Don’t Dance with this Career Saboteur

by Janine Moon

Careers used to happen this way: you paid your dues in one position, and awaited your promotion to the next. Your manager identified your career direction, often several different positions, and even if you were “fast tracked,” the organization controlled where and when. Whatever training you needed to move along your path was defined by your manager during your yearly performance review.

Career Saboteur # 1: you think it still works this way.

The economic changes that drive organizations don’t allow for much career planning, let alone a sense of direction for you. Every organization is focused on competition, its customers and an almost continual review of its business model in order to ride the rapids of the global economy. Look at it this way: if your organization isn’t doing this review, then your career direction may be the least of your worries!

This saboteur gives you the really false impression that waiting for career direction from your manager is appropriate…that’s how it’s done, that it would be frowned upon to take things into your own hands, that it’s somehow not up to you to sharpen your skills. Logic, on the other hand, tells you that the game has changed, but your distaste for change (especially initiating it) overcomes reason.

You own all the ideas in your head. Since you do, you can choose to change them if you want. This is one you must change!

Look around and see what your organization does with careers…if it does. Are you aware of openings or new business direction that fits your skills and experience? Do you get a once a year performance review, where your manager encourages you to ‘hang tight’ through this bumpy economy? Do you see consolidations, and activity in business units where your skills don’t lie? Can you look around and see that no career activity is happening and that you will be treading water in your same position next year at this time unless another reduction gives you more work and fewer resources or moves you to outplacement?

Whatever it is, acknowledge it…see it…and don’t let fear allow you to ignore it. Fear creates a paralysis that kicks your self-talk into high gear and reinforces your human desire to hunker down and do nothing…physical and mental homeostasis. That’s the last thing you need! Many workplaces are themselves in ‘hunker down’ mode where the modus operandi is scarcity, the word is be-glad-you-have-a-job, and development opportunities are only expenses to be cut.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that you have to believe this, too, in order to be secure in your position. The only security you have is that which you create. Your best bet? Get outside yourself, get with a professional–a coach–who can provide an objective and reality- based view of the workplace to get you around the paralyzing self-talk and work environment.

Look around to find those who would be advocates and supporters. Are managers trained in how to help you figure out career direction? Who in HR will assist you to implement a career plan, to pick up new or expanded skills and to help you find a mentor or sponsor? Will someone assist you in defining new paths based upon your strengths? Can you develop relationships in growth areas so you might create project or shadowing opportunities?

Your task now is to figure out: Am I comfortable with someone else “taking care of” my career? Who has my best interests at heart? What would it take for me to begin to own my career now, to take steps to move in the direction that’s best for me?

What it usually takes is direction, strategy and accountability. You learn to shift your beliefs and habits to support that strategy. Once your direction is perfectly aligned with your talents, a coach can hold you accountable and support your success. The support helps you get where you want to go, and to avoid the victim-thinking that has sabotaged you up to this point.

Now: take just a minute and let me know what has popped into your head: I know your voice is saying “Yes, but…” Leave a comment and let me know what internal arguments keep you from moving ahead. Your comments will help me help you to uncover resources to move away from this career saboteur!

Is Career Ownership for You?

Let’s get right down to it: owning your career takes desire, effort and initiative. If you don’t have these things, or don’t want to invest in yourself, then this message isn’t for you. However, if you’re looking for economic security and work satisfaction in today’s incredibly unstable marketplace, then this is the only way to go.

Career ownership has several segments: knowing yourself; leveraging your strengths; learning your organization; aligning for results; and developing your business case. Each segment is critical for an optimum end result, but each one can stand on its own and move you closer toward a definite career path. We’ll look at the first segment today and others over the next weeks.

Knowing Yourself

We all think we know ourselves, especially after we’ve collected some work and life experience.  And maybe we do, but not usually on a very thorough or conscious level. And it’s the ‘conscious’ part that’s important.

You see, when you know yourself–who you are and what you’re about—  you can be authentic because you learn to recognize your truth. And without this truth of who you are, you’re afraid to be authentic because you’re measuring yourself using someone else’s benchmarks.  By reviewing values, motivators, talents, skills, successes, etc. and surfacing them (digging down and bringing them to awareness), you see themes emerge. These themes are clues to what is significant and important to you, and what work elements will prove satisfying. The themes and clues come together, intellectually and emotionally, and you know this as your life’s foundation. This foundation is the “bench mark” for measuring decisions, both personal and professional. When you can bump decisions up against your foundation, you know what fits and what doesn’t…you are no longer measuring against someone else’s values and perspectives. You can be true to yourself.

