Career strategy model for the next ten years

Ten years ago I began pursuing an experiment at Microsoft to evangelize a strategic approach to career planning that would take me on journey I never expected.  The hypothesis was simple – mutual success and impact could be optimized when there is a great match between the talent needs of the business and the personal aspirations of employees.  A powerful idea but yet rarely practiced.

The Experiment

The challenge was that many professionals did not know who they really were, where they were going and what they wanted.  Equally, managers often did not outline the current and future talent needs of the business.  I set out to enable that marketplace with the goal of changing lives and inspiring people to bring their whole person to the workplace.

It was a 7-step framework that I authored and used at group workshops, mentoring sessions and speaking events across Microsoft that would help this cause. Helping people find themselves and refine their career path to make the biggest impact both at work and life.  It was the most important contribution I could make and the events at Microsoft are cherished memories.  The experiment and interest had nothing to do with my job.  I was grateful for many leaders that gave me the latitude to pursue this passion.

Five years into this experiment a woman privately shared that I saved her life after hearing me speak at an event.  It was that day on November 10, 2013 that I realized that I would need to continue this unplanned journey into the foreseeable future.

Restarting the Quest

The quest that I outlined in 2014 had been on hold for the last few years. The death of both parents within three weeks, a move from Seattle to Austin, a job change, a divorce and a masters degree in data science.  Life happens and these rich experiences shaped my thinking even more about these 7 connected concepts.

I am now at a great place and inspired to resume the quest to help and connect with 63K people.  It’s special that my first events are connected to UC Berkeley as a mentor to data science students at the School of Information and a panelist for the Austin summer welcome party for those new freshmen headed out to Berkeley.

The draft of the often requested book is getting dusted off and expanded to include recent experiences over these last few years.

We all need a quest in life – something that is unique and special to us.  I found mine through curiosity and going after something big.  I recommend “The Happiness of Pursuit” by Chris Guillebeau for inspiration.

Updated Symbol

The original framework visual was recently reimagined to power the next ten years. The 7 concepts envisioned ten years ago remain pure but now in a connected model.  The person sits at the center with connections to the other concepts.  This updated visual was influenced by data science principles. It’s symbolic of my recent work building a large scale knowledge graph.  Unique knowledge is derived by understanding connected concepts and their interaction.  Deep insight is only possible when we connect all aspects of our life.  Single events may not be able to be explained until we connect them into larger stories.  Daily actions and behaviors are guided by what we know and want.  We are not timid to showing people who we are and what we stand for.

Our Mental Model

The principles of data science can be applied to shape the most important model – our brain.  The mental model of how we perceive and react to the world around us is shaped by our past and biases.  Each day we consume high volumes of data and our brain must make hundreds of decisions that ideally align with the objective function that delivers the outcomes we want to experience in life.  Many people have not built their “learning model” to guide each day and optimize time allocation. Cognitive biases impact quality decision making and we remain in a sub-optimal life.  How the principles of data science can be applied to improve our daily life will be shared in future posts.

The Power of Know

Over the last few years one principle always resurfaced especially during the challenging times – a confident, unwavering view of who you are, your values and what happiness looks like – can help guide critical decisions about our precious time, relationships and goals.  It’s the power of what we “know” in our mind and heart that eases and optimizes the decision process to our next state.


Throughout the years I occasionally would get the question of why I spend time and energy on this.  There are two simple reasons.

First, helping someone to shape their career strategy and see them take steps in a direction with purpose is an amazing gift.  I am often reminded by this when viewing LinkedIn and Facebook posts of people I connected with over the years.  I challenge you to experience this gift – help someone unconditionally with the expectation of nothing in return. You will be rewarded ten-fold.  Remember that most of us needed help breaking into the work force or transitioning into a new job.  Pay it forward or give back.

Second, it gives me an opportunity to reflect and practice these concepts to up my game.  Basically, practicing what I preach.

