choices

We’re asking the wrong question

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Early career planning

Did anyone ever ask you that?  Certainly, when you were a child.  Maybe even last week.  The problem is, when we ask the question that way — “what do you want to be?”– we are forcing a choice defined by title only.

As children and adults alike, we are generally very limited in our knowledge of all the roles available to us.  So, we pick from those of which we are already aware: teacher, computer programmer, accountant, firefighter.  Our interest in them is generally based on what we can see from the outside.  The superficial.  Perceived status, financial reward, glamour and more.  Unfortunately, these things do not guarantee happiness in our work.

When we work, we are in the act of doing.  When we are doing something we enjoy, it can be quite delightful.  When we do something we are good at and we enjoy?  That’s a recipe for success.  On the other hand, I know plenty of attorneys who invested a lot years and a lot of dollars preparing for a career with a certain title, only to find that they don’t enjoy actually doing the work.  What would they be doing now and how satisfied would they be if they had instead focused on what they liked to do?

Titles come and go.  Twenty years ago, there was no such thing as a Search Engine Optimization Specialist.  But there were plenty of Secretaries.  By tying ourselves too closely to one title, we can spend years preparing ourselves for a role that is becoming obsolete, or entirely miss another role that could have been a perfect fit.

By focusing on what we like to do, it leads to exposure to other things we’ll like too, and if we are constantly pushing forward, we can end up with quite a portfolio of skills and knowledge which enable us to make a living doing what we enjoy.

So, the next time you’re talking to a child about their career interests, don’t ask them “what do you want to be when you grow up?” Ask them, “what do you like to do?” And, as you’re thinking about your next career step, ask yourself the same question.

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Change is good

Yes, I’ve changed the appearance of this blog.  Once again.  What can I say?   I like change.   At least, change that I’ve initiated. 

Sound familiar?  Yes, over the past few years many of us have been through change that was not in our plan.   Our paradigm was shifted for us.  Our cheese was moved.  A natural response can be to hunker down and resist any further change.  However, this does not carry us forward. 

Rather, we can use the energy released by the initial change and channel it into further changes – changes we steer into taking us down the path we wish to go.  The vaccuum created by the loss of one thing is an opportunity for something else to rush in and fill it.  We can influence that process.  We do not have to be victims, sitting idly by. Instead we can take a moment, think about what we are really striving for and then take specific, productive action to fill the gaps. 

Change can give us a fresh perspective and help us to actually think differently.  The next time you want to think differently, change something – your environment, your schedule, your actions.   That’s what I did.  And I hope you like it!

Before you get on LinkedIn…

If you are completely new to LinkedIn, we must start at the beginning.  No, not with registering and creating a profile.  That is step two and three.   Creating an effective online presence starts before you actually get online. 

“Ohhh!  I just want to get started!”  I can hear you muttering at your screen.

I understand, but trust me when I say it will be well worth your while. 

First, when you create your profile, you will want to have certain information at your fingertips: past employers, titles, dates and education details at the very least.   If you have a resume, then you should have this information in one convenient place.  If you don’t, then pull the information together to have at your fingertips.  This is the easy part. 

Now for the harder part.  You need to understand that while your LinkedIn profile is informational, it is also a marketing piece.  And, like any good marketing piece, it must have a specific message about a well defined product with a specific target audience.   You are the product, of course.  To write compellingly about your product, you need to define a few things:

  • How would you want others to describe you professionally?  I don’t mean “he’s so nice” or “she’s a great gal”, but “she’s a great corporate finance gal with tons of M&A experience” or “he’s a real estate guy with amazing market knowledge”  (If you don’t think they would describe you that way now – you have some things to work on, but that is another post.)
  • What are you best at in your job?  What do you do better than others in your same role?
  • What achievements or experience are you most proud of?
  • What are the skills and competencies you most enjoy using?
  • Is there anything unique about your background that gives you an “edge” in the market?  

The skills and knowledge and competencies you identify here are those you will be using as you create your profile.  You are beginning to define your brand.  Doing this helps you really focus your content on that which is most relevant and helps distinguish you from your competition.  Without it, people often end up with the overexhaustive and boring “autobiography” of their professional life, or the completely generic, and therefore useless, list of job duties. 

If you’re going to do it right, do the “internal” work described here first.  The next step is registering and I’ll cover that in the next post.

Want to know your brand?

Maybe you’re not yet sold on the idea that you have a “brand” and that you need to manage it.  Maybe you are.  Either way, the following exercise may be useful or insightful, or both:

1) Pick a “document” that purports to tell people about the professional you:  a resume, a bio, an online profile (on LinkedIn, say…)

2) Go to an online word cloud tool (try www.wordle.net or google word cloud tool to find a similar tool)

3) Either cut and paste your selected text into the tool, or, point it toward your url

4) Let the tool create a word cloud for you

Now, the words that are the largest font size are the words that show up most frequently in your document.  The words that are the smallest show up the least frequently.  The tools are typically smart enough to filter out “the” and “a”. 

