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Why a career map is important for women

Kathryn Bishop CBE, Director, Author, Teacher, Consultant

Regardless of the stage in your career at which you find yourself, it’s useful to consider your goals and the steps you will need to take in order to reach them. Whether you are navigating change or juggling external commitments, a career map will always prove a helpful tool.

Today I’m joined by Kathryn Bishop CBE, an associate fellow at Said Business School at the University of Oxford. She was the first chair of the Welsh Revenue Authority, and in 2021 was awarded a CBE for services to diversity and public administration. Kathryn also authored the book, ‘Make Your Own Map: Career Success Strategy for Women‘.


1. Could you please tell our listeners a little bit about yourself and your career and what it is that you do?


(1:25) Over the last thirty-something years, I’ve spent time both in the private sector and the public sector always working in organisations, working with leaders who are trying to get stuff done.

Currently, I combine teaching at the business school at the University of Oxford with trying to put my teaching into practice in the organisations that I work with, in both paid roles and voluntary roles. I teach at the business school. I’m chair of Britain’s newest tax authority, as you said, and my work currently particularly focuses on education. I’m interested in the development of people at every age from childhood, nursery age children to executives.

As part of that, I’m also particularly interested in women’s development. I program, direct, and have designed business schools to leadership programs for women. But having said that, what we’re going to talk about today, I think, is particularly relevant to women but also relevant to men.

2. Could you define for us what you mean by career mapping and what that involves?


(2:43) I don’t think anyone thinks of careers as a ladder anymore. Nobody has the idea that we’re going to move steadily and regularly up from the lowest rung to the highest. Our working lives are just not like that. These days we change ladders, maybe even move down wrong for a while. And so, actually, the image of a landscape is more useful. We have to navigate through that landscape, dealing with obstacles to get where we want to go. So, the idea of drawing your own map is the image that comes from that.

Finding your own route, given your interests and what you want to do is key, and drawing yourself a map of how to get there is actually a vital skill, which you’ll use over and over again as working lives change. For each of us, I think our careers are important, but we don’t want to find ourselves careering out of control from one unsatisfactory job to another. So, this idea of mapping, of navigating, of plotting your route, is at the heart of the way we talk about managing your own working life.

3. For some time now, you’ve worked with organisations to guide them through change, and you’re now discussing similar ideas and supporting individuals also undergoing change within the workplace. Was there anything in particular that motivated you in this shift in perspective, and what are the similar core principles between organisations and people?


(4:23) Some years ago, about ten years ago, I was sitting in a lecture theatre with a colleague of mine who is a brilliant strategy professor. We were working with the board of a global organisation, helping them formulate their strategy in markets that were rapidly changing and given some new things that they wanted to do. At one point, in the middle of these very detailed discussions, he turned to the group and said, “Oh, by the way, do you have a strategy for you? Because if you don’t, you should.” And for me, that was a lightbulb moment. All the tools that organisations use to help them navigate through changing markets are also useful for us as individuals as we navigate through the working world. In the subsequent ten years, I’ve experimented with these ideas, tested them, and found ways of using organisational strategy models to help each of us as individuals make our own map.

4. Why is a career map especially important for women?


(5:33) Well, I think it’s important for everyone to be able to have a sense of where they’re trying to get to and what might the possible routes be. Knowing where you’re aiming for and what success means to you is a useful definition for us all, but it’s particularly relevant for women because women’s working lives are often subject to unplanned, uncontrollable, and sudden changes. This is because of the many roles they play at work and outside; the variety of responsibilities they might have at home for young children or elderly relatives or in the community.

So, they need to use their navigational skills quite regularly. Their lives go through visibly different phases: single or married, with children or without, with family caring responsibilities or not. Now, of course, men’s lives go through those different phases too, but the evidence suggests the effects on their working lives are less pronounced. They are a little more controllable.

5. What are the positive changes that you’ve seen when it comes to women mapping their careers now as opposed to 20 or 30 years ago?


(6:58) I think some of the changes we’ve seen in the working world have helped everybody. We now know that careers don’t have to be full-time for 40 years. You don’t have to stay at the same firm from day one until you get your pension. It seems much more acceptable, indeed even useful to move around from organisation to organisation or from sector to sector.

In that context, it’s very useful if we can all develop ways of mapping our working lives. But for women, in particular, the sense that women’s lives move through phases has really helped open up a range of options. It’s easier now to come back to work after a break or to negotiate a part-time role for a while. It’s more acceptable in the gig economy to have more than one role running at any one time. We might even take a pay cut and allow us to move into a different sector or geography for a while, knowing that we’ll develop new skills that will pay off later. Over the last 20 years, the sense of a variety of working lives has really opened up a number of options for us, which I think 40 years ago would have been seen as very, very unusual.

6. We’re obviously talking about change today, and one of the biggest changes that have happened to all of us over the past couple of years has been the pandemic. How has the pandemic affected the way in which people think about their career paths?


(8:34) The remote working changes we have seen over the last two years and actually the current experiments with four-day working weeks that some organisations are starting to do. I think it will open up many, many more opportunities to do different work in different places and at different times.

I think there are going to be more choices, and that makes it all the more important that we make the right choices. I think the last two years have also shown many of us how important it is to find useful work, work that has meaning for us. That might be work that provides more learning opportunities, maybe makes some more visible contributions to the community or the world, or something that just matters more to each of us. There is a pronounced sense at the moment that since I’m going to spend so many hours a week doing my job, it’s important that it has meaning for me, and the compensations of interesting colleagues and office coffee aren’t enough if my job feels dull and meaningless. So, that combination of increased choice together with increased emphasis on a sense of meaning and importance, I think has really focused people’s minds on the importance of planning and strategising of their working lives.

