Sailing ships from time to time run into an area bereft of wind, so they stop moving forward and sit on the calm – or not so calm – waters. They are in the doldrums. Technically, they are in an equatorial region of the Atlantic Ocean with calms, sudden storms, and light unpredictable winds. The word doldrums is used to describe situations with similar characteristics of all sorts. Careers, in particular, get stuck in the doldrums. It is a dangerous state.
My career got into the doldrums in 1970-1973/4. I was Head of Planning, a bellicose sounding title. It meant that I asked people to forecast figures I couldn’t check and they couldn’t achieve. As a business builder, I was frustrated in a head office service job, much as I liked my boss. Nobody had taught me how to do it. I hated the confines of a place I was supposed to be in every day, surrounded by people, who, clerical grade apart, were in the doldrums, too.
I got out of it and back into line management in the second half of 1973. I gave thanks. If you think your career is in the doldrums, read on. You too can give thanks in due course. I now ask myself: “What should I have done to make the doldrums time more fruitful and shorter?”. The first obvious answer is to recognise it. Just as the sailing ship can sit there for a week expecting wind, so the career is something we often expect to develop by itself.
Promotion may have been regular and without asking. We may have been a Rising Star – with all the risk that later on we would become an Ageing Juvenile Lead. We may have been thought very bright because of our tendency to question our superiors. That’s fine when you pose no threat to them. As soon as they recognise your potential, they transform from nursery dolphins to Great Whites. All this can happen as we sit there waiting for the next step up.
Recognise the doldrums and then, rather as at present, see what you need to learn and what opportunities the situation presents you with. If I had insisted on going to a top business school I could have moved out of the doldrums in six months. If I had used the time to get to really know the heads of the big operating sections of the massive business I was in, I would likely have been offered a good job within one of their divisions. I didn’t do either. I squandered the time.
The advantage of the doldrums is that you have some choice about where you will go next. The forces of need and opportunity will mostly determine this but you do get to see all the horizons. Now is the time to decide what you enjoy doing. It is what you will do best. Now is the time to decide how to equip yourself with the up to date skills you need most to fulfil your dream job. Now is also the time to get yourself more clearly identified both inside and outside your own business community. Some talks, a few regular articles, friendships with senior people – all these help establish that you are someone of importance. It is necessary to do that.
People often say to me “I hate the politics of work”. It’s rather like saying that you hate walking on pavements. If you are going to be in business, learn the politics of business. You don’t have to indulge in them more than absolutely necessary. But, just as you must be able to walk on pavements if you are in the city, so you must be able to handle the rudimentary politics of an organisation if you are to work in it.
Recognise and develop your Chief Skill. We are each of us recognised by a Chief Skill – a few people by several, but that is rare. Better to aim to have one Chief Skill. It won’t type-cast you if you handle it well. Think of Winston Churchill. His great skill was with words. He managed to control and win a war, too. Your chief skill should be as specific as possible. Vague skills like ‘people’ wont work. ‘Negotiating’, ‘motivating’, ‘teaching’ – these are credible great skills. Be really top at one and everyone will assume you can do the others as well.
Being in the middle of a world pandemic inhibits us from being too opportunistic – and rightly so. Our first thoughts are to save lives and suffering. Life will move on, however, and we must be ready to do so with it. Today’s headlines are always tomorrow’s history.
Grasp the opportunities the present situation offers. Turn the disaster into a triumph.
Help others, and in the process, help yourself.
You will sail out of the doldrums.