The Only Constant in Your Career is Change: Learn to Embrace It
May 12, 2014
“Life will always throw you curves, just keep fouling them off... the right pitch will come, but when it does, be prepared to run the bases. ~ Rick Maksian”
Looking at my young children, I realize that we also all grew up with dreams of what we wanted to accomplish in our future careers. Whether it be becoming an astronaut, fighting fires, making cupcakes, or becoming a teacher, we were seemingly in control of our own destiny. No one could hold us back, and we were going to create our own future.
I entered the workforce no differently: I was going to start my career in Japan where, after learning Chinese in college, I was going to master 5 Asian languages by the time I was 30: Mandarin Chinese (learned in college), Japanese (was learning at the time and eventually mastered), Korean (took 3 months of introductory lessons while living in Japan), Cantonese and Thai. I only ended up studying two of them and mastering one, but the very reason my career began in Japan was from the first career curveball I was thrown when I was still a college student: Political unrest in China.
The China Retreat
I majored in Asian Studies at Amherst College and had planned on starting my career in China after experiencing a Junior-year abroad there. The only problem is that I studied in Beijing in at a time when student demonstrations and political unrest caused many foreign companies to stay away from the great country. When I came back from Beijing for my senior year I realized I had to alter my course because finding a job in China would be nearly impossible.
Fortunately I had a Japanese roommate while in Beijing and befriended a number of Japanese foreign exchange students. It was also a time when the Japanese economy was peaking at its strength, and many American companies were trying to learn more about how Japanese companies were becoming successful in the global market.
During our lifetimes there are ebbs and flows in the strength of economies, industries, and companies. Nothing is static. I learned at an early age – as a senior in college – to accept this reality, embrace a long-term approach, and subsequently planned to “temporarily” start my career in Japan, where after working there for two years I would move on to China.
Accounting for a Job
I interviewed with the Japanese company that ended up hiring me during winter break in my senior year. Although I wanted to start my career in sales and marketing, I had one little problem: Amherst College, being a liberal arts school, didn’t really offer any business curriculum. Serendipitously, for reasons still unknown, in my senior year they did begin to offer a class in Accounting. I knew that having knowledge in the subject would help me in my business career. Little did I know that it would determine what department I would start my career in.
When I graduated from Amherst in 1990, Japan had become a global economic power and had started to establish both sales as well as manufacturing operations in foreign countries. This drove Japanese businesses to push for “internationalizing” their companies internally. It turned out that I was to become part of the internationalizing plans for my first employer. The man who turned out to be my first boss had just come back as Director of Finance for the American operations of this company and had needs to both internationalize his own department as well as keep better tabs on the accounting of their foreign subsidiaries.
Just as with the retreat from China, I learned to take a long-term look at my career and took the position in Finance in the belief that it would be a temporary stepping-stone to the place and position that I wanted.
Becoming the China Sales Pioneer
I had already created a roadmap for my career that would push me towards both sales and China. Despite the changes in my career that I had accepted until then, I was still focused on reaching these goals as part of my long-term strategy. How long can you or should you wait for the same change to work in your favor? I created my own internal deadlines and stuck to them. And in both cases, I dealt with more change that would eventually help lead me to my goal.
The very same day that I had received an offer from a trading firm specializing in metals to pursue my career in China sales was also the day that an executive had transferred back to Japanese headquarters in my present company to begin a new Business Development department which I was going to become a member of. I was thrown two career curve balls in the same day, but seeing that the Business Development department was going to be in charge of our future China strategy, I decided to make an investment in my current employer similar to how they had made an investment in me.
This new position led me closer to both doing business in China, as I was part of the team which decided both where we would invest in China as well as negotiate with a JV partner to potentially build a jointly owned factory in Shanghai. I also had the opportunity to work at our sales subsidiary in Singapore for six months and get to understand how we engage with our customers there. After returning from Singapore my boss was put in charge of our Overseas Sales department, and once again I got closer to realizing my goal despite all of the constant changes in my job.
