Yet many workers are confused about the rules of the game…
When employees realize that the name of the game in career management is not ‘do your work well,’ it sometimes comes as a shock. The game is, rather, ‘constantly ensure there is a strong connection between the latest demands of the business world and the solutions you can offer.’ Whether you’re in finance, advertising, design or engineering, getting too comfortable is a good way to kill your career.
You’ve done your job well for 10 years, and yes, you are one of the most skilled in what you do. Comfortable as you may be, your current client or employer will soon—guaranteed—suffer changes that will impact you. The company will be bought, sold, optimized, transformed, or liquidated. In the next five years, you will be impacted by change within your industry and you will be required to learn new skills to do your job effectively.
Even the postal business, a once basic logistical government function with guaranteed demand now must compete to survive, calling upon emerging technologies and deep expertise to leverage data analytics, predictive analysis tools, supply chain optimization and CRM solutions, and customer service and cross-selling practices. If the USPS did not do this, competitors would overtake all the dollars spent in that space, and demand for USPS service would cease. A company that doesn’t grow and evolve dies, and with that goes all the jobs within.
As such, your ability to adapt to a changing environment is the key to your career’s growth. When we get too comfortable, we forget that the rules of evolution and survival hold just as true now as they did two million years ago.
We forget there is an ongoing fight for survival
Years ago, when competing tribes of human ancestors roamed Africa, there were several key tribes including the Paranthropus Boisei and the better-known Homo Habilis. (I’ll note that these tribes were not always directly competing as they were often competing for mere survival while occupying different regions; refer to your local evolutionary historian for robust details).
Between three and two million years ago, the Boisei tribe seemed to have been thriving more than others. They were comfortable, were well-adapted to eating the ample rough local grasses, and were proliferous, with fertile harems the norm. At the time, they seemed to be winning, and did not have to do much to fight for their winning position.
The Homo Habilis tribe was more challenged. They were not able to eat the rough grasses, preferring harder-to-find animal meat. Capturing meat was more difficult than finding grasses, so the Homo Habilis lived less comfortably; they were often without food and many tribe members perished. But that discomfort and hunger created urgency and forced those who survived to innovate, imagine, adapt and generally operate in a flexible, scrappy manner.
We Homo Sapiens are evidence to this evolutionary story’s end. The comfortable Boisei tribe eventually perished due to their lack of scrappiness and creativity. They did well in one environment, but when things around them changed, they couldn’t imagine a new way to thrive. It is the Homo Habilis that survived and eventually enabled you and me to log on to our PC’s and mobile phones today. And the lesson is, while we are ‘winning’ today, we would be remiss to get too comfortable.
What is ‘too comfortable?’
Today you are busy at work, eagerly answering urgent e-mails, you feel productive, in-demand. But you might be too comfortable for your own good.
The busy coder feels productive focusing on details of the technical language he knows best. The graphic designer feels useful doing some heads down work to create the best damned logo she can. The project manager fastidiously updates her project status spreadsheet to perfection. While working hard, they sit a bit too comfortably within their current jobs, whilst a vast world of evolving business demands shifts around them. One day they will pop their heads up seeking reward for a job well done and will realize, there is no more reward, or demand, for the practices in which they’ve invested all their hours.
This sounds grim, but too often we forget that our job market is just as unforgiving as the dry African Sahara. The skills needed to survive are changing daily and there is not much mercy on those who don’t have the right skills.
Businesses are constantly strategizing to answer the question: “What can we do differently today to ensure we leave our top 100 competitors behind?” The question that follows is “Who has the skills to help us accomplish this new goal, or develop this new technology, or apply this new approach?”
Hidden within that question is an absolutely liberating reality: When something is brand new, no one is a better expert, so why not let it be you?
Forward-thinkers who constantly scan the environment and think like a business owner will be the survivors. That could be you, it could be your college peers, it could be the recent graduates many years your junior, or it could be a 19-year-old in China who is hungry and eager to deliver value.
The key to succeeding in this career is to remember, new is not new; it’s de rigueur.
Three things career champions do:
1. Maintain listening channels
They attend industry events to keep abreast of what’s new; they socialize with peers on the cusp and sharpen their pencils by reading industry magazines and following expert bloggers.
As you develop code today, meet with a peer at lunch to learn about a new coding language that’s on the cusp. As you design graphics today, register to attend a digital. As you write for education today, volunteer to lead the client’s new e-learning project despite your lack of expertise.
2. Build in-demand skills
The enduring tale of ‘do what you love’ is cute. It applies well to Tony Bennett, who into his late 80’s continues to sing and remains filthy rich for doing it. He says he’s never worked a day in his life because he loves what he does. If you are Tony Bennett, relax, sing and enjoy your art.
If you are anyone else, you might need to change your song a bit if you want a client or employer to pay you. If you see 100 job listings for content marketers, but you ‘love’ to write leadership speeches, you can stick to what you love and get no job offers. Or, you can become a content marketer, perhaps selling a bit of your soul, but you will build new skills, you’ll advance your business acumen through first-hand experience on the marketing frontlines, and you will evolve your writing in a way that is more relevant for the future.
If you hear yourself say “I don’t do that” or “we need to find someone who knows how to do that,” then you are growing the wrong skills for yourself. If you are saying “I can take that on” – “I could learn that new tool” – you’re going in the right direction.
3. Cast a wide net to connect with the right fish
Those who successfully grow their careers constantly network and remain active and visible within their networks.
Build a robust pool of connections, contacts and ongoing interactions so that the world of probabilities will enable your skills to get connected to the hiring manager that needs them. Make sure you build contacts that are relevant in your industry, that have the power to make hiring decisions or recommendations on your behalf, and that come from a diverse mix of pockets within your industry, from the most dominant companies, to newer start-ups, to associations, think-tanks, and groups aligned with ongoing education in your industry.
Even if you have been happily employed with a company for ten years, you should invest time in building this kind of network. I personally left a company after ten years of employment and realized upon leaving that almost 90% of my contacts were inside that company. I did have a robust network of contacts around the world with different areas of expertise, but they were all inside the same company. That is not a healthy network. That is a gathering of piglets suckling from the same teat. When the going gets tough inside that company, that network’s not going to springboard you toward success as it will be ‘each man for himself.’
Networking and self-promotion are key survival skills. For many this is uncomfortable. Broadcasting “look at me!” isn’t in many of our natures. Networking need not be false. You can remain genuine and true to your own values while ensuring you are active and visible. Respond to expert questions posted within your LinkedIn groups, attend local association events, help a friend with a resume when they complain about their jobs. And shoot a follow up note or LinkedIn invitation after finishing a project with someone new. These are quiet simple ways to ensure that when a great opportunity hits, they’ll have you on their mind and will know you well enough to confidently recommend you.
Having a network you can call upon to do that for you is the name of the game and will enable you to survive. In essence, be like Homo Habilis – or better – a survival-minded Homo Sapien, willing to innovate, imagine, and work flexibly. Scrappy always wins.