New Horizons for Your Career

July 18, 2023

As I've written elsewhere, we're in the middle of a genuine economic crisis. In technology alone, there have been almost 168,000 layoffs in the past year, and there is considerable unease about what tomorrow might bring. If you are feeling stalled and frustrated by your career, I assure you you are in excellent company.

So what do you do with a moment like this? My biggest piece of advice is to resist the frustration. Any investor knows that a down market is the best time to pick up some bargains. You can apply the same mindset to your career growth. This moment is a gift. If you are not struggling with your basic survival needs, then seize this moment, as it may be a few years before you get an opportunity like it.

If you need some pointers, here is a framework that might help.

Looking at the Horizons

Any frustration you're feeling might be in part due to a limited horizon. Most of us go to our jobs, put in our daily effort, keep our heads down, go to bed, get up in the morning, and do it again. Lather, rinse, repeat. There is absolutely nothing wrong with doing this, as long as you occassionally look up from your desk and gaze out into the horizon.

Actually, make that three horizons.

Back in the 90s, some thought leaders at McKinsey & Company came up with a model of corporate growth they called the Three Horizons. The idea is deliciously simple. Any product or service a company invests into resembles an S-curve, like so:

At the start of the curve, there is a lot of investment but not a lot of growth. Then, as you start to get into the middle of the line, there's a period of accelerating growth, and then at the top of the curve growth either slows down or declines.

According to McKinsey, companies that successfully manage their growth put intentional effort into three separate investment horizons.

  • Horizon One: This is the company's bread and butter — the high-value work that keeps the lights on. This area is low-risk, high-reward, so it's important to protect and maintain it.
  • Horizon Two: This represents emerging business that is starting to become important enough to transition to the core. These are the initiatives that show sufficient near-term value that you want to nurture and grow them.
  • Horizon Three: This last horizon is for the growth of brand-new business. This area will be highly speculative, and may require a lot of experimentation to determine what efforts will and won't pan out.

The trick is not to ignore any of these horizons. Put too much effort into horizons two and three, and you risk losing your core value proposition. Ignore horizon three, and you will miss out on future growth opportunities. Similarly, if you put all your effort into horizons one and three, then you will spend all your effort on protecting your existing business and experimenting with highly speculative future efforts, but you will have trouble capitalizing on any horizon three initiatives that pan out. You need to exercise the muscles that move successful experiment into core money-maker. You need to balance your efforts in all horizons to be successful.

Ironically, the future-oriented horizons require more management oversight, as they will often require new, as-yet-untested skills to shepherd them into being new core efforts. But every horizon is important.

So how much time should you spend between the various horizons? There's no one answer to this, obviously, but a good rule of thumb is to spend about 70% of your time and energy on Horizon One. Your current job is the most valuable thing in your career portfolio at the moment, so you should expect to spend most — but not all — of your time getting this one right. Horizon Two should get about 20%. And Horizon Three, with an emphasis on quick experimentation and quick learning, might get about 10%.

Career Horizons

So what does this mean for your individual career? Well, in my experience, many of my clients spend almost all their time on Horizon One, AKA their jobs. This is clearly an important thing to worry about, especially if you have a family who relies on your paycheck, but it's not the only thing. Hence the recommended 70% focus. You need to stay focused on what is making you money now, but you also need some slack time to invest in strategies for growth.

A lot of my early work with clients usually revolves around trying to figuring out their dreams for the future. Maybe there's an artistic itch that they would like to scratch. Maybe they own a business and dream of an enormous corporate campus with a pond and benches. Maybe there's a new restaurant in town and they are the star chef. You get the idea.

These dreams are important. Regardless how ridiculous or unobtainable they might seem in the moment, our dreams connect us to our truest and deepest values. And with time and persistence, some dreams may prove very obtainable indeed.

Your dreams are your Horizon Three. These are the highly-speculative, very-risky efforts that may or may not pan out over time. But they are absolutely worth investing into — by taking that improv class for instance, or by dusting off that old guitar. Give it that 10% attention.

Your life may be filled with people telling you to let go of your dreams, to be reasonable, to think about the here and now. You will have family members, relatives, friends who like you just as you are and who want you to stay safe. You will have voices in your head that tell you the same. But your coach will not be part of that chorus. Your coach, if they are any good at all, will help you dream bigger.

The trick is not to abandon your dreams. The trick is to give them a sustainable small effort, and to nurture and grow any that seem promising.

After all, remember the beginning of that S-curve. A lot of investment has to happen before you see any growth. Your coach will want to know what steps you are taking to make your dream a reality.

Transitioning from Dream to Reality

As you experiment with your Horizon Three dreams, some of them will magnetize themselves into Horizon Two, and it is vital that you let them do that. Because here's the thing about dreams: some of them, with time and persistence, will come true.

The trick is knowing when your dream is starting to take on momentum of its own. When that moment happens, you may have to take stock of where it fits in your current career. Do you need to downshift in your current role? Can you nurture the new, emergent opportunity in your off hours? Are things moving faster than you anticipate, and are you ready to make a jump?

When these sorts of shifts happen, it is incredibly useful to have a calm, detached observer to make sure that you're neither rushing to take an overly-risky plunge nor holding on to your current "business as usual" life out of fear of the unknown. When the S-curve shoots up, it can be disorienting. This is when having a coach can really pay dividends.

If you have a new dream you would like to make real, please feel free to hit the button below. Join my email list. Or book a meeting with me, and I will give you a free hour to talk about your career horizons. You might surprise yourself with what's possible.

You can do so much more.
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