Call to Action

Time and how we experience a typical day is the most precious resource we have.  It’s finite and we don’t know how much time we have left in the tank.

How are you spending time?  Is it aligned with your top 3 goals?  Do you even have those written down?

Look at the five people you spend the most time with.  Do they have the aspirations and qualities you respect?

Do you need to leave something behind to move in a new direction?

Over these next weeks I will share content from “Know” for those looking to recalibrate their mental model this summer.

Connecting with inspirational people makes my quest possible.  Don’t hesitate to reach out and connect on LinkedIn, Twitter (@MrJamesGray) or my Facebook Page.

Anything is possible – just believe.

Final words that will last a lifetime


Sundays were always the day that I would talk to my Dad on the phone and every weekend is reminder how much I miss his voice and guidance.  He passed away two years ago and I can still vividly remember the last few days we spent together prior to his passing.  My father successfully battled cancer eight different times but I knew this time was different.

We reminisced about old times and the stories he told about his company that stood the test of time for 56 years.  I was always admired his entrepreneurship and competitive spirit.   On that last day I told him stories about the qualities of a father and leader that I always admired:

  • A Competitor – a man that would compete hard at whatever he did whether it was playing tennis, running his business or fighting cancer eight times over 20+ years.
  • A Connector – no matter where we were around town everybody knew him and he made it a point to get to know people. That was just his way of doing business and making people feel special.  He was a celebrity in my eyes.
  • A Giver – a man with a big heart that gave to others unconditionally even when they did not expect it. His funeral only reinforced this by the many people who remarked the special and touching things he did for them.
  • Do it in style – a man who do everything first class with an attention to extreme detail.

My father smiled and laughed as I talked about those qualities but I knew he appreciated hearing those words of how I saw him.

On this last day I asked him about his secrets to business success and he shared the following:

  • I didn’t need to be smart, I just need to have smart people around me”.  My father never went to college but he was a learner and would find out everything possible about something he was interested in.
  • Pay your employees great and look after them“.  He cared for the financial and well-being of his employees which explained the deep loyalty and commitment they had for so many years.
  • Use other people’s money, have great credit“.   Running a profitable business and taking advantage of cash flow and great credit are important during the tough times.
  • Take care of your customers, go out for lunch and get to know their business“.  My father’s business and personal connections were truly remarkable and he invested in developing relationships with a charismatic way.
  • Do it right or don’t do it at all even if it cost you some money“.  There is something to be said about giving it your all no matter what you do in life and doing it right was perhaps his most memorable hallmark.
  • Be a hustler“.  I always remembered him saying you need to work hard and be scrappy to get ahead in life.
  • Don’t screw people“.  Business can be a small world and he spoke about playing by the rules and respecting your competitors.

The afternoon turned into early evening and my Dad was getting tired.  He turned to me and asked if we could call it day.  I thought this may be the last time I would talk with my Dad. The last two days were full of memories and stories but yet there was something I still wanted to hear before I left.

My Dad cherished our relationship and loved me but it was those three simple words I never actually heard him say to me. Over the years I would often say “I love you Dad” in the hopes of making it easy for him to reply with similar words but it never happened.   I knew it was just his upbringing that made it feel awkward for him.   This would be the last opportunity to hear those words.

I turned to my father one last time and said “I love you Dad”. He looked at me and replied, “I love you son”.  I kissed my father on the forehead and said that I would talk to him soon.  I felt emotions of both sorrow and happiness as I left the nursing home. These were the three simple words I was waiting a lifetime to hear.  I cried in the car after hearing those words but I also knew this was probably the last time I would see him alive.

My Dad’s condition accelerated and a few days later he would no longer talk again.  I will always cherish that last day and the stories were shared.  Perhaps it was the lesson I learned on that day that will last a lifetime.

Life is unpredictable and we may lose the chance to tell somebody something important. It’s easier to avoid a challenging conversation, avoid saying you are sorry or putting something big out there when you don’t know how somebody will respond.

Go for it – it may be the greatest thing you ever tell someone.