So, what are the 5 – 8 largest words in your word cloud?  Are these the “loudest” messages you want your audience to hear?  Because these are the “loudest” messages you’re sending.  At least in that particular document.    You could compare across documents to see how consistent your messages are.   

Try it.  Cool tools.  Easy to use.  Good food for thought.  Perhaps this exercise will inspire some serious thought about career direction and development.  Or perhaps just a serious re-write.

To degree or not to degree

Help Wanted: Degree required. 

Seen this lately?  If you’re seeking a job, I’m sure you have.  And in the not too distant past, if you were my client, I would have advised you: “Don’t let that stop you from applying.”  Because I knew, firsthand and through much observation, that due to the war for talent, companies often ignored their own guidelines.   Now, however, the tide has turned.  Companies are sticking by their guidelines much more closely.  Why?  Because they can.  

So, what does this mean for you as a job seeker?  First and foremost, it means that if the kind of jobs you are interested in consistently require a degree, if you already have some college hours under your belt and have any means at all to go back to school, run, do not walk, to the college of your choice and complete your degree as soon as possible.  If you have taken no college classes, this is a bigger decision, but still one you should very seriously consider. 

Take night classes?  Yes.  Miss out on family events?  Yes.   Strain your brain studying again?  Yes.  Why?  Because the (seasonally adjusted) unemployment rate for people over age 25 with a Bachelor’s degree or higher is currently 4.4%.  Do you hear me??  4.4%!  For people over age 25 with some college or an Associate’s degree, it is 9.1%.  That is still below the national average, but significantly higher than 4.4%.  Which odds would you like to have in your favor?  And if the national average is 9.6%, what do you think the rates are for high school graduates with no college, and those who did not complete high school? 10.0% and 15.4% respectively.  (All information here is based on the September 2010 Employment Situation report and supporting tables available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics at www.bls.gov). 

This is the reality of the world today.  People who have been displaced from jobs they were successful in for 20 years or more are now not able to land those same exact jobs – because they lack a degree!  Do I agree with this?  NO.  Employers have become lazy and begun inserting “Bachelor’s degree required” as shorthand for “needs to be able to write a paragraph that actually means something and isn’t full of errors” or “needs to be able to use logic and sound decision-making skills to solve problems”.  If only having a degree meant that!   Sadly, it often doesn’t.  But that is a topic for another post.  

As a side note, I urge employers to say what they really mean in job postings and go back to using the phrase, “degree or equivalent experience”.  But, back to my primary message, I will again, urge you – if you have not finished your degree but have ever wanted to – do it.  Make the time.  Find the money.  Seek grants, scholarships and loans if needed.  Pick a decent, reasonably-priced school and go.  It truly is an investment in your future and the future starts now.

From hobby to career

Many people are considering a major career change these days. Some by necessity, others driven by factors such as wanting a “retirement” career, wanting to balance child or parent care, or just a desperate wanting to get out of a career that is sucking the life out of them. Fearful souls will ask them “Why would you do this now? Look at the economy! Look at the job market!”

If you have a hobby that you would like to potentially make a career, do not let these nervous nellies dissuade you. Now, that does not mean leap before you look! There are many factors you must consider objectively to determine whether you are ready. But let me tell you about a woman I know — we’ll call her “Sue”:

Sue had worked for many years in a technical field, in a large corporation. Overall, she enjoyed her work. But she also enjoyed creative projects – primarily sewing and jewelry making. She did it for fun, but she worked hard at learning, constantly growing her skills because she enjoyed it so much. She sewed for friends and family and even did a few projects for pay over the years and recently began selling her jewelry at craft shows.  She really wanted to pursue her passion, and find a job using her creative skills but because she didn’t have any “real” experience in it, she thought no one would hire her. What she did have is creative skill and knowledge, people skills, passion, a steady work history and strong work ethic. After focusing on these key selling points, we re-packaged her resume and verbal messages. She began realizing it was possible. She got energized and began presenting herself to target companies. Four days later, she called me to say she had already received interview opportunities!  

Would she start at the top? Could she walk in at the same salary she had before? No.  But she had arranged things in her life so that she was able to take this step back to do what she loved. These may not be the “right” opportunities ultimately; that will depend on many factors.  But it proved to her that the experience she gained in her hobby is worth something in the employment market. 

If you are considering making a career of your hobby, you have to ask yourself a number of questions including:

  • whether your skills in this area are sufficient (sometimes we love doing something but we’re not very good at it)
  • if you have a financial situation or can adjust it so that you can take a step back in pay in the short term (or longer, depending on where you are coming from and going to)
  • if this is really something you want to do as a career (or will it lose it’s luster when it is no longer a ‘choice’?)

