Friday, April 17, 2009

The New Career Playbook

Forget five year plans. The mindset for today’s challenging marketplace should be opportunistic. Stop assessing job opportunities for how they leverage a career for the long-term and do a complete 180. A recessionary market requires a re-thinking of your career gameplan. The first step is letting go of old job search and success maxims.

Old school thinking was rooted in the notion that each job should advance you up the career ladder using measures such as title, salary, office location, etc. as evidence that you were succeeding. While many of these stereotypes have vanished (the corner office has been replaced by cubicles, open space and working from home), it has been hard to abandon this single-minded formula for advancement. Letting go of this metaphor is challenging and requires each job seeker to re-invent his/her career playbook.

We have observed that people often hold mental models that create barriers in their search for work. For the 2009 playbook, work needs to be thought of in a variety of configurations, for example, taking on a short-term project even though you are looking for a full-time job. Another common barrier is the way in which we think about our network. We just heard about a job-seeker who got her next gig through a parent at her son’s day care center--hardly considered the networking locale plus ultra. Checking your thinking for no-longer-valid assumptions can yield windows of opportunity; reframing what you have, from skills to contacts, can greatly broaden your possibilities.

The best job search strategy for the current environment is to optimize the work that you uncover instead of looking for the optimal work. This means assessing opportunities in ways broader than upward mobility or in a raise in salary. Instead, recognize that hidden benefits such as a platform from which to build reputation, a new skill set, or a more diverse employment sector history are also valuable. Success in today’s workplace requires a much more flexible approach and a removal of self-imposed barriers. It means openness to temporarily move down or sideways and even willingness to sacrifice compensation in the short-term.

The past 30 years have seen the erosion of the lock-step sequences that traditionally characterized careers. People no longer stay with one employer or even within one career field. Additionally, individuals move in and out of employment and self-employment, they work remotely or on-site. This a la carte approach to assembling a career requires a lot of work-related choices, and the alternatives may not be obvious. Careers today have many iterations: they are idiosyncratic and often non-sequential, requiring each careerist to chart his or her own way. Many people find this a burden; they find the lack of structure unnerving. But while this ambiguity can be disconcerting, it can also mean opportunity. Realizing this opportunity, however, is a challenge.

One of the best strategies for this brave new world of work is to make a conscious commitment to thinking counter-intuitively. While the pressure of joblessness predisposes us to be protective of our professional identity, it is actually a posture of openness that you should assume at this time. This translates into exploration of new venues outside your area of expertise and will result in a ramped up sense of opportunity that engenders curiosity and creative problem solving.

Be the kind of person who offers to help---in any way. Be the source of solutions, recommendations and plain old labor. Roll up your sleeves and show what you can do. This is not the context in which one wants to be viewed as a prima donna. Everyone is stressed about their work and their workplace: high maintenance behavior is not high on anyone’s list of preferred workplace qualities.

Investing sweat equity may be an effective tactic for today’s marketplace. Rolling up your sleeves on an un-paid basis during difficult times will showcase your talents and will position you to be among the first hired when things turn around. Of course, there is financial pressure, but consider separating work for pay (bartending?) from gaining experience, exposure and credentials.

Connect with people you haven’t seen in a while (say, someone from 2 or three jobs ago.) Those folks may remember you as a person with a particular talent or expertise that you hadn’t exercised recently. Everyone beyond your daily network brings additional lenses and the perspective to surface abilities and patterns you may not have spotted. The more people who hear your story, the greater the likelihood that they will see things in your background that you had not focused on. You also play a key role in helping people understand you in new ways. Be sure to include volunteer and community experience in presenting yourself and don’t be shy about sharing your passion for a new language you are learning, eating “locally grown” or all things written by Tom Friedman!

Once having taken this new approach, the challenge for every careerist is to connect the dots. And, once you do, you will also need to help others see the new picture. This is hard work, and you may want to get some outside assistance (colleague, friend or career professional) about what you can contribute and how to talk about it. But it is worth the effort: understanding and communicating what you bring to the party beyond the obvious is essential to expanding your options in a challenging marketplace.

The good news is that the opportunity cost for trying something non-traditional is currently low. If you ever needed “permission” to follow a less-than-obvious path in your career, the time is now. What may have been viewed as a downside--tangential, not a sure thing--is now an opportunity to show your stuff. This might just be the time to try something you’ve always been curious about. The cost of risk-taking was just marked down!

Thursday, April 16, 2009


Just because lay-offs are now commonplace, doesn't mean we've gotten better at delivering the bad news. Case in point: today's headlines include a story about a nurse who was called out of surgery to receive the news of her lay-off from her manager. Compounding the situation was the response of the health care system who laid her off: they described outrage at the manager's decision to remove the nurse from the operating room because it violated protocols for OR staffing.

