The Real Secret to Career Progression: How Quickly Can You Unlearn?

Having dropped my kids at school this morning I headed to the office on the tube, arriving at 9:05. It was a new commute for me, and the culmination of six months of solid unlearning during which our team has hit stratospheric performance highs. This is what I believed six months ago:

  1. Homeworking is most efficient – we don’t need an office

  2. I don’t need a coach/advisor – we know what we are doing

  3. Monthly 1:1s are less effective than a walk around the park

  4. A five-day-a-week job in an office is dull

  5. I can leave the detail to someone else

  6. All we need to focus on is revenue/profit

  7. 50-60% growth will be very challenging

  8. Bottom-up management is the way to go

  9. Hire great people and everything else takes care of itself

  10. Email is for shmucks. Just text me

My kids are avid unlearners. Their growth requires it. Stuff we teach them in certain phases – “hold my hand by the road”, “don’t climb the stairs alone”, “it’s time for your nap” – soon becomes irrelevant as they reach new levels of maturity. Not only are old lessons replaced with new ones, but also, by necessity, the foundational skills have to be unlearned. You can’t walk to school safely alone AND hold my hand.

As a placement student at the Body Shop’s world-class L&D department, I remember a fabulous Ashridge Business School article that described how “the skills we need in our thirties are the opposite of the skills we need in our forties”. I’m sure the study has been tidied up to remove age discrimination, but the essence is the same. Big-shift job changes tend to require the reverse set of skills to those that gave us our success. Here are some examples:

  1. In early career phases, competing against our peers helps us stand out and get promoted, but in later career phases competing against peers is what creates difficult politics. Senior people expect you to do your job, and respect them for doing theirs.*
  2. In early career phases, our personal skills and ability to get things done individually develop our capability and performance. In later career phases, unless we achieve results through others we become swamped and perform strategic aspects of our job at a low level.
  3. In early career phases, it’s okay to compromise a bit on work/life balance etc. and invest extra energy in work. In later career phases, we have greater life responsibilities, and getting this balance out of kilter undermines the meaning of work and life to the detriment of our mental health, relationships and family.
  4. In early career phases, it’s important to learn to work with the culture we are in. In later career phases, we have the responsibility for cultural leadership.
  5. In early career phases, one year seems a long time. In later career phases, if you are only looking one year ahead you may well derail.

So today I’m sat in the office, after a full day with our fabulous non-exec director, Karen, running 1:1s, on the second day of a five-day week in the office, with a day of detailed financial analysis ahead of me, which is all growth focused, with a motivated team planning to do 100% year-on-year growth from Karen’s top-down target, planning to carefully manage the great people we are hiring. I still think email is still for shmucks. But when I’ve unlearned that… the transition into my next career phase will be complete.

*I once coached a senior leader who had set out a vision for his team to be “the best team to work for in the company”. He couldn’t work out why his team experienced such hostility from their peers, stakeholders and supposed collaborators.iw