Know what you need to leave behind

This time of year is a perfect opportunity to reflect on life and identify aspects you want to change in 2016. Over the course of our life and each year we collect fond memories but also baggage that weighs us down from becoming the person we want to be or moving forward with the life we want.  My personal journey and reflection led to the definition of this “Know” principle a few years ago:

Know what you need to leave behind to make room for the new life you envision.

Here are a few dimensions to reflect on and determine what you need to leave behind to move forward:

Failure – All of us have experienced failure and we often hold on to it so tightly.  I remember a job that I did not get that I really wanted and how I spent cycles in my head processing that.  There was nothing I could do to change to the result unless I let it go to focus on the future.  Failures in our relationships can also create heavy burdens on our soul.  Failure is a learning opportunity and once we have captured the nugget for our self-improvement we must let it go otherwise it can consume us.

Guilt – A feeling of guilt may also weigh on our mind and consume valuable time.  As I looked back at my career there were years when jobs required travel all over the world.  I often felt a sense of guilt when I was not there for my family.  It was that reflection that led me to make career changes and leave a job behind.  It was acknowledging this sensation with family members and coming to terms that those times could not be changed.  That enabled me to leave the sense of guilt behind and free myself to looking forward.  I have heard similar stories from people who have gone through the self-introspective principles and questions of the “Know” step during my workshops at Microsoft.

Forgiveness – Think about a time when you hurt or disappointed someone.  One of the most powerful things you can do is to say you are sorry and ask for forgiveness.   This acknowledges the sincerity of your poor choice and the forgiveness received  leaves the baggage on the roadside for everybody.  The courage for us to also proactively forgive can also free grudges we hold onto that may cloud our judgement and consume unproductive energy.  Pain and sorrow can sometimes be hard to leave behind but the emotional weight only slows us down from realizing a happy life.  Is there someone who deserves an overdue apology?

Habit – What are the unconscious and routine behaviors that are negatively impacting your relationships, career success and happiness?  It’s easy for these automated behaviors to go unnoticed by us individually so it’s helpful to be vulnerable and ask others what habits you should leave behind.  These people may be the support you need to be the cues of the habit and breaking it.

Behavior – Is there a behavior you exhibit in particular circumstances that you or someone else have identified that conflicts with your personal brand, expectations of a relationship or achieving success?  What behavior would you leave behind to make room for the behavior you want to develop in 2016?

Previous successful identity – Our co-workers typically see us in a particular light based on past achievements and success.  Our future success may be limited by the mental models of how others perceive us.   In these cases we need to leave a previous identity behind and develop a new one in order to be seen as someone who is capable for new growth or responsibility.  What is your next professional identity?

Current job – Remaining in your current job may be holding you back from achieving greater impact and fulfillment.  I can remember cases where it was my particular manager or organization that did not align with my career strategy or create the best environment for success.  It was in those cases where I need to leave the job behind to grow professionally and realize a sense of accomplishment.

Relationship – Research shows that we are heavily influenced by the people we interact and surround our self with.  Our success and happiness is significantly dependent on these relationships.   Is there a relationship that is holding you back, creating undo conflict or exhibits behaviors that do not align with your values?  It’s never easy saying goodbye but sometimes change is not possible without it.

Time allocation – Inspecting how you spend time each day and over the course of week can be an interesting exercise to determine if it aligns with your priorities.  What meaningless or low impact activities can you leave behind to make room for your 2016 goals?   I recently gave this more thought and determined that occasionally I get onto email or the web to take a break and then get preoccupied with content that ate into my precious time.

This past November I spoke at a Microsoft career development event and later reflected on the slide where I discussed this principle.  As I went down the list above I could think of specific things I could leave behind going into 2016.  They became tangible as I thought about how they consumed time and did not contribute to my life strategy and goals.   Sometimes it’s what we need to leave behind to become a more successful and fulfilled person at home and work.

What are you leaving behind to make room for personal change in 2016?

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