The Fortune 500 Insider Network is our newest online community where top executives from the Fortune 500 share ideas and offer leadership advice with Fortune’s global audience. Frans Hijkoop, chief human resources officer at MetLife, has answered the question: Looking back, what advice would you give your younger self about career development?
In my line of work, career development is always a hot topic. Whether I’m in our headquarters in New York City or one of the nearly 50 countries where MetLife does business, I often get questions about it.
So if I could travel back in time and talk with a young Frans Hijkoop about his career development, I’d basically give him the same advice I give my MetLife (MET) colleagues.
Have a goal in mind, but be flexible in how you get there
First of all, set a career goal so that you have a compass as your career progresses. Once set, keep an open mind about the many paths that can take you toward your goal. The best moves aren’t always linear or upward.
In the late ‘90s, when I worked as Pepsi’s head of HR for Europe and Africa, I was asked to take on an additional role as GM of the Ukraine business — not exactly an obvious career move, but I’m glad I did it. The experience gave me a much broader perspective — one that I think also made me a better HR executive. So don’t be too rigid about your career path. Leave your comfort zone. Build different skills. Try things that truly stretch you. You’ll develop more depth and breadth than those who pursue a narrow path.
Look for opportunities to leave your mark
Careers are, by definition, long-term affairs. Don’t spend all those years without leaving your mark. Work should have meaning and provide you with opportunities to make an impact. That was my main reason for joining MetLife four years ago. I saw a great U.S. company with a real desire to go global, and felt I could use my 20-plus years of international experience to really contribute to the company’s success as a global industry leader. It has been a wonderful move for me. Wherever you are in your profession, look for the link between your personal efforts and the organization’s success, and you’ll have a very fulfilling career.
Focus on the best qualities in your managers
I’ve been fortunate to work for some great people over the years — leaders who cared about what I could contribute, who allowed me to take charge, and who were there to support me if needed. I’ve also worked for some who were far less accomplished. Whenever that happens, I’d encourage you to focus on what these individuals are good at rather than what they are bad at. Every manager has strengths and skills you can learn from. And if they don’t, you’ll at least develop a good sense of what not to do as you manage more people as your career progresses. So watch your managers closely and identify their strengths and opportunities. It will give you a helpful perspective on what works and what does not, and will allow you to become the best leader you can be.
Changing environments can accelerate your personal growth
Although there are many benefits associated with developing your career within one organization, changing companies can be a major growth booster. Moving from one organization to another accelerates your development and pushes you to adapt your approach and succeed in a different environment.
In the early part of my career in Holland and the U.K., I worked for Unilever (UN), a true career company which excelled in grooming internal talent for bigger and better things over time. I loved my time there, but after seven years, I started to feel that there was probably more to be learned elsewhere. And I was right. I’d describe my move to PepsiCo (PEP) in 1996 as a total shock to the system, but the truth is that I learned more in my first six months at PepsiCo than I could have learned in six more years at Unilever. Changing companies can literally open up a whole new world for you.
Deal with change and don’t take everything personally
Market conditions or other factors often push companies to adapt their strategies and change the way they operate. When that happens, even the best people can get derailed. “They can’t do this to me!” is a common reaction, sometimes followed by active resistance and other dysfunctional behavior. Needless to say, this won’t have a positive impact on reputation or growth prospects.
So next time your company makes a decision you don’t like, try to step back and form an objective point of view. Put yourself in the decision maker’s shoes and analyze the “why” behind the decision. If you can depersonalize the situation, you will find it much easier to adjust and actively move forward. And if you do that, you’re bound to be more successful as you continue to develop your reputation and your career.