While we think we know ourselves, until we have gotten crystal clear, we have nothing solid with which to guide  our decisions…so they’re often ill-fitting.

Many people build their foundation upon the organization they are in. Whatever the organization values becomes the values they take on…it’s the price for sticking around. Maybe you recognize yourself in Mark. Mark has been with his organization for over 20 years and knows what flies and what doesn’t. He knows what is expected in order to be “successful,” and he knows what will make the execs shake their heads and mumble about him “not being a team player.” Mark also knows he is miserable. He’s fearful about staying and he’s afraid to leave, not really certain of what he would look for and unclear as to how he would avoid getting in a similar position.

So Mark is frustrated: if he stays, it’s likely more of the same. Yet he’s not very confident that he can find another position, better than the one he has. And, it’s scary out there. So he hunkers down and sells pieces of his soul, giving maybe 20% of his ability and not rocking the boat. Eventually, he could find himself with a stress level that takes physical and emotional tolls.

Knowing yourself means you go after work that fits ‘hand in glove’ with who you are…not a job, not a box, not a hope for something better than you’re leaving. (There’s a reason why the first 90 days or so is called the honeymoon period.) When you know your strengths and values, you can target organizations that need your capabilities and working together becomes a partnership where you both win.

This works inside an organization as well, and maybe even better…because you can more easily find information to help you build your case for career movement and have access to mentors and sponsors who will help you along the way.

But it starts with knowing yourself. Until you do the introspective work that makes your foundation clear, you know yourself through others’ perspectives. And, in the business world that’s often negative:  it’s the deficiencies and failings that get addressed. When you’re clear about your foundation, you can stay balanced and move forward with confidence.

How to do this? Hundreds of self-help books promise a process that works.  The key is in finding the one that works for you. You can talk with a trusted confidant or advisor, although the key here is finding someone objective enough to guide but not advise; to listen long and deep, but not talk. Online assessments can provide you with some reflection, but it’s not so true as looking inside yourself.

The best way? Work with a coach who has a process that helps you look deep, is trained in coaching skills (listening, discerning, querying, et al.) and who is objective. A qualified coach can help you work through blocks and examine your beliefs, and encourage you to think critically…not from emotion.

And yes, it will be an investment. But it’s an investment in the first day of the rest of your career, and the basis for creating satisfying work that makes a difference.

That Voice Inside Your Head

I went for my usual Sunday morning run with my friend, Mary, and we had a beautiful morning: the sun was out, it was over 40 degrees and for the first time in months we weren’t in thick ice or snow. We catch up while we run, so Mary mentioned her maddening run the day before: one of those where “the voice” inside your head (aka “the gremlin” sitting on your shoulder)  is whispering and whining loud and long in a tone that just won’t stop.

In Mary’s case, the voice was a stream of “you can’t do this,” “who do you think you are trying to run 7 miles?” “you can’t even run 2 minutes without stopping,” “your legs are miserable…give it up!” and, of course, “this hurts…your back, knees, hips: stop you’re killing us!”  The beauty of Mary’s story is that she ran through the voice and did the very thing she had set out to do. It’s so easy to listen to the voice and go to the place of comfort–to give in, to stay safe–wherever that is.

Do you know the voice I’m talking about? It’s the one that keeps you from moving forward with challenging or new things–telling you that the comfortable place you’re in is the right one, the safe one, the smart one. It says that change–any change–is going to be scary, hard, will make you look foolish, and you’ll fail.

A former client, Susan knows the gremlin well. We met for lunch last week several days after she finished the last exam in her paralegal program. Susan was a client 18 months ago, at a time when she didn’t like the work she was doing or the industry in which she’d spent 12 years. After introspection and research, Susan determined a direction that would use her strengths and provide real satisfaction. Her internet search found a premier program at a local university–it was convenient, affordable and it fit her schedule.

Once she discovered that option, Susan’s gremlin plopped itself on her shoulder and held on for dear life.

“You haven’t been to school for 25 years.” “You haven’t done any kind of studying for almost that long.” “How will you keep up with the younger students? “You probably won’t make it.” “Studying will take up all of your time–you won’t have a life.” “They won’t accept you…how embarrassing will that be?”