If the answers to these questions are “Yes”, go ahead and at least explore.  It seems ironic, but now can be a good time to change careers even though there is a glut of “talent” in the market.  Yes, some companies are looking for only people with deep experience in the particular field or industry, but many companies are frustrated with the same, tired talent they’ve been seeing – with great experience but no passion.  And that is regardless of age.  They don’t want a bored 25 year old any more than they do a bored 52 year old. 

I talk with hiring managers in companies regularly who understand there are a lot  of people looking for new directions, who have some related skills and knowledge if not the formal experience,  who are open and flexible.   They are interested in these people if they have the most important factor – an authentic interest that they can articulate and which is backed up by their actions.  More than ever, companies are not just looking for a body.  They are  looking for someone who will make a difference.

Liz Dolan’s modern career

A number of years ago, I read an article in Fast Company (one of my very favorite magazines). It was about balance, that elusive devil. Liz Dolan had written an essay, reflecting on the all consuming nature of her job at Nike, as Vice President of Global Marketing, and how she had come to the decision to leave it. “Instead of having one big job, I now divide my work time into thirds: business consulting, public service, and creative projects,” she wrote at the time. One of those creative projects was the development of a talk-radio program. I had never heard of Liz Dolan at the time, but within a few years I had come to know very well who she was. That talk radio program turned out to be the Satellite Sisters, which became an award-winning show and led to exposure through the Oprah Winfrey media empire.

She made a difficult decision, and took a risk, jumping off the traditional career track. But she had a clear idea of why it was worth it to her at the time. And it seems to have paid very good dividends. She got to limit her clients as a consultant to a level she felt allowed her balance, she got to work with her sisters on an exciting creative venture that turned out to be one of the most successful radio talk shows for women and, just one year ago, she was offered an opportunity to go back into a more traditional corporate role – a Chief Marketing Officer position. She took it. Where? OWN – the Oprah Winfrey Network. Why? I don’t know and would love to ask her. But there is no doubt that this opportunity showed up on her path because she was willing to take a risk and do something different than what was expected, rather than in spite of that. In seeking balance, I think she found much more.

This path – traditional corporate to entrepreneurial, creative back to traditional – is an illustration of the modern career. Few of us, from Gen X on, will experience the lifetime employment with one company that our parents and grandparents experienced. And that has the potential to be a really good thing. (For me personally, it’s a huge relief – I can hardly imagine anything more dreadful). But how good or how bad it will be for each of us has to do with how actively we are willing to drive and direct our transitions. As long as we are driving that bus ourselves, not sitting in the backseat, just along for the ride, we can create a challenging and rewarding career.

Is Fear Driving You?

What is driving your career choices right now? I know a lot of people for whom fear is the driving factor. It’s understandable, given the current headlines. Record unemployment rates since the Great Depression! Recession proof your job!  they scream.  These headlines are designed to excite our interest and they do.  But at what cost?

I talk to a lot of people about their careers, and I’ve seen an interesting dichotomy crop up over the past year or so.  On one hand, I see people staying in jobs they are unhappy with, their commitment and their skills getting duller and duller with each passing day, because they are too afraid to raise their head above the ground.  Hunkering down in their cubicle like the proverbial foxhole, they stay out of the line of fire.  They also stay out of the line of opportunity.  They don’t learn; they don’t grow. 

I once worked with someone who had done this for several years only later to realize how much he had stunted his career.

“I don’t have six years of experience,” he exclaimed bitterly. “I have one year of experience six times.”

On the other hand, I frequently see people intentionally running in the opposite direction from an industry they love because they want “something more stable”.   Unfortunately, their definition of stable often means “anything other that what I already know.”  They leave so much accumulated knowledge at the door, and end up in a situation that can offer them no more security than they had to begin with.  It’s sad.

Both of these situations describe overreactions based on fear.

Sometimes, however, fear is a rational reaction.  If you are in a rapidly declining industry, in a role that relies on growth (sales, for example), with no room built into your personal financial situation for a down quarter-or year-you may have reason to fear.   For those who have lost their jobs, the effects of the current unemployment picture in the U.S. are very real.  The length of time on average that it takes to land a new role has risen to around six months.   For some, this can be devastating, financially and otherwise.  

The fact is, though, that even in this time of economic crisis-turned-ennui, most of us will not lose our jobs.  We will continue getting paid to use our talents, whatever they may be.  Just like making smart financial investments, we need to make smart professional investments.  We need to have long-term goals and constantly be taking small steps toward those goals.  Will we have mis-steps sometimes?  Sure.  But we won’t be too far off track, if we have been mindful.

If fear can help you in one way, let it be this: to motivate you to ask yourself “Where do I want to go in my career and what am I doing to get myself there?” 

Define that future, then lay a brick each day.  Build your own path.