The beginning of a New Year is a great time to take stock of how “future-proof” our personal situations are, in terms of work. As the competitive advantages of organizations last for shorter periods of time, and new technologies and ways of working seem to change by the minute, the old rules for success don’t necessarily work in today’s volatile business environment. Getting an education, working hard, and being loyal to your employer is no longer a sure-fire recipe for having a rewarding or stable, career.
Let’s start with a few questions – these are taken from my book, “The End of Competitive Advantage,” in which I sketch out how a world of temporary competitive advantages changes how we think about strategy and about our careers. For each question, simply answer yes or no. While you are doing this exercise, think of each question to which you answered “no” as an opportunity.
1.) If my current employer let me go, it would be relatively easy to find a similar role in another organization, for equivalent compensation.
2.) If I lost my job today, I know immediately what I would do next.
3.) I’ve worked in some meaningful capacity, with at least five different organizations, in the last two years.
4.) I’ve learned a meaningful new skill, that I didn’t have before, in the last two years.
5.) I’ve attended a course or training program within the last two years.
6.) I could name, off the top of my head, at least 10 people who would be good leads for future opportunities.
7.) I actively engage with at least two professional or personal networks.
8.) I have enough resources (savings or other) that I could take the time to retrain, work for less money or volunteer in order to access new opportunities.
9.) I can make income from a variety of activities, not just my salary.
10.) I am able to relocate or travel to find new opportunities.
In 2017, what actions can you take in order to change that “no” to a “yes?” Here are a few suggestions.
Tip No. 1: Always be prepared for your next role. Even if you are very secure and successful in your current job, unexpected things can happen – a political shift, an acquisition, an unexpected decision by customers. The best antidote is to take initiative. For starters, you should have on hand what career consultant Ford R. Myers calls the “job seekers toolkit,” which should constantly be kept up to date. This should include a written list of accomplishments; a positioning statement; a one-page narrative of your career in the third person; a list of companies you believe would be a good fit for you; professional references or accolades; and finally, an up-to-date resume.
Tip No. 2: Don’t be afraid of the zig-zag. In the past, we often thought of careers as a ladder, with a steady progression from rung to rung. What researchers are finding today is that for the very top positions, this pattern no longer applies. In a recent study conducted by placement firm Korn-Ferry, in partnership with LinkedIn, one of the most surprising findings was that working across job functions to gain a well-rounded perspective on the business was a major boost to career success. Practically, that might mean accepting an unconventional or lateral assignment to get that unique perspective on how the business works.
Tip No. 3: Stretch to add new skills. Making the commitment to learn new skills on an ongoing basis can have some surprising benefits, as you never know when they can differentiate you or create new opportunities. Steve Jobs famously talked about how he audited a class at Rice University on calligraphy. Years later, when he was involved in creating computer interfaces, his understanding of calligraphy gave us the intuitive, clean designs that formed a huge part of Apple’s competitive advantages for years. In addition, having a rare skill or interest can give you something fun to talk about, which itself can be differentiating relative to other contenders for a possible new role.
Tip No. 4: Invest in your own development. With access to educational content now less expensive and more widespread than ever, there really is no excuse for not staying on top of developments in your field or those related to it. I recall a sad story told to me by a friend, the head of HR for a global publisher, describing a senior marketing person who had been let go. They had lunch some months later, and the former marketer was deeply frustrated. “Companies want people with SEO, social media, and big data experience now” she said, all capabilities she lacked. My friend told me afterward that she was really exasperated, as courses and programs on all of those topics were freely available at her company. “All she did was come to work and do her job,” my friend said. In this day, that’s no longer enough.
Tip No. 5: Network, network, network. I know, you’ve heard this a thousand times, and you’re busy, and you hate cocktail parties. The reality, though, is that upwards of 65 percent of all new jobs are found through some kind of interpersonal connection.
One approach is to treat networking events as an opportunity for learning about a topic that matters deeply to you. In other words, use networking conversations to become a real expert on something. Then seek out people who might have some insight into that topic and engage with them. They will remember you as someone with a deep interest, not as someone who was trying to “network” with them. And don’t overlook the basics: Keep your social media profiles are up to date, don’t just collect business cards, but follow up and offer something useful to the people you want to network with.
Tip No. 6: Build Buffers. As with anything in business, there will come a time when investment is needed before you can make progress. Money in the bank is always good, as it can buy you the freedom to be selective about your next move. But, beyond savings, there are lifestyle choices that can help increase your ability to weather setbacks. Keeping costs variable, rather than taking on a lot of fixed costs can help. Having a partner who might be able to support your efforts to find the next opportunity is another strategy. The key thing is that you don’t want to be trapped in a current role simply because you don’t have the capacity to make that next investment.
Tip No. 7: Diversify your income streams. In the so-called “gig economy,” there are more ways to earn an income than ever. You might want to experiment with developing multiple income streams rather than relying solely on an employer for a salary. You can check out small tasks on systems like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Depending on your skill set, there may be many opportunities to help others on a part-time basis. And many entrepreneurial businesses have been started by people who had day jobs at the outset. Be open to the possibility.
While it isn’t always easy to move from one situation to the next, being prepared to do so can create a self-reliance that can be comforting. In a fast-changing environment, there are always exciting new opportunities.
About the author: Rita McGrath, a globally recognized expert on strategy, innovation, and growth with an emphasis on corporate entrepreneurship, is a Barnard College alumna with a Ph.D. from Penn’s Wharton School. She was an IT director and founder of two start-ups before joining the faculty of the Columbia Business School in 1993. McGrath is one of the most widely published authors in the Harvard Business Review, including “Discovery Driven Planning” (1995), an early articulation of today’s “lean” startup philosophy. She is married, lives in West Windsor, and is the mother of two grown children.