Always Having a Plan B

Some of the best career moves have been the ones that I did not plan for, where random circumstances have opened up doors for opportunities I would never have dreamed possible.
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I recognize that I'm a planner. Just ask my husband, and he will tell you that our weekends are overscheduled and I already have our vacations planned for the next three years. I am also a planner when it comes to my career, as I've always had a "master career plan." And yet, some of the best career moves have been the ones that I did not plan for, where random circumstances have opened up doors for opportunities I would never have dreamed possible.

Almost 20 years ago, I was single and working in Atlanta. My friends were all prepping for the GMAT, and while I had never planned to go to business school, I figured I could take the course (and exam) if all my "running buddies" were going to be busy for the next six weekends anyway. Thus, what started as a very random decision turned into one of the biggest career changes of my life -- attending Wharton business school.

Planning is a good thing. But here are few lessons I've learned along the way:

1. Always have a "Plan B."
Pinning all of your dreams and success on only one course of action does not leave you with a lot of options. I started creating "Plan B's" at a young age, such as, "If I don't win the seventh grade student council election, it will give me more time to try for captain of the basketball team." I have also found that thinking through a "Plan B," or what I would do if my "Plan A" did not work out, allows me to take more risks. I feel more comfortable jumping from a "secure nest" if I always know what I would do if my first decision does not work out.

About three years ago, I left Silicon Valley and one of the largest software firms in the world to join a startup in Utah. Although at the time the company had zero revenue, I whole-heartedly believed in the founder's vision. While this arguably could be conceived as a risky move, I felt comfortable doing it because I crafted my Plan B. I kept up my network in Silicon Valley and took every recruiter call I received to keep those connections warm. I also made sure my husband was on board with the potential of a quick move back to Silicon Valley, if needed. Thankfully, my company has been extremely successful, and I have never needed to exercise my "Plan B" -- but just knowing it was there made me more comfortable.

2. It's "OK" to deviate from your master plan.
If you stick to "Plan A" at all costs, you are going to miss some amazing opportunities. In the mid 1990s, I joined a strategy-consulting firm where I loved the work and planned to become a partner. But I was living in San Francisco and it was the height of the tech craziness. Barely a year into working in strategy consulting, I left to work at a tech startup. That was NOT on my plan. And working somewhere for only one year was never something I thought I would do. But it turned out to be one of the best career moves I ever made. That jump jettisoned my career in tech and the startup community.

3. Don't be afraid to pull the ripcord.
Be brave, be courageous and make big decisions. But don't be afraid to admit a decision was a bad idea and change course. I have learned this lesson the hard way by wasting time in my career on poor decisions that I should have reversed sooner. For example, I once took a position at SAP in a group that ended up miserably failing its mission and working for a terrible boss. I stayed there almost two years, when I should have pushed the eject button earlier. It's OK to make mistakes -- you learn from them. Just be prepared to recognize missteps early and course correct as soon as possible.

I believe in planning and having a master plan. Just don't be afraid to deviate from it, take big risks, and recognize mistakes early. Some of the best decisions are the ones that were not planned.

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