955) used to prepare all his speeches and one line quips well ahead of schedule. That's why they are so good and still quoted 70 years later. Also, once you have drafted your 30 second ad, say it to someone. I find that no matter how good a speech sounds in my head, it sounds very different when it is said to someone. Your 30 second ad is important, so rehearse it; and a good 30 second ad will be refreshed over time, with new experiences and different emphasis. A refreshed ad will not sound dull.

An extension of the 30 second ad is to keep your interview responses short and sharp. Think of them as a series of 30 second ads. That means preparing your 30 second responses to the "standard" interview questions. If the interviewer wants more information they will ask for it. Then you can go into the "5 minute" response. And if the interviewer wants even more information you can go into the "30 minute" response. Of course, I'm using 5 and 30 figuratively to illustrate the concept of the longer response and the more detailed response.


When undertaking any risky venture, having a back-up plan in case things go awry is vital. The same is true for your career. I describe this career back-up plan as the "plan B".

So what is the plan B? The plan B is anything from an idea to a documented plan outlining what you would do if your present career path ended. It could be your next role, or it could be an alternate career path. You don't have to be talking to any potential new firms about the role. Rather it is thinking about the role and learning about the role. In fact, it does not have to be a definitive role at all; rather it could be a set of criteria that you would like to explore as part of your next role. It doesn't even have to be cast in stone, it can change through time as your preferences change or, if you have investigated a potential role and find it not to your liking you can explore new ideas. That's the beauty about the plan, it is just that; a plan. It can change as conditions change. But while the plan can change, I believe that having a plan B is essential when building your career for several reasons.

Firstly, if your current role ends suddenly, you already have a plan as to what you are going to do next. This way you do not waste valuable time sorting through your preferences. You have a plan. In fact, you may have a well thought-through plan that you have spent several months, or even years, developing. By having a plan you can put it into action straight away, which will give you self-confidence and help you through the rough patch that occurs when a role ends suddenly.

Secondly, having a plan B gives you confidence to take some risks in your plan A; your current role. When you have a plan B you have greater self-confidence in your role and can afford to take role-risking decisions confident that you have a fall-back in case it doesn't work.

Thirdly, your plan B increases the control you have over your career because you have a plan for your next role. It gives you something to aim towards.

A plan B can take many forms. It can be what you would like to do in five years time, and it also can be what you would do tomorrow if things don't work out today. You can have several plan B's, or just a single plan B.

Once you have determined your plan B, you then have to research it to make sure that it really is something you would enjoy. While many roles may seem exciting, when you actually perform the role you may find it does not suit you. So research; or "look before you leap", is important. Talk to people who are in that industry, or better yet, talk to people who are in that role. Think about it for a while. Figure out if it is something you actually would like. If not, then no time lost. It was just a PLAN, you hadn't taken on the role.

The main point is that you are planning for your future and you are researching your future.

Here's the challenge though. The first day in your new role, you have to start developing your next plan B for all the reasons listed above!


In my experience, the concept of the organisation that develops its people is gone. People are regarded as role fillers. That means that you have to drive your career. So when you start a new role, you've got to be thinking that this is going to be a five year project, at the end of which you will be promoted, or you should be actively looking for the next role. The five years in a role can be broken down into[6]:

  • Year 1 – learning the role;
  • Year 2 – undertaking the role;
  • Year 3 – fixing all the mistakes you made in year 2;
  • Year 4 – fully undertaking the role and developing the role; and
  • Year 5 – further extension on the achievements of year 4 and looking for the next role.

It is not just you, the employee, who is thinking about the role as a five year project. Your supervisor / manager/ employer has a similar time frame. In other words, they would prefer you to remain in the role for at least three years so that you can develop the role and they can get a return on their investment of the first year when you were learning the role.

Now, if the role is in the public service, then the thinking is 3 years rather than five.

But at the end of five years, you should be ready for the next move; a promotion or a transfer into an area where you can gain more experience. If this is not happening when you get to the fifth year, it is unlikely to happen. In other words, you might become identified as that role, which could result in your career stagnating because further development no longer becomes an option.

Furthermore, after five years you will become tainted by your employer. Now if this is an employer of choice that could be a good thing. Some of the reputation of the good employer will rub off onto you. But if your employer's reputation is not so good, that poorer reputation will rub off onto you as well and it could be a risk to your immediate career prospects if you remain at that employer too long.

Because five years is a long commitment, I recommend to people who seek my advice that when they start a new role that they have three months to figure out what they want to get out of the role. I don't mean money. I mean how it will assist in their career development, and also if they can stick with it for five years. If the answer to the above question is no, then they need to think about either finding another role / company or prepare to leave within the first three months. A quick departure can be described as "I joined XYZ and the role turned out to be different to the one I expected / was described / was a different culture to the one described". No harm in that, provided it is a rare occurrence. But once you have stayed at a firm for more than three months, there is an expectation that you are going to stick it out and then the problem with your resume is a role or series of roles where there is high turnover. High role turnover is bad for a potential employer because of the recruitment and training costs and their expectation that you will be in the role for at least three years.

Five years is a long time, and lots of people will argue that two years is better. I disagree. Every time I see a resume where someone has moved every two years I see a person who has not:

Corrected the mistakes they made in year 2; and

Developed and extended their role.

In short, I conclude two things; that any success they have enjoyed was at the expense of the predecessors in each of their roles; and that they will be a flight risk for me too! Unfortunately, I have worked with several people in my career who have changed firms every two years and my experience supports the above comments. In fact, it gets worse for people who move too quickly, because their lack of experience of dealing with the consequences of their mistakes is that it eventually catches up with them and they move to lesser/smaller organisations.