After wrestling with her gremlin, Susan took a baby step: she made a call to get some initial information. The information intrigued her and made it easier to push the voice aside, so she decided to talk to an advisor, someone who knew returning students. She took one small step at a time: application, interview, wait for acceptance.

Susan was thrilled when accepted, yet the voice came back feisty and persistent, creating nerves and angst and fear as the program started. But Susan had a goal, and she trusted herself enough to pursue the satisfaction she wanted and the change she desired.

What Mary and Susan both figured out is that the voice inside your head is yours: you create the thoughts, so you can change them! You’re in charge. The thoughts are strong since they’ve become habits. While it takes persistence and focus, you too can change those habits.

Well, this is a blog about careers, so what is your voice saying about yours? That you have to stay where you are with the economy and all? That the only smart thing is to suck it up and be happy you have a job? That you don’t have the skills to do anything else? That you’re too old (or, too experienced or too invested or too whatever) to make a change? That finding work you love is for other people, not people like you?

If that’s what your voice is saying, then listen up: Bunk! This kind of thinking lets you keep yourself small and under the spell of fear.

And this spell is one that doesn’t make you excited about your work; it doesn’t allow you to use your strengths every day; and it doesn’t move you toward making contributions that matter.  If you’re stuck in this thinking,  you’re defaulting down the easiest path, following your gremlin voice.

You don’t have to default, you know. When you own your career and take responsibility for your direction, you don’t have to “settle” any more. A different take on your career path, yes, but a realistic one for the 21st century work place.

Investing with Eyes Wide Open

When you think ‘security’ what comes to mind? Your portfolio or your work? Given the sad state of financial portfolios, you’ll do yourself a favor by re-thinking and re-working your thinking around security.

Most of us spend 40 plus years in the workforce with little knowledge of how long a job will last. Industries used to have career ladders, back when industry was driving the economy. Businesses used to recognize the return on  investing in management development and skills training based upon steady growth projections. With today’s economy running on information, information that multiplies exponentially, organizations have stopped investing in development because…well… because if it doesn’t bolster the next quarter’s financial performance then it’s not worthy of investment. Short term only. And really, really short-sighted.

If your work is valuable, if you are a contributor to your employer then you must invest in yourself. Because if you don’t, you are really, really short-sighted.  If your work isn’t all that valuable, then it’s even more important that you invest in yourself since you’ll probably find yourself out on the street sooner rather than later.

What do I mean by investing? I mean paying for–spending money on— your growth, your development, a new skill, new knowledge, new competencies, anything that makes you more productive, more innovative and a stronger partner with your employer.  But invest wisely.

When you think of educating or improving yourself, you might automatically think a degree, maybe an MBA.  Degrees have a purpose, so make sure you do, too, before you decide that it’s the best place for you to spend your money.  A degree is an investment of several years of your time as well as thousands of dollars, and is a finite curriculum. So if you invest in a degree, it always says you have done the work, but it’s only current until the day you graduate.  In this information economy, staying current is the name of the game.

What does that mean? Estimates are that in 2008 we had 1.5 exabytes of unique new information available to us and that our technical information doubles every  2 years. This is what we have to keep up with, this is the “currency” we have to capture. So invest wisely.

Maybe an update in your computer skills, in new applications that will improve your efficiency is your best investment–this year. Maybe sharpening your collaboration skills so you can get more from your project teams is your best investment–this year. Maybe learning how to run a 20-minute meeting that produces big results in your best investment–this year.  Maybe learning to tap into your creativity is the thing that will improve your value–this year. Ask your manager, peers, and team mates about what would make you a better contributor in the workplace…they’re likely to tell you. And do it annually, better yet 2 or 4 or 6 times a year.  Review your value just as you do your financial portfolio; take responsibility for maximizing your value.

And, if you’re reading this and thinking “this is not my job,” “I don’t have the money to do this,” or “what I know is enough,” then get an executive or career coach to help you open your eyes to reality. Your belief systems are stuck in the last century and they are holding you back; they are threatening your security more than you know.

It’s always been a surprise to me that “career” isn’t considered the foundation of our financial security, and maybe in the 20th century with its stability, retirement parties and gold watches it didn’t need to be. But in today’s world, your investment in yourself and your career is the foundation for your security.

If you’ve abdicated, take it back. If you’ve never thought about it, begin now. Recognize that in today’s upside-down economy, you are your own stability…and investing in yourself is the wisest decision you will ever make.