Why Being A Successful Executive Doesn’t Always Mean Sticking to Plan A

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Straying from your 'master plan' could turn out to be the best plan of all. By Heather Zynczak (CMO, Domo)

Like many of you, I’m a planner by nature. My husband would tell you that our weekend schedules are typically organized down to the hour and we know exactly when and where we will be vacationing between now and 2017.

In addition to social plans, I’ve put a lot of effort into creating a “master career plan,” which I think can be a helpful organizational strategy for women at all stages of their professional lives. And yet — some of my best career moves have been the ones that weren’t originally included in that plan of mine.

Random circumstances have opened up doors for opportunities I would have never dreamed possible, and I know that’s been the case for many other successful executives.

Your life can take a turn in an instant and, although I’ve made every effort to control my path, opportunities often appear that you simply can’t ignore. One such time in my life was nearly two decades ago when I was single and working in Atlanta. As all my close friends prepared to take the GMAT (and consequently opened my calendar for the following six weeks), I figured I could spend time studying and taking the exam as well, despite not having any intentions of attending business school.

What started as a random decision to fill the time turned into one of the most impactful career changes of my life — attending the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Attending Wharton wasn’t the first or last time I’ve strayed from my master plan, nor does it always have to take form in such a dramatic way. And although I maintain that having a plan in place is a good thing, here are a few tips when life offers you the chance to step outside of the lines:

1. Always have a Plan B

Pinning all of your hopes and dreams onto a single roadmap does not leave you with a lot of options. From a young age, I created alternate “Plan B’s” such as, “If I don’t win the seventh grade student council election, I’ll have more time to try for captain of the basketball team.” It’s much easier to feel comfortable jumping from a secure nest when you know what your backup plan looks like in case your first decision does not pan out.

For example, a few years ago, I left Silicon Valley and one of the largest software firms in the world to join a startup in Utah. At the time, the company had zero revenue, but I wholeheartedly believed in the founder’s vision and thought my skills could be leveraged to help him reach his goals.

While this could arguably be perceived as a risky move, I felt comfortable because I had crafted a “Plan B.”

A couple of steps I’d suggest following when developing a your own “Plan B” include staying in close contact with your previous network to keep those connections warm, and making sure your family is on board with the possibility of change (for me, it was making sure my husband was open to a quick move back to the Valley, if needed).

Thankfully, the startup I joined grew to be extremely successful and I love my role as CMO and have never needed to exercise my “Plan B” – but knowing it was there calmed any fears I may have had, and is likely to do the same for you.

2. Keep Your Plan B Flexible

If you stick to “Plan A” at all costs, you are bound to miss some incredible opportunities.

A college degree is a good example of this. While you may be dead-set on finding a job in what you studied, the reality is just over one in four college graduates have a job related to their major. I majored in finance but discovered an interest in marketing as I started working. While it can be intimidating to jump into something in which your background is limited, it can help unearth your true passion.

The same applies for needing to live in a big city. You might think New York or Silicon Valley or bust, but innovation has permeated the entire country. I never imagined living in Utah, but I love it.

There are rewarding opportunities to be had everywhere. As much as we all love to think we know what’s best for us, you just have to be willing to stick “Plan A” in your back pocket on occasion.

3. Don’t Be Afraid to Change Course

Be brave, be courageous and make bold decisions. But if one of those decisions turns out to be a bad idea, don’t be hesitant to recognize it and make a change.

I learned this lesson the hard way (more than once) by wasting time in my career on poor choices that I should have reversed sooner – a problem that is all too common in today’s fast moving job market. For example, I once took a position at SAP in a group that wasn’t able to complete its mission, working for a terrible boss. I stayed in that position, unhappy, for nearly two years, when I should have pushed the eject button sooner.

It’s OK to make mistakes as long as you learn from them. Be prepared to recognize missteps early and course correct as soon as possible, and never stay working for a company just because you’re afraid leaving would disrupt the carefully laid plans you’ve made for yourself.

It’s wise to plan things out and having a vision for your career, but once you’ve created that “master plan” don’t be afraid to deviate from it, take big risks and learn from your mistakes. Some of the best decisions are the ones that are not planned.

What's the best 'mistake' you've made in business?

Photo credi: mrcmos via Shutterstock.


About the guest blogger: As chief marketing officer at Domo, Heather Zynczak brings a data-driven focus to Domo's marketing machine. Her 20+ year career has focused on bringing value to business through technology. Heather has held executive positions at some of the world's largest enterprise technology companies, including SAP and Oracle. She has also led teams at several Silicon Valley startups and served for a number of years as a business consultant for top firms, including Accenture, The Boston Consulting Group, and Booz Allen Hamilton.