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 While many of these stereotypes have vanished (the corner office has been replaced by cubicles, open space and working from home), it has been hard to abandon this single-minded formula for advancement.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!

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