7. As you described, some people realise what’s important to them and that might involve a change in career paths, perhaps getting some kind of another big step within their career. What are the important things for people to consider who are contemplating a change in their career, especially for those listeners of ours who might need a confidence boost?


(10:33) When you’re contemplating making a change, you’re doing exactly what organisations do when they plan a new product launch or plan to move into a new market and so many of the tools and ideas that they use to think about their strategy for doing that, you can also apply to yourself.

Specifically, firstly, recognise the resources you have. Recognise what you’ve already done, experienced, coped with, and especially over the last two years. Strategy often starts with a clear-eye view of what you can currently do, what your current skills are. And many of us, frankly, underestimate the number of things we could do or indeed have done.

So, one of the things I recommend at the outset is just to draw yourself a journey map, remind yourself of everything that you’ve done. Typically, when people do that exercise, they find that there are things they haven’t captured on their CVs.

Secondly, think about your work for the whole of your life. What phase are you in life? Is your work the most important thing right now? Or is it part of a busy life with many responsibilities outside? Whatever that may be. Because when you’re thinking about strategising for your working life, you got to fit it into the context for you as a person.

And then, thirdly, if you’re contemplating making a change, think about the different ways you could make that transition. You could move to a completely new job in a completely different sector in a single bound. But it might be hard to get a job for which you have no previous experience and it might certainly be very demanding in the first few weeks and months of doing it.

If you don’t want to take that kind of risk in making a change, think about making some interim steps. For example, how might you use your existing skills in a new sector? Let’s say analysis skills gained in a financial services company might be used in a market research business, for example. Or, alternatively, look at it the other way around. Consider how you might take a different role inside your existing organisation where you know people and you are yourself known.

You might find you have time to develop a new set of skills, which you might later use in making a change. When organisations contemplate different growth paths, they use what we call the ‘Ansoff Matrix’ to look at various options, and it’s a particularly useful model for individuals thinking about how to make a transition in their own working lives.

8. We have quite a broad listenership on the Careers Advice podcast. How would the process of career mapping differ for somebody who’s just starting out in the world of work compared to someone who is in the late stages of their career, for example?


(13:46) In essence, the process of strategising for your career is the same at whatever stage you are at. If you are currently in your first or second job, you will have developed some resources and some experience and that’s where strategy starts. It’s one of the three elements that all good strategy for any kind of organisation, and for any of us at any stage in our career must contain resources. What have you got to work with? What do you know? What have you experienced?

Secondly, opportunity. What are the opportunities for you currently in your existing organisation or your existing sector, or the place in the world where you live? Balancing the internal focus on resources, the stuff that you know and can do, with the external focus on what the opportunities might be, is a very important dimension. But there is a third dimension, and this comes back to the point I was making about meaning.

The third dimension of good strategy is about purpose. What purpose does the organisation serve? What purpose do you yourself serve? And even in an early stage in your career, you can start to identify some things that are important and meaningful to you. Your sense of purpose might shift a little bit as your life progresses, but it’s unlikely to turn into something completely different. You’ll be able to identify the things that really matter to you at any stage of your career.

9. I imagine an important part of growing your career is networking. I’m just keen to gather what your opinions are on networking and then to what extent is this a useful experience when mapping out one’s career and why is it different for women as well?


(15:51) I think networking is useful for everyone because one of the three key elements of the strategy is to keep an eye on the opportunities that are available to you. Learning from others, connecting with others inside your organisation or outside can be a very useful source of insight. It’s important for us all to keep our eyes lifted to see what’s out there.

Get data, get different views. So, those network connections can be a source of insight, a source of advice but they can also be a source of access. There is some research that suggests that men and women use their networks differently. Women often use their networks for advice and perhaps less frequently for access, finding out about new opportunities that may suddenly be arising. Neither of those is right or wrong, it’s just useful for us all to remember that a good network can give you both advice and access. So, decide which you want.

Two final points on networking. Firstly, it can be very useful to develop almost your own board of directors. A group of people with whom you are very close– someone who has more experience than you do in the field in which you work. Someone who’s really good at coaching and asking questions. Perhaps somebody who serves as a mentor or a sponsor. Somebody who can both challenge you and support you, and actually, that small close network can be very useful.

But of course, networks really work well when you give as well as receive. And in building your own network, don’t forget that you yourself have something to offer to others. That way, you build strong and useful connections that will help both you and the people in your network.

10. If you had one piece of advice to help our listeners navigate their careers throughout the pandemic and beyond, what would that be?

(18:19) I think I would sum up the key things in being able to map your own working life with the following short phrase: Know yourself and connect with others. Know what you’re good at, what you like doing, what you’re aiming for and keep scanning the working world because there are many opportunities out there, particularly now, which you may not know about, but which someone in your network probably does. So, know yourself and connect with others.



Kathryn Bishop CBE combines teaching at Oxford’s Saïd Business School, with the practical experience of leadership roles in the public and voluntary sectors.

She is currently the Chairman of Welsh Revenue Authority, Britain’s newest tax authority, and was awarded a CBE in June 2021 for services to diversity and public administration.

She has spent the last decade working to help individuals – both men and women – build successful working lives, and has poured everything she last learnt into her new book, Make Your Own Map.  The book focuses on women’s working lives, but contains useful insights for everyone.



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