Editor’s note: Serial entrepreneur and investor Donald Thompson is a regular contributor to WRAL TechWire. His columns appear on Wednesdays.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Welcome to 2021, my friends! I love the fresh energy that a new year brings and the chance to take stock of what I’ve achieved so I can better calibrate where I’m headed. Early January is the perfect chance to slow down and check in with yourself before you launch into the hustle of the year. Reflection is critical to strategy and execution, so I hope you’re seizing the opportunity and re-evaluating your objectives for success.

Recently, I had the honor of interviewing John Murphy, a global executive coach who helped remind me why I love coaching in the first place: because it keeps you focused on steady, continual growth. John started his career in sales, like I did, but as a door-to-door salesperson, selling insurance in Ireland. He moved diligently upward through middle management then into the C-suite as CEO for a pan-European insurance group. Sixteen years ago, he had a revelation and left the corporate world to form John Murphy International, where he works as a coach for multiple senior executives and their teams.

John’s realization was that he had gotten off track and that he needed to take charge of where he was going. His story is one that sounds familiar. “I loved hiring people, I loved coaching people, I loved putting teams together, and I loved making teams effective” he says. “I did the CEO role for seven years, but if I’m being honest, Donald, I probably enjoyed four years of it.” Here is some of his best advice after sixteen years of coaching high-achievers and senior executives.

John Murphy in a photo from his company website.

Make sure you listen to the full interview on The Donald Thompson Podcast. It’s overflowing with good advice.

DT: John, I’ve heard you say before that the key to success is to proactively manage your own career. Will you talk a little more about that?

JM: That’s right, because how many times do you speak to somebody and they say, “You know, I hate this job. I don’t know how I ended up here.” A lot of times they ended up there because the company said “Here’s Donald. He’s got talent doing that, so we’d like to put him over here.” That’s what the company is always going to do because it sees talent as a resource, and so the company is going to push talent into the place that it thinks is right for that person.

That’s great as long as it is also what Donald really wants but, often actually, it’s not the right place for that person, and then they’re left wondering why it isn’t working out. I’m always saying to people when I’m coaching them, “Be clear about the next role that you want to do. Be clear about the sort of work that you want to do and not just the title.” Because the title has nothing to do with it, but people get hung up about that. What environment do you want to work in? How do you want to spend your day? As the great Steven Covey put it, “If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.”

DT: That is powerful. Let’s circle back a little and drill down a bit. Beyond just stopping to think about it every once in a while, how does someone proactively manage their career? What can you do to keep your ladder on the right wall?

JM: Well, what I do when I’m working with somebody is that I say, “Let’s have a look at where you are right now, and let’s talk about the next three years.” Where do you want to be in three years? And then I get people to work through a holistic plan, because career is just one element, right? I ask people to embrace a much broader perspective and consider their three-year experience on a personal basis, on a financial basis, on a professional basis, on a relationship basis. Really map that out.

If that’s where you want to be, what does that determine about the sort of roles that you want to grow into? Then, figure out the gaps between where you are now and what you will need to be successful in those roles. What are the skills, knowledge, ability, approaches, processes or whatever it might be?

So often in large organizations, roles come up and they get filled before they’re even advertised. Somebody has slotted into it before it becomes public. You need to be on those people’s radars so that they know about you, they know what you can deliver, and they know that’s the direction you want to go in. If you get all of those aligned, then that’s the right track.

When somebody says to me, “I’m really bored at my current role, but I know I’d be fantastic in this other role.” I say, “I hate to tell you, if you ain’t good at the current role, you ain’t going to be in the window shop for the next role.”

DT: One of the things that I like about building businesses and growing talent is when you get to the point where you understand it’s a performance-based environment. People are often looking to the next thing without winning at the job they already have, but part of leadership is being able to be successful in things that you don’t really love while you’re looking for that next opportunity. That mindset of being a high performer where you sit, I think, is equally as important as understanding where you want to go.

Can you talk a little about how you break down those three year goals into actionable units?

JM: Good question. What I say when I’m coaching is, “start with the three-year experience. Where does that mean you want to be in twelve months time? What are the key things that you want to achieve over the next twelve months?” Do that at a reasonably high level and then say, “Ok. In six months time, where do you want to be?” Then break it down to three months. At three months, that’s where it becomes granular because ninety days is long enough to actually get something meaningful done. Break your three-month goals into two-week objectives.

The crucial piece is to block the time in your calendar to do it. If you don’t time-block, it’s just a wish-list. You’ve got to block out the time to work on the thing that you want to achieve in these fourteen days, and you’ve got to treat that time as sacrosanct, as you would a meeting with a client. In the absence of time-blocking, you’re actually running to everybody else’s agenda. This is how to take control of your own agenda so that you’re doing the things that are going to move the needle for you.

DT: You’ve had the opportunity to work with thousands of executives. What are some of the qualities you respect in the leaders who are really getting it done and moving the needle in their organizations?

JM: They have to be good at execution. If you don’t get things done, everything is just a bit of chaos. And then it’s about whether you’ve selected the right team. Have you got the right people in place? Have you got them focused on the right things? Are they working in the right way? And all of that.

I think that your ability to translate strategy into execution, to get things done and to get people focused on the right things is really, really important. It’s the ability for a leader to move from the strategic to the operational and to understand what that looks like. You have to be able to understand how you get from one to the other and then also bring people along with you on the journey.

About the Author

Donald Thompson began his career in sales and technology, moving quickly to the C-suite at age 36. Donald is now CEO of Walk West, a digital marketing firm, and co-founder of The Diversity Movement, a technology-driven diversity, equity and inclusion consultancy. He is a serial entrepreneur, public speaker, author, podcaster, and Executive Coach. He is also a board member for several organizations in healthcare, technology, marketing, sports and entertainment, a Certified Diversity Executive (CDE), and a thought leader on goal achievement and influencing company culture. His full interview with John Murphy is available as part of The Donald Thompson Podcast

Connect with Donald through LinkedIn or at donaldthompson.com

A selection of recent Donald Thompson columns

Donald Thompson: My best of 2020 list – people, products, companies and causes I admire

Donald Thompson: We as leaders must be champions of truth

Donald Thompson: Talking leadership and racial unrest with IBM’s Tim Humphrey