By Dr Malcolm Johnson FAIM
Media headlines constantly remind us of the fragility of careers.
The normal fight or flight reaction to these headlines typically becomes one of hunkering down, hoping that the problem does not occur or re-occur within a workplace.
Voltaire is quoted as having observed that “While uncertainty is uncomfortable, certainty is absurd”. In many ways his comments from three centuries ago still hold currency today.
Regarding careers, fight or flight might be more accurately described as evolve or perish.
Skills developed for technical application must continue to evolve. This is a constant issue that maintains relevance of skill set to the emerging issues that organisations are confronting. Some would say that this cost should be borne by the organisation. I believe that this is an individual responsibility not only regarding cost but very much the nature and direction of skills growth.
There is an emerging perspective where Employer of Choice meets Employee of Choice. We all want the best but are we prepared ahead of time to give the best? That’s where insightful personal development comes into play.
If we accept that jobs are no longer employment for life with the one organisation, then building and maintaining your career balance sheet must be a constant priority. In this age of ‘free-agency’ where mobility of skill is matched with the best opportunities, then we are at the leading edge of thinking and practice.
Staying ahead of the career curve is a powerful metaphor from surfing. We all know what it’s like to be dumped by waves or to be caught up in the turbulence of a wave breaking. Watching the wave from the white-water it has left in its wake describes the exhaustion that many feel as they surface after organisational right-sizing has passed. Surfing is not a spectator sport; neither are careers.
Yes, there is a natural fear and trepidation as a monster wave approaches, but, if you’re set up well, you can ‘shoot the tube’, accelerating beyond the potential chaos into a zone of clean water. So too can your career. But it takes preparation, positioning, skill, courage and hutzpah.
Maybe this isn’t for everyone but that’s the point. You’re not everyone. You can surf the career curve if you focus on this potential.
So let’s look at the curve. The point of acceleration is two-thirds up the face of a wave. Any higher and you’ve missed the opportunity. You’re essentially locked into riding the last bit of the peak before it crashes down.
So it is with careers. Constant adjustment and positioning will put you in the zone of acceleration. Choosing to change an upward career path takes the courage of your convictions; your commitment to and belief in your abilities. Whether it is as an employee or if you’re thinking of selling a business, the point of the curve is the same.
If you’re selling a business it’s where there is still sufficient upside for others to benefit. If you’re an employee, it’s where you see the curve still moving up but there is no continuing investment to sustain the momentum.
If you’re working hard using a specific skill and there is no continuing investment to evolve those skills, you’re approaching the zone where something’s got to change. Without investment your skills will peak and you’ll be left in the white-water or dumped as the wave of work crashes. Sadly, you’ll be joining a lot of others in the white-water.
The hubris that comes from being on an upward curve can sow the seeds of complacency. Stand back and look hard at your current situation. Are you getting a free ride on a rising wave or is it the result of sustained investment in your skillset?
If you choose to step out, don’t look back. Regret is a cancer that kills hope for the future. The change will put you at the start of a new curve where you’ll have to paddle pretty hard. The only certainty you have is in the substance of what you have to offer. It’s the skill, experience, perspectives and success (and ‘learning opportunities’) that will take you to the next wave.
How many waves are we likely to ride through our careers (or before we’re all washed up!)?
Conversations suggest that we may have six or more totally different careers in our working life (however you define that). Essentially you have two approaches. Either ‘reinvent’ yourself through learning totally new skills or ‘repurpose’ your current skills in a new environment. Either way you are repositioning yourself to catch the next wave in your career.
Surfing the Career Curve puts you in control of your career; as it should be. We should not aim to surf every wave. Just those that gives us the best opportunity to make progress towards where you want to be and to enjoy the journey.
Dr Malcolm Johnson FAIM is National Director, Research and Thought Leadership at the Australian Institute of Management. Malcolm’s contribution to enhanced management practices has been recognised through coverage in publications ranging from BRW, Asset, InFinance and Money Management to the Australian Financial Review and The Australian.