My message is have a timeframe the moment you start a role, which I summarise as "five years up or out"!


I'm always surprised by the generation that is defined by being wired and having so many "friends" on Facebook that they are poor networkers!

Networking is about keeping in touch and helping people. It is not about distributing an email blast about what you did last night. Rather, it is an essential tool to kick-start your career. If you are not networking, you will not hear about opportunities ahead of your competitors. If you are not networking, you will not be known by your peers. If you are not networking, you will not learn about new roles and new career opportunities. If you are not networking, how can you be driving your career! In summary, networking is how you kick-start your career.

Networking requires effort and patience, and it is something you have to undertake regularly. While you may not have a wide network now, if you do network, it will grow over time.

For something so important to a career, few people are good at it. For me, I set aside 30 minutes each week to contact people in my network to organise a catch-up over coffee. Generally, this 30 minutes is on Friday afternoons. I try to see most people in my network every six months, but sometimes I cannot achieve that. Over these discussions we cover personal aspects – it's about people – and we cover business and career aspects too. I also am on the lookout for opportunities to help people in my network. When an opportunity arises I pass it on and contact the person in my network that I recommended to give them the heads-up.

These catch-up meetings last between 30 minutes and an hour. After each I keep a brief note of what was discussed; because I am interested, and also so that I can keep track of the people in my network. I also make a diary note to remind myself when I should get in contact with that person again.

Interestingly, I find that while people are open to the catch-up chats, they seem a little taken aback by my call to arrange these sessions at first. I put that down to the observation that most people passively network, rather than actively network. Passive networking is keeping in touch with people when you see them at functions or at a social event. Active networking is pro-actively calling people on a regular basis and meeting with them to keep in touch, discuss what they are doing, and to explore opportunities.

When people ask me about initiating a network I suggest that the two best places to start are:

  • Your current and previous work colleagues. They will take the call and generally, they will be happy to catch up with you; and
  • Industry events, such as conferences and seminars.

The challenge with the latter - industry events - is that you might attend an event and know nobody else in the room. Turn the situation around. This is a terrific opportunity to develop your network! But, you have to get over the "stage fright". When people ask me for advice on this situation I suggest the following:

  • Speak to your "lighthouse" first. A lighthouse is someone you know, and speaking to this person will help you ease into networking; whether or not a lighthouse is present I then suggest;
  • Speak to someone you vaguely know. This person is a half-way stage. You have met this person before and hence it is a "warm contact". Sure, you may not remember their name, but they may not remember yours either. Just go up to them and say "Hi, my name is ...., didn't we meet at [insert an appropriate event here – it might be wrong, don't worry if it is, laugh it off]?"; and finally
  • Speak to someone new. If you have been lucky enough to ease yourself into your networking mode with the above two contacts this should be easy. If not, don't fret. Take a deep breath and walk up to a complete stranger and say "Hi, my name is ......", at which point they will introduce themselves. Then ask them about the organisation they work for and why they are at the event. To keep the conversation going ask them something about them; such as:
    • Whether or not they enjoyed the event / got value out of the event;
    • Comment on the speaker and ask their view; or
    • Ask for their perspective on what is happening in their industry, if you are reasonably versed in that industry.

The objective though is to develop a contact; and to get their contact details (ie swap business cards – offer yours first) so that you can contact them again in the future should you wish.

Tip: At every event you attend from now on, speak to someone you do not know!


My five strategies to kick-start a stalled career are:

  • Be in control
  • You are a brand of 1
  • Always have a plan B
  • 5 Years up or Out
  • Network


There are many elements to kick-starting your career, what I have discussed is designed to give you some strategies to kick-starting your career if it has stalled. As you build your career, pay attention to it because it needs to be sustainable and built upon a solid base. If you need a guide, a mentor or career adviser can provide valuable insights and assistance along the way.


Inspirational Leaders

At Inspirational Leaders we help individuals & organisations to become inspirational. We work intensively with:

  • Entrepreneurs; to give them focus to help them realise their dream;
  • Individuals; to kick-start their career by giving them focus & purpose; and
  • Teams & individuals; to help them communicate effectively.

About the Author

Mark Thomas, SF Fin, MHKSI, MAppFin, GDipFinPlanning, GradDipAppFin, BE. Since the 1990's, Mark has built businesses and careers. More recently, Mark has actively pursued opportunities to help businesses and individuals to gain focus, communicate their message, and achieve their goals. Mark's current area of focus is developing newly established firms and firms that have had better times. In his career, Mark has worked in many roles, including; futures trader, portfolio manager, relationship management, and more recently business leadership. Prior to entering the finance industry Mark enjoyed a career as a Chemical Engineer. Mark is a regular speaker at industry events, a lecturer, a mentor, and is actively involved with several industry bodies.


[1] I am grateful to the people I mentored over the years, for the experience of nurturing your career and giving you the impetus to launch you on your career goals. The examples in this paper are some of the people I have mentored, but the facts have been amended to protect the innocent. If the reader recognises any of the people used in the examples you are mistaken!

[2] I use the number three figuratively. I'm not predicting that you will be retrenched three times in your career, but the reality is that it is highly probable that you will be retrenched at least once. If you are never retrenched then consider yourself lucky.

[3] Hopefully you did, but often retrenchment is a surprise. However, this is your opportunity to take a difficult situation and turn it around.

[4] I'll leave it to the reader to select the argument.

[5] I am very specific in this point. I am addressing a career inequality, such as achieving a pay rise, a promotion, or a project or job. I am not attempting to address discrimination or unfair dismissal, which are highly specialised areas and advice should be sought from an expert in these fields.

[6] The description of the first three years in a role was given to me by a senior executive at a major corporation in the mid 1980's. It remains as relevant today as it was then.