Lay-offs may well be the most painful part of a manager's job. At least, when employees are fired for cause, we assume that that action was preceded by an appropriate performance management effort. Lay-offs feel undeserved and disconnected from employee contributions. This elicits both guilt and anxiety (I may be next) in the manager forced to deliver the news.

Hirsch/Hills advice: you can't change bad news to good news, but you must deliver bad news in a respectful way. Recognize that your anxiety about the situation may cause you to be flustered and less than articulate in communicating your message. The key to overcoming this is preparation. Know exactly what you are going to say (and not say) and stick to the script. Be direct and avoid convoluted explanations. Make sure you are clear on the details and parameters and have thought through potential questions related to the decision. And pay attention to the setting and timing: delivering the news in private and at a time that permits the employee to collect him/herself before appearing in public again will reflect that you have given this careful thought.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Words of Wisdom

Just as form follows function, language crystallizes and supports trends. A couple of new language ideas we are using:

MISNO---money is no object

Pretirement---the career/life stage that precedes retirement

Congreenience---the next phase of the green movement, where it morphs from a sacrificial, serious-minded commitment to the environment to a consumer-friendly, easy-to-integrate approach to daily living.

We'd love to hear your latest terminology.

BYOB (Bring Your Own Blog)

Why blogs? Why Tweets? Just as everyone was bemoaning the proliferation of e-mail ("I get 764 new e-mails a day...") new kids on the communication block have bullied us into even further info-overload. Remember TMI? We think its become NEI (Never Enough Information.) Unless we prove we exist by providing all the data points, perhaps we don't.
Maybe it's a “permission” thing: blogs and tweets offer the same massive quantity of masturbatory information about me as an e-mail Christmans letter, but the audience has to decide to opt in (vs having it presented to you w/o permission.) Or are thes new media really just You Tube, verbal-style. In an age of omnipresent cameras and records of our lives, can we REALLY exist if we are not “on record”? Is this why kids record beatings of other kids? Why robbers record their derring-do? Or, are blogs the ‘reality tv of actual lives’? No longer journals, written at day’s end, by necessity omitting many of the details of real-time reporting, but a blow-by-blow, you-are-there record of a life.
Interesting trend: first, we emerged from our homes to ‘live’ in coffee shops. We opt to access wi-fi in public places (even tho' we could communicate just as easily from home) and hang out in locations where we can be with (and be viewed by) others. Now, we are bringing our lives to others via new technologies…sharing the details of our existence through tweets and blogs. Maybe we're claiming our share of cyberspace. Like a gold rush (remember the frantic grab for web names? If you do, poke us.

Coaches: our new BFFs?

Once rarely spotted outside of athletics, we now see coaches everywhere. From "life coaches" to "diet coaches" to "executive coaches," it now seems that, if you coach it, they will come. Where did this wave of desire for coaching come from?
Maybe coaching just feels fills the human need for inspiration, communication, mitigation, authorization, confirmation and other elements that may be missing in our daily lives. In today's busy world, simply having someone devote their full attention to you is certainly seductive! But coaching is no magic wand. Unless you are prepared to put in considerable effort on your own behalf, the best coach in the world is not going to make your desired ends come about. If it's partnership you're seeking, "renting" a professional partner can be a great investment. Assuming you fully vet your choice of coach, you can be assured of there being only one variable in your equation: you.
But we think there's also value in the giving-it-the-old-college-try, good old do-it-yourself mode. (Wasn't it only yesterday that ‘just do it’ was the homile du jour?) In spite of Jean Baker Miller's self-in-relation theory, the emphasis on being a team player, citizen of the world and social networker, a little autonomy still can take you a long way. Let's not throw this self-starting baby out with the bath water.
The radical part of us wonders if, in its worst iterations, coaching simply panders to our immature desires for easy gratification. When that is the case, coaching becomes the adult version of the three year old in all of us on the playground shouting into the wind “Mommy, watch me!”

Transparency: an antidote to uncertainty…

One of the most stressful aspects of this climate is the uncertainty. People have enormous discomfort with ambiguity and will make every effort to better understand their circumstances. As a leader, you should be hyper-aware that all eyes are on you. In their efforts to read the tea leaves, employees are watching and analyzing your every move. The next time you close the door to your office, show up in a suit, or take an extra long lunch, expect a flurry of speculation.

Advice: over-communicate. Share information readily; tell people what you know and what you don’t know. Be honest, don’t hedge. The more transparent you are, the more credible you’ll be. In times of rapid change, credibility is invaluable.