Unfortunately, while I was getting closer to my career goals, I failed to hit the new deadline I had established for myself to start doing sales inside China. I decided that I had to be the instigator of change this time, and decided to resign from the company. When the CEO found out that I wanted to quit solely to be able to focus on China, he decided to make it a reality for me: A few days before my “last” day, I was promoted to launch our China sales operations and at 27 years old would become our youngest “Kakari-cho” (Assistant Manager) in company history.
In a few years, after starting from scratch, I was generating business from more than 60 Chinese, Japanese, American and European manufacturers, and while the sales continued to grow, the region had become our company’s most profitable in terms of profit margin percentage. I had 15 people reporting to me across three sales offices and our team in Japan headquarters. I had achieved everything I wanted when I was faced with a new reality due to my success: In order to elevate our sales to new levels, I would have to move to our Shanghai office and work there on a full-time basis.
Sometimes we go through life so quick that we forget to take a break and smell the roses. The constant curveballs in my career combined with my long-term perspective and short-term “deadlines” had brought me the success that I yearned for. But one day I realized that as a sales professional living in Japan, I had no track record of actually selling inside Japan. It was at that point where I closed the chapter on my success in China and focused on the bigger picture of replicating my China success in Japan. To do this I would end up leaving this company and begin to work launching a West Japan Sales Office for an American company in Osaka, Japan. Shortly thereafter I was offered the opportunity to establish Asia sales operations for a startup, a challenge that I ended up taking and thriving at, despite a near disaster in my first few weeks.
Losing the Big Customer
Being in sales meant that I learned to face constant rejection in the belief that every lost deal or telephone call that wasn’t returned would bring me one step closer to closing real business. However, the biggest rejection I faced was when I was entering a company who I was told was about to close a deal with who they believed would become their flagship customer in Japan.
I became the first person based in Asia for this particular start-up company. Most companies begin a presence in foreign countries through establishing distributors and working through marketing partners, and this company was no different. Through these relationships we were going to close the deal that would launch our presence in Japan and establish credibility in our strategic market that would be instrumental in my future success.
That deal never happened. When I finally gained access to the end customer, it became clear that we had lost out to the competition for reasons we simply did not know until it was too late. It was a hard blow to accept, but instead of dwelling on the past, I was forced to focus elsewhere and build a new pipeline. However, despite the fact that our technology wasn’t chosen, I made it a point to take our CEO to visit this company the next time he flew out to Japan. Doing business in China had taught me the importance of personal relationships in sales as well as maintaining a long-term approach in relationship building. This would be no different.
Although the visit from our CEO didn’t change anything in the short term, it did begin to help build a strong relationship with the company that in the near future would become our client as well as my biggest size deal. It was one of the deals that helped me achieve bringing in a quarter of global revenue from an Asia region that a few years earlier had zero sales.
Just as I had thrived in selling in China for my previous employer, I was now working for a company where I was able to reach my career goals in selling successfully both inside Japan as well as generating new business outside of it in China, Korea, and Taiwan.
Unplugging from a Career
Up until now I’ve talked about the biggest changes that have happened to my career triggered by a number of different events that have occurred. Sometimes, though, we have career curve balls thrown at us internally, and with the recent move to the United States from Japan and a growing family with our second child on the way, I faced the toughest career challenge of my life: Supporting my family.
As a sales professional, we often find ourselves frequently on the road visiting clients or attending internal meetings. Before the advent of online meeting technology, travel schedules sometimes meant that a majority of time was spent sleeping in hotel rooms instead of together with one’s family. There were times in Asia when I was literally traveling to a different country each week of the month.
I soon realized that my wife needed my support in more ways than I could have imagined. Living in a foreign country with little English fluency while raising a baby girl with our son on the way – and having a husband traveling too often on the road – was too much for her to bear. Putting family in front of career was something that I never had done before, but it was a natural reminder about what is important in life and what we work for: Our families.
I learned to adjust to this situation like other curveballs before this one. I ended up working from home as a part-time consultant so that I could both support my family as well as my former employer. After a given time, my wife and I agreed that the timing was right for me to head back into the full-time workforce.
