March 8

Want to make a great career plan for your early 20s?


Here’s the honest truth.

If you’re young and precocious, you would struggle to find a place that allows you to grow fast, unless you’re at a progressive company.

Maybe you’re at a stage where you are struggling to know how to grow best.

You might be at a stage where you’re thinking of whether you should stay or leave. You’re wondering whether you can still grow at the company you’re at.

Let’s start with the story of Chet, who started off in a construction company but later rose to become a Senior Vice President at CapitaLand, before retiring.

In her interview with me for my book ‘Vault!’, she shared her story,

I started in 1978 as a quantity surveyor with a small family-owned company. And the boss was Mr Lee S H.

He taught me so much about being a good human being, upholding good Chinese values such as 义气 (loyalty).

In quantity surveying, you’re supposed to look at the progress of work done and materials delivered to site and then agree on their values with the respective subcontractors and suppliers.

I remembered that his four sons would urge me to go to their father to report their deemed market values. They were concerned that their father would always insist on giving his ‘fair’ valuation. If he knew that a supplier or subcontractor was in financial trouble, he would willingly overpay him to tide over. Or if another had lost money on horse racing over the weekend, he would also assist by giving more! So naturally I was always caught between the father and his sons!

But this boss taught me so much. He would walk the construction site with me daily, and I would learn about every aspect of construction.

The sons were very jealous! Their own father didn’t teach them, but he would teach me patiently and thoroughly.

Even his personal driver was not happy, as his boss now left the construction site much later each day.

She stayed there for a year before leaving.

Perhaps the first lesson here?

You might not think so, but your boss, really matters. Someone who develops and grows you is better.

Good boss, before a good company

You can see from Chet’s experience that her boss determined her trajectory and learning. Her boss gave her opportunities to learn, even though she was not qualified.

In your first role, find a good boss, over a good company.

You might think that your first role should be one that allows you to do good work. That might push you to find the brandname companies. I often see many choosing big companies.

Whilst they might have great hiring practices, I’ve also come to see that some of them don’t have the best developmental bosses.

Being able to develop someone is a skill.

If your boss just leaves you alone, that might not be the best thing to do.

Broadly speaking, there are 3 crucial things you should look for as you interview, especially in your boss.

  1. Track record of developing people
    1. People who work for them often end up going on to much bigger things.
    2. This also means that your boss actually has time to develop you, rather than just treating you as someone who does the work.
    3. One question to ask during the interview is “how do you, as the manager, usually develop people at the company?”
  2. A coaching mindset
    1. Often, the best bosses have the ability to coach someone to explore and fulfil their potential.
  3. An all-rounder
    1. As Linda Hill talks about deeply in her book ‘Becoming a Manager’, the path up to becoming a manager requires the person to become someone who’s now able to handle all parts of the organisation, from people to finance, to budgeting.
    2. For you to grow, you need a manager who’s adept at all parts of the work, from the technicalities to the people management.
    3. A question you can ask: How would you describe yourself as a manager?

Range or depth, or both?

I used to think that your first few jobs should give you as much exposure as possible to many things.

But over the years, I’ve come to see that people grow differently, at differing speeds, based on varying stimulus.

You can put someone in the best developmental program, but if they are not ready to grow, then they won’t make the best of it.

Take for example me, starting at a family service centre in my first social service job. It would have seemed ideal to start there, with the wide range of problems I was given to solve. It was not specific.

But I didn’t make the most of it because I didn’t have a good base of skill at first. I should have picked somewhere I could grow in skill depth first, before expanding in range.

What can help is understanding your learning needs at that particular moment in time.

Your boss would be able to guide you.

But you must also know your own strength, and where you do badly.

In Marcus Buckingham’s great article, “What Great Managers Do”, he talks about how one question we can always ask ourselves is,

What was the best day at work you’ve had in the past three months?”

Find out what the person was doing and why he enjoyed it so much.

Marcus Buckingham, What Great Managers Do, Harvard Business Review

But I will adapt that question and urge you to ask,

What was the best learning experience you had, and what about it helped you learn the most?

Optimise for learning experiences

That’s why it’s crucial that you look at jobs as learning experiences, as Khairul, from TOUCH Community Services shared.

Seeing jobs as learning, rather than performance, allows you to pick one that lets you grow.

Not just one that leaves you to perform.

You might also want to pick one that allows for flex.

A job with flex to learn

One example is that of Sascha Stolar, who works at Siemens.

Sascha’s advice? Find a place that exposes you to many things, fast, and grow formally through qualifications.

In the past, when I spoke to Sascha about what he felt led him to his successful career, he credited luck. Today, I push him more for a deeper explanation.

He first credits the setting of a good foundation, with exposure to different parts of the organisation.

Besides studying, or going through internship programs, I believe that when you start your career, try not to be too specialised on one specific skill or area of expertise.

Instead, set yourself up broadly. Because if you start your career and you are too focused, your direction is already predetermined.

If you start off widely, you get exposure to different parts of an organisation. You will have a fast learning curve and be able to cross-apply your learned skills in different functions.

So a job with flex does help.

But with all the focus on Skillsfuture in Singapore, how does one use that for their advantage?

Learning professionally with micro learning and rapid implementation

Learn and implement fast.

That’s when I spoke to Sascha, who started with Siemens, and has stayed with them for the last 15 years.

In the process, he’s risen to Vice-President in Siemens ASEAN. Sascha’s story is uncommon, especially when we hear of the typical stereotype of Gen Zs and millennials being serial job-hoppers.

How did he remain engaged? But more importantly, how did he progress so rapidly in this company?

After graduating from school, Sascha took on a dual-study programme in Germany that exposed him to theoretical learning in university, whilst gathering practical experience in different commercial departments in Siemens.

After working in blocks of 6 to 8 weeks in a department, he returned to university to learn about the concepts, rapidly implementing what he learnt at university.

That’s important.

Today’s Skillsfuture subsidises courses that are perhaps one or two days. How much can you really learn from them?

And if you want to go for something longer-term, it often requires you to take time out from your work.

That’s a big opportunity cost.

I will share my own experience of how I moved from social work into running a marketing agency.

Short courses, implemented fast through the making of websites
Short courses, implemented fast through the making of websites

As you can see from the above, I focused largely on building skills through micro-learning, and rapidly implementing what I learnt.

And even now, in moving from marketing to organisational development (OD) work, I’ve also used short 3 day courses like the FNS SPOT Facilitation Course, and then moved it on to applying rapidly.

Short courses, applied through going for facilitation engagements
Short courses, applied through going for facilitation engagements

Try that.

Ultimately it’s about the relationships

But as I interviewed more and more people, I eventually realised that it wasn’t just about how good you were.

Repeatedly, over the interviews, people spoke about how a previous boss reached out to them for a new role.

Or how others like Chet, always had integrity in her dealings with people, which later opened up more opportunities.

To grow at a job, your relationships matter.

Focus on that, and you’d grow faster.



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