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Careers Can Be Messy

Sunday, Mar. 25th 2018

Careers can be messy. 

They are often unpredictable, and don’t follow straight lines. They can take twists and turns that we had not expected. What we had planned for our careers five years ago may not have worked out as we anticipated at all. Companies or jobs that we thought would last until retirement change or end. New opportunities come out of nowhere. We end up doing things we had not ever considered, working for organizations we hadn’t imagined. Our careful plans just don’t materialize or have to be totally re-thought.

Today’s careers require new flexibility and new thinking. In my own career, and considering the careers of many colleagues and clients over the years, I’ve found the following key principles critical to re-thinking our careers:

Break out of the company and job box. Far too often, in considering our careers, we target specific companies and specific job titles. When those roles don’t materialize—or even when they do but don’t end up being what we thought they would be—we think our careers are over. Anchoring our career goals to specific companies or titles will often lead to frustration and disappointment and are just not realistic.

Spend less time worrying about salaries and more about contribution. Many people make career choices almost entirely based on whether they are going to be paid more at another job. We all need to pay our bills, meet our financial goals, and feel like we are paid what we are worth. What happens far too often, however, is that when we focus exclusively on salary as we consider career choices we tend to ignore things like how we can contribute and what experiences we are gaining.

While we of course need some level of salary to meet our needs, I’ve found that it is really helpful to focus more on potential contributions possible in a new career opportunity.  Contribution reflects ways we can uniquely bring our experiences, characteristics, and perspectives to make a difference to an organization. Ways that we can help an organization accomplish it’s purpose. 

Many organizations and many roles may be available as career options when we focus less on salary and more on contribution. Greater career satisfaction can come when we focus more on what we can give than what we can get.

Create an experience map. In my executive coaching work, I’ve found that a very helpful exercise is to map out the key experiences we’ve had in our careers. Have you supervised a team? Developed a software program? Hired someone? Turned a business around?  Lead a major project? Landed a large account?

Make a list of what you’ve already done, and how the various experiences you have had are linked to each other. Also note what gaps in your experience that you have where you would like to gain more experience. Then, consider the ways that you really want to contribute. What experiences would allow you to contribute in the ways that you think would add the most value? What kinds of roles, projects, or jobs would allow you to gain those experiences?

The idea here is to focus on looking for career opportunities to expand experiences so that you can expand your contribution. These can be found in many roles and places.

Always, always, keep your eyes and ears open. Most of us are busy and tend to fall into a set of busy routines in our lives. We tend to get more and more focused on our day to day activities and don’t make time for things that are out of our routine.

People that I have known that have seemed to me to make great career progress always keep their eyes and ears open. That does not mean that they are constantly looking to change jobs, but rather they have a very good idea about what is going on in the world outside their current role and organization. They know what is happening in the industry, what is going on in the geographic area in which they live, and they stay connected with peers, friends, and colleagues who are working in different jobs at different organizations. They stay up to date in their fields by attending conferences, networking, participating in blogs or webinars, reading, and talking to many other people in similar and different industries.

Far too many of us (and I’ve fallen into this myself at times) are so busy in our current roles and lives that we don’t look outside enough. We don’t keep our eyes and ears open. And we may miss significant opportunities for us to expand our contribution or develop our experiences.

Take career-planning “time-outs”. Every 6 months or so, take a “time out” in a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted and where you can think. Review your contributions over the last six months—in what ways have you been able to expand your contribution? In what ways have you contributed less than planned? Why?  What experiences have you had that have helped you grow in your contributions? What experiences are you anticipating coming up in the next six months? What experiences do you think you still need in order to contribute more in the future?

Reflecting on these key questions may be difficult, as we are all busy. But consider it an investment. An investment in your career.

Many of us have “messy” careers. That tends to be more common than not. But by using these key principles, you’ll find that there can be some order to the mess—and much greater career satisfaction.

When Todd Averett is not leading the Total Rewards Team at his current organization, he is the President of Leading People Partners, LLC, a consulting, executive coaching, and training firm that specializes in partnering with leaders and HR professionals to more effectively lead the people side of business. Check out our podcast, “Leading the People Side of Business“, on iTunes. 

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Leading People Partners

Leading People Partners, LLC
Email: todd@leadingpeoplepartners.com