In the old days there was a corporate ladder. You started out in a company as an entry-level employee and they taught you the business. Over time you got promoted for your hard work and abilities. Where is that world now? My dad started his career at McGraw-Hill Publishing. He took early retirement from the same company thirty-five years later. It is almost unheard of for a person to stay that long in one company today, moving up through the ranks. The corporate ladder has turned to sawdust. The average tenure of an executive hovers around three years. How can you build a career on such shaky ground?
We are in the middle of tumultuous change in the workplace. The tectonic plates started shifting in the nineteen-eighties, and the pace of change has only accelerated since then.
These days it is hard to say what 'employment' even means. You can be hired on as a contractor and sit alongside full-time, long-term employees or even supervise them. It's a new day in the talent marketplace. Longevity on one job was a virtue for decades, and now it's somewhere between neutral and negative. The muscles that serve us best now are flexibility, an ear to the ground and the ability to talk not about your Skills but about your experience solving meaty, expensive problems.
People who can roll with constant changes are more suited to this new ecosystem than "Tell me what to do and I'll do it!" folks who thrived in the old world of work.
What does it mean to get ahead in your career, when there's no corporate ladder to climb? How do we define career advancement in the new millennium?
I met a fellow at a conference, a good-natured guy with an easy laugh.
"I was a divisional IT Director and then they promoted me to run internal software development for the entire company," he said. "I had a great time but I thought it was a fragile position. It's too easy to outsource IT these days. When I saw an opening to head up a software implementation in the Middle East, I grabbed it." "Wow," I said. "That's out of the box. Who did you report to in that role?" "On paper, the regional CIO," said my conference-mate, "but I met that guy once. I really reported to a consultant who was working for the country manager. On the organizational chart I stepped down two levels, but I got the international experience I'd never had and the project was a lot of fun.
In the meantime I lost touch with the corporate IT group, and the learning for me was how out of touch I'd been in my old HQ role.
After two years I went back to headquarters, and a consultant I had hired was the new CIO. He and I went to lunch. He said 'Find something important to do here, and I'll stay out of your way.' I'm still working for him now, but I think of myself as a consultant anyway. That's the way we all need to think." "What did you get, abroad?" I asked him. "What do you get on the job now?"
"Oh," he said, "It's incredible how my mojo grew in Dubai. I know how to talk to salespeople now. I know how to juggle priorities in real time. I learned how to think like a line manager, and I made dozens of contacts. I don't regret a minute of it. I learned how to operate in a very different culture.
Now that I'm back at HQ, I'm handling my job very differently. I take nothing for granted. I look ahead six to nine months to see where the company is likely to go and where it should go, and I speak up. I have no one to please and nothing to hide, and I run my job like a business, because it is a business." Getting ahead these days has little to do with approval from higher-ups. Back when, you could pick an executive to follow and that person could mentor and guide you for years. That's a rare phenomenon these days. We all need mentoring, but where can we find it?
The best jobs today are not the ones with a defined career path. The more staid and slow-moving an organization is, the less your time in it will grow the critical new-millennium career muscles you need. We become more marketable as we gain experience with more and more meaty, high-stakes projects that vary from one another. The more powerful our stories, the more confident and self-sufficient we become no matter what strategic decisions our employers' leadership teams make. At Human Workplace we teach these eight essentials to getting ahead in your career:
Get Ahead Portfolio
Your career is a big story made up of thousands of smaller stories. Your resume is one tiny piece of it. The names, dates and titles you've held can't possibly convey your power. You've got to create a portfolio for yourself, both a physical record of the projects you've completed and a set of stories you can tell to anyone who asks -- stories about times when you made important things happen on the job.
Your stories tell a hiring manager or client (and remind you!) of the important problems you've already solved. You won't collect new stories by doing the same things over and over.
Variety and greater challenge all the time are the keys. To get ahead in your career, you have to seek out and insert yourself into bigger and bigger problems. That requires speaking up and asking questions at work, every day!
Mentors, Contacts and References
It isn't paranoid anymore to maintain the attitude "This job could disappear tomorrow." Contacts and references are like money in the bank. A strong and well-connected network of people who can vouch for you is worth its weight in gold, and so is a small set of wise mentors to guide you over rough patches. You can't wait until you need these important people in your life to start meeting them -- you've got to cultivate that network now! Are you doing that every day?
Your career is a unique tapestry woven over the years. No one else has the repertoire you have. Your accomplishments, bumps in the road and battle scars are all part of your unique repertoire. It's your secret sauce! The last thing you want to do is to think about yourself as an anonymous member of an undifferentiated set ("I'm a Network Engineer.") You might be a Network Engineer, but there isn't another one in the world like you. Claim your uniqueness!
Adjust with the Landscape
It is sadly common for a person starting a new job to think "Here's the approach I bring when I'm hired. I start by doing X, and then I do Y." Every situation and every employer is different. Real life doesn't lend itself to cookie-cutter solutions. The ability to read each new client or employer situation and design a customized solution for it is a precious gift and a must-have ability in the new-millennium workplace.
Personal career plan
Most of us don't have career plans. That's a holdover from the days when our employers did the career planning for us. If you ask yourself "What specific plan does my boss have for me?" the honest answer is most likely "My career plan is the last thing on my manager's mind." That's okay. You can create your own plan! What do you want for yourself this year, next year and the year after? How will you get what you want -- more experience in one area or another, or more access to people or situations that appeal to you -- on the job or after hours? It's your career and no one else's. How are you going to run the business for which you are CEO?
You can say "I hate corporate politics" and get no disagreement. Yet political currents and waves are part of any workplace. How do you deal with the energy at work -- avoid it, ignore it, or step in and try to soften it? Political savvy is not a matter of one-upping people or making anyone look bad. That's a waste of your precious mojo.
Reading the energy waves at work is a critical new-millennium ability. Can you begin by talking about something important that hasn't been broached yet because everyone is afraid to bring up the topic? You can lead the change you want to bring about, not wait for someone else to do it.
Perspective-taking is the ability to see things from the other person's point of view. It's the core of Pain-Spotting and of any sales activity. The working world is full of selling opportunities, and that makes you a salesperson whether you've thought of yourself that way or not! Taking another person's point of view is essential for your relationships at work and at home, but most of us don't have much practice. You can start with your boss. What are his or her biggest worries? What makes him or her happy, sad and angry? Put your boss's glasses on and see the world through his or her eyes. Watch your worldview expand!
Your own end game
Any discussion of getting ahead has to include the question "What do you want for the rest of your career?" Do you want your own business someday, or to retire from the job you're in? Do you want to teach others, start a foundation or write a book? You get to decide, and you also have to decide.
The first step is to say "I deserve to have the career I want." Isn't that an exciting thought? You have everything you need to reach your goals. Ignore doubters and haters and people who tell you why you couldn't possibly succeed. They're stuck in fear, and you are not. Take the first step and make a list of your career goals now. Make a vision for yourself and refine it. Look how much you've accomplished in your life already -- and you're just getting started! No one can stop you once you take the first step.
Human Workplace is a publishing, coaching and consulting firm whose mission is to reinvent work for people. Our 12-week virtual coaching group Get Ahead! launches on Saturday, August 23rd. In the course you'll learn how to create your Get Ahead Portfolio, how to cultivate mentors and a network, how to build a career plan and how to grow the muscles you need for the new-millennium workplace!