Dr. Isabel Fernandez-Mateo is a Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at the London Business School. Isabel advises ‘treating your career as if it were your own company’ and shares her tips on navigating career pivots and progressing in your chosen field…
Tell us about your career journey so far?
I am a Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at London Business School. My role involves a combination of research, teaching, and administrative duties (such as recruitment of faculty and PhD students). I have been at London Business School for 13 years, since I finished my PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2004. I was promoted to tenured professor in 2011. Before my PhD I briefly worked in Finance in Spain and obtained a Master’s Degree in Business Economics and a certification as a Financial Analyst.
You advocate ‘treating your career as though it were your own company’. Why is this so important?
I teach a course called ‘Building your Career Strategy’. Most students who attend LBS do so with the objective of advancing their career. My course is motivated by the fact that the meaning of ‘career advancement’ has changed dramatically over the last couple of decades. In particular, the idea of ‘climbing the corporate ladder’ is no longer an appropriate metaphor for the world that my students face. Paths are multiple, there is not a single way to the top, and job and career transitions are much more common than they used to be. In this context it is essential to take a proactive, long-term perspective to leading your own career, since organisations will no longer do it for you. To do so it helps to think of your career as if it were your own company, in which you have a vision, a ‘product’ and a set of strategic resources that will allow you to maximise your success in the labour market. In the course we discuss how this approach allows you to take control of your professional future.
“It helps to think of your career as if it were your own company, in which you have a vision, a ‘product’ and a set of strategic resources.”
What 5 pieces of advice would you give to any budding entrepreneurs…
1. It is not just what you know. Your success depends as much on you as on the people you surround yourself with.
2. Go out of your comfort zone. Or, as I sometimes say, “the best way to go to a great party is to go to lots of parties.” If you approach people and activities with a clear idea of what you will get out of them you are unlikely to discover anything new.
3. You don’t necessarily need mentors to succeed, but you almost surely need sponsors.
4. Performance always goes first. Or, as I read once: “Tooting your own horn should be more about the horn than about the tooting.”
5. One of my favourite quotes when talking about developing and maintaining robust professional relationships is by the writer Maya Angelou. She said once: “I‘ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I believe that all networking tips out there could easily be replaced with this advice.
Who do you look up to as a role model?
Within my profession I admire scholars who do research that addresses important problems in the world, and who approach this task in the most rigorous way possible. My former advisor at MIT is one of these role models. He combines a steady dedication to uncover important facts about the world of work with a willingness to help students, young scholars and practitioners. In fact, I still look up at most of my teachers back at MIT for their intellectual curiosity and their striving to make a difference in the real world.
‘Climbing the corporate ladder’ is no longer an appropriate metaphor; paths are multiple and there is no single way to the top.
What advice do you offer on navigating and planning your career?
One of the key messages of my course is that the traditional notion of ‘career planning’ is not very helpful for most people. In fact, it can be stressful and paralysing to believe that we must have every step laid out for the next 5-10 years.
A more useful approach is to work on defining your core strengths, interests and values. These will generally be consistent with a range of possible career options rather than with a single, defined path. As long as you know what your core assets are, you can focus on developing skills and professional relationships that match your strengths in order to maximise the range of opportunities that come your way. Instead of planning, think of it as having an internal compass that guides you and enables you to adapt by choosing the opportunities that will best match your core objectives. These may be opportunities you would have never thought of if you had you focused on a fixed 5-year plan.
How can we better prepare ourselves for a career transition?
Besides developing your own ‘career compass’, I think that the best way to prepare for a career transition is to let go of the idea that there is only one career out there for us and that we will fail if we don’t find it. Research shows that this is not the case, as we all have multiple identities and we are capable of being professionally fulfilled in several different ways. When we accept this fact, we realise that the traditional planning approach to career transitions (i.e. first decide what you want to do, then take the leap) is not always desirable.
My colleague Herminia Ibarra has published several books developing these ideas. She shows that major successful career transitions take at least 2-3 years and follow a non-linear path, which involves learning through small experiments, by trying out different ‘possible selves’ before we settle on one. This approach implies that you need to act before you are ready, rather than acting only when you have everything figured out. The ideas are similar to the principles of Design Thinking (see for example a recent book by two Stanford professors, “Designing Your Life”).
It’s not just what you know. Your success depends just as much on the people you surround yourself with.
What are your top tips for being ‘social media savvy’ and what is a must-do for any professional?
One important point to remember about the effect of social media on your ‘personal brand’ is that these tools make visible what used to be quite hard to observe. For example, it used to be the case that your social network was only visible to those connected to you.
An old anecdote (possibly apocryphal) tells of a man who once asked Baron Rothschild for a loan. The Baron said “I will not loan you the money but I will walk with you arm in arm across the floor of the exchange.” The idea of course being that other people would form a good impression of him by the company he kept, and loan him the money. In a way, social media multiplies this effect many times over, since who you are affiliated with is observable to business associates, employers, colleagues, etc. All of them are making inferences about you depending on what they see. This means that you need to carefully manage your presence on these platforms.
One of the key issues to decide is how much personal content to ‘reveal’ to your professional contacts. There is some evidence that, in most professional contexts, being fully open about your private life can backfire, but being fully closed is not ideal either. A balance in which you follow a mixed strategy seems to work best. This involves keeping separate lists of close and not so close contacts and showing more or less information depending on the audience. There are many resources with tips on how to manage LinkedIn profiles, how to make the most of Facebook and Twitter, etc. But, at the end of the day, I think the most important principle is to manage your social relationships online with the same care and respect than you devote to your offline social networks.
Has your own career turned out the way you expected?
I suppose that, had I known what I was getting myself into when I embarked on an academic career, I would say that my career has turned out quite all right for the path I took. But I simply had no clue what this was all about. I was the first in my family to ever attend college, and somehow I managed to get a scholarship to study a PhD in one of the best universities in the world. For me that would have already been plenty, but I continued in this path because I enjoyed the work, I admired the people I worked with and I was learning so much. In a way, having no expectations whatsoever made things easier, since there was not a huge pressure to conform or achieve – at least from my closest circle. When that’s the case you can concentrate on the work itself and the relationships you build with people you respect.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given in your career?
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
Do you think the way we dress in the workplace has an impact on our career?
I am not actually aware of research that rigorously demonstrates this point. Intuitively, I believe that, for many of us, the way we dress is likely to affect how we feel about ourselves and our own ability to navigate a professional context. If the clothes you wear help you feel confident and comfortable, it should free up mental space to concentrate on the actual work. At least that’s how this works for me!
Which are your favourite pieces from The Fold collection and why?
I am all about green this spring. I love the Mayfield Dress in Moss Green, it’s appropriate both for work and evening. I’m also wearing my Cadogan Trench a lot; it combines a classic cut with an unexpected dark green colour. It goes with everything.