Open Eye: Your route map to the future

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The Independent Online
You may prefer a golden parachute on the way out of a company but when you join an organisation you should choose the colour far more carefully.

What Colour is your Parachute?, by Richard Bolles, is the cult career development book with the weirdest title but the soundest principles. In a virtuoso presentation at the OU Business School MBA Alumni residential weekend last month, Brian McIvor took a group of 70 high fliers through this `Swiss army knife' of career survival.

Competing against the attractions of other seminars including Making Knowledge Management Work or I Heard It Through The Grapevine and Why do some people think you're wonderful and others don't?, this career-and life-planning workshop drew a full house of 70 of the UK's senior managers.

With a generous helping of music from Mozart, Blondie, Bach and from the film Good Morning Vietnam, McIvor covered all the bases in career planning from identifying transferable skills to rewards, belief systems, networking and locating people you want to work with and why. Managers were shown how to bring to the surface their real skills, aptitudes and values which can so easily become submerged over time in a professional role.

A former musician, theologian and financial adviser, McIvor had learned from all the bosses who had told him `'You have a great future - but not here!'' Although now a consultant, he commended the virtues of learning from personal experience rather than following other experts. The strength of the `Parachute' principle is that it places the emphasis on individual self-knowledge (`'You are your own guru'').

Each manager was taken through effective methods of identifying the things, people and information that really mattered. With a useful warning to resist external peer and family pressures (`'Beware of the gene pool!''), McIvor invited the audience to try to make sense of what had happened in their careers so far in order to begin to design their own route map to the future.

Working with `failure' and `success' information, managers were asked to formulate their personal mission statement so that it fitted on the front of a T-shirt. With apologies to Springsteen, McIvor set the tough question `Born to...?' as a short-cut to defining your life's role.

"The world," said McIvor, "can be divided into people who make things happen, those who watch things happen, those to whom things happen and those who ask what happened."

Clearly the aim of this seminar was to move more of the audience into the first category but this involved some scary leaps in the dark for managers who had been used to clawing their way up a fixed career ladder which had now been kicked away.

If the self-analysis involves moving into a different job or different field, then this may also involve re-defining security.

What is your security?

The security of the entrepreneur may simply be the quality of the product - but how can family and mortgage be protected during such a major life change?

A successfully balanced life is becoming the most elusive goal of all and this may explain why the new job of `life consultant' is catching up the `personal trainer' as the role with real millennial social cachet.

McIvor usefully introduced the importance of finding a place in a working life for the activities you love. Whether it is making music or aroma therapy, does it generate income or does it require subsidy? Whatever the answer, you must find a way of doing it.

From personal traits, skills and fields of knowledge, McIvor moved on to `The Party' exercise where managers were faced with a hexagon with the corners marked Artist, Investigate, Social, Entrepreneur, Realist and Closure. Which corner of the room would you instinctively be drawn to as the group of people you would most enjoy being with for the longest time? Which other group would you move towards? McIvor's prediction for OU graduates was that they would follow the pattern of Social, Investigators, Entrepreneurs. Reassuringly, the MBA graduates were far from the stereotype.

From wistful technicians to yearning artists, McIvor clearly touched a deep sense of vocation both lost and found. One manager said: `'I've realised why I love my job so much and why I feel so sad. I have to leave it behind as I am moving to Budapest." Another realised he had to get back to more daily hands-on work with technology as an apparently successful career had moved him beyond the shop floor. Another disarmingly said: "This is why I have a mid-life crisis every year!''

Reminding us that humans are naturally distrustful of change processes, McIvor urged us to become more intuitive (`'Attack the left brain! Don't let the rational win all the time''). In the pursuit of identifying key transferable skills, he set the managers the task of telling the story of a time when they each achieved a goal or did some work of which they were especially proud. What skills were used and what generated the most enthusiasm?

Completing the session with a personal league table of life's priorities, McIvor enabled the group to end with individual declarations of where their working lives were heading. Most personal `parachutes' of these MBA graduates now had brighter colours, were better directed and carried a better safety rating.