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Look backward at your career to see forward and imagine what might be

Nancy Napier: Creativity
Nancy Napier: Creativity

Sometimes you have to look backward to see forward. I relearned that this week while considering what meaningful career events in the past help shape and guide decisions going forward.

We are fortunate at the university to welcome a group of top -notch participants each year in our Executive MBA program. I can’t say that too loudly, though, since I don’t want them to be smug. Still, they come in with an average of 15-20 years of experience apiece, much of it in management. They are as motivated a group as you’ll see. I figure we have 300-400 years of experience in the room.

The latest crop just began the program with a week’s residency in McCall, where we pummel them with ideas and discussion and set the tone for learning in the coming two years. One of our signature components is executive coaching, which they receive one-on-one during the program. So right now, they’ve begun thinking about how they want to improve their leadership styles.

One of the exercises they do is a “career retrospective,” which asks them to consider what they would see as meaningful about their careers if they “looked back” on them at age 70. They must plumb events in their careers and imagine ones they hope might happen.

From those thoughts emerge kernels of what has been especially important for each participant.

For some, it’s forming a new firm —creating a vision, building a team, and offering a useful product or service to the world. For others, it’s more about mentorship and development of people. For still others, it can be serving the public, whether in health care, education or government.

These may each demand different leadership areas, of course, and most people find elements of all of these, but sometimes they lean toward one or another aspect.

I did this exercise myself this year. I am reminded that as I think Steve Jobs said once, “you connect dots looking backward.” When you consider the aspects of your career that were and are meaningful, that’s when you begin to see what motivates you, where you feel you can make a difference, and what gives you some joy in your work life.

It’s a good exercise to do now and then and a good way to check that you’re on the road to fulfillment and joy. Have fun with it.

Nancy Napier is a Boise State University distinguished professor.

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