Finding My Passion
Becoming an author, speaker, and consultant were never part of my career plans. Social media, as well as the Internet as we know it today, simply didn’t exist when I was planning my future career. Once again the winds of change would send my career in a completely different yet most satisfying direction, as I would soon discover.
After rejoining the workforce but having a job that lasted only 14 weeks due to corporate restructuring, I realized late in 2008 that I had to create something that no single entity could take away from me: My brand. This was the same time that I had become an active user of LinkedIn and had actually started a blog back in July of 2008 (which evolved into becoming the present Maximize Social Business) solely on sharing my knowledge of LinkedIn with the world. Little did I know that this would help launch my career in an entirely new direction.
Late 2008 and early 2009 was the time when we were beginning what would become a global recession. I was also looking for a position where I could continue to manage Asia sales and business development for technology companies while maintaining home base in the United States. The problem was that, with the continuing recession as well as the fact that there were more qualified local candidates, that position was becoming harder to find.
I quickly realized that the winds of change were blowing against my career in unpredicted ways and I once again had to face a new challenge for which I was not experienced in: Reinventing myself.
It was my wife who first suggested that I write an ebook while looking for my next job, but becoming an author was the last thing I ever wanted to become. That being said, like before in my career, I created my own internal deadline and decided that if I didn’t land my dream job within a given time period I would write that book.
Expanding upon the content from my blog, I ended up self-publishing that first book, Windmill Networking: Understanding, Leveraging and Maximizing LinkedIn, back in September, 2009. The book led to paid speaking and consulting opportunities, and even though I ended up getting an offer for that dream job with a new company in January, 2010, I ended up following my new dream of starting my own business, which I ended up doing in that same month.
Since then, I have cherished the opportunities to work with many clients large and small, speak in multiple continents, write two more books (including my recent social media strategy creation book Maximize Your Social, published by Wiley, which came about as a result of a LinkedIn InMail), and be recognized for my work in social media and social selling. It is the constant change, adapting to the change, and a combination of maintaining a long-term view of my career while creating short-term deadlines that has allowed me to understand the timing of the “right pitch” and prepared to “run those bases.”
What I Learned
The twists and curves in my career may seem like they have nothing in common, but actually there are a few themes that emerge that can hopefully provide you guidance in your own career:
1. Change in your career is inevitable.
Generate your own change and learn to accept change brought upon you. Embrace the challenges and the new knowledge that can be obtained from them for your future. Sometimes this change will make you rethink your own career plans for the better. It all becomes part of an education that better prepares you for any future challenge you might face.
2. You will never be in full control of your career, but you will always be in full control of your own destiny.
As Steve Jobs was quoted as saying,
“I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?" And whenever the answer has been "No" for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”
In other words, don’t be stuck. You always have the power to get unstuck should you have the will. If you don’t like where you career is heading, change it! I did, and I am the better for it.
3. Connect the Dots
From wanting to build something from scratch, learn something new, as well as educate others on a subject that is difficult for many to grasp, what I do for a living now seems like a natural extension of what I did in my sales positions. With each company I was building business in new territories from scratch that many companies now do in social media. I would have to externally engage in different ways with new communities just like businesses are doing now in the various social networks. I also had to pitch sometimes-skeptical internal stakeholders on the long-term value of doing business in Asia, similar to how I need to speak to skeptical prospects about seeing value in a long-term approach to social business.
Of course, we never realize these truths until we can connect the dots of our careers and us as human beings. Once again, I share with you a quote from Steve Jobs that has continued to serve as my inspiration ever since I heard it shortly after his passing:
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well worn path; and that will make all the difference."
Writing this article has helped me better connect my own dots, and I hope it provides you the same inspiration.
The long-term approach I have maintained has served me well knowing that a career has many winding roads, some intentional and others by surprise. Being cognizant of our own career plans and goals and proactively managing them will allow you to excel at running the bases when that right pitch comes. And it will come for you, as it has for me.
Do my career experiences resonate with yours? Do you have similar stories to share? Let’s start a conversation and connect the dots between each other.