Finding a 'career with heart'

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Successful careers require focus on a balanced life

I worked with an HR business partner (HRBP) for marketing called Renee at Procter & Gamble (P&G) in the US several years ago who had the gift of seeing important things that others missed.

Ambitious P&G brand managers asked to meet her and discuss their future career plans to receive coaching and advice. These were talented people with MBAs from some of the best colleges in the world, obsessed with promotion timings and what was the shortest path to higher positions of responsibility and the privileges that came with them.

They would outline possible scenarios of career next steps that they had carefully engineered. They wanted to debate if it was best, for example, to first take an assignment abroad, a sales position in an emerging market, or a cross-functional role to accelerate their career. Hardship locations were often regarded as those where you could move faster up the ladder as the list of applicants for some of these posts was not very long.

Renee would listen to their analysis of the different possible career paths and all the pros and cons they had reviewed. She would then say "you should really do what makes you happy".

This laconic reply to such detailed career analysis left people puzzled and at times disappointed. But she was really starting a conversation on an essential point of what makes a successful career: it cannot stand in isolation from a balanced life. And that’s where the real quest should focus.

As an African-American working mother, Renee knew more than most about challenges and personal achievements. She also knew that a balanced life sets a strong foundation for top performance, which in turn translates into a better longer-term career and greater personal success.

Far from being generic 'follow your heart' advice she was reminding those impatient young men and women that success at work can’t come at the expense of other important aspects of life.

My boss at the time used to give me the following practical advice: "In your career you’ll have to make sure you have your personal priorities right. First, take good care of yourself. If you don’t you won’t be able to support anybody else or any business. Second, take good care of your loved ones, nothing else will give a richer meaning to your life. Third, take good care of the business you are managing."

He would add: "There will be times you may have to temporarily shuffle these priorities, but in the long run that should be your compass." He clearly had a point and I have passed on that advice many times.

American author Carlos Castaneda, in his book The Teachings of Don Juan, also wrote: 'Before you embark on any path ask the question: does this path have a heart? If the answer is no, you will know it, and then you must choose another path. The trouble is nobody asks the question; and when a man finally realises that he has taken a path without a heart, the path is ready to kill him… A path without a heart is never enjoyable. You have to work hard even to take it. On the other hand, a path with heart is easy; it does not make you work at liking it.'

Searching for a career path 'with a heart' is not easy and ends up combining professional development dilemmas with more existential ones, but it can make for great HR conversations where insightful HRBPs like Renee can make a real difference.

Giovanni Giordano is former group HR director at BAT, former chief corporate officer (global HR, legal, IT) at Ferrero and former HR director, global health and wellbeing at Procter & Gamble

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