In the first three posts of this series, here, here and here, I reflected on various aspects of building and sustaining a long and successful career. Now it’s time to sum up the lessons of my own career, a long professional run for which I’m truly grateful.
Stay in shape — mentally and physically.
How do you think an aging performer or athlete feels when they realize that everyone in their profession is young enough to be their child? How do you think a long-standing manager feels when his/her boss is a generation younger? How do you think I feel when I face a new group of clients who studied many of the major technology developments of my life in their computing history classes? Well, you either get over it and show them what you can do or you’re done.
For me, staying in shape physically, in spite of serious mobility challenges, is a real challenge. It was the impetus for our relocation to Florida in 1999, where I swim as much a possible and live in the least uncomfortable (for me) climate. Weight training, adventurous travel, flying upgraded and the support of The Wallace all help. But some of you have seen me zooming along in my electric cart at HR Tech because the distances are otherwise too great for me to traverse quickly. Getting up every morning and forcing myself to move even though it hurts is the price of admission to the wonderful world in which I’ve worked so long and lived so fully — and it’s been well worth the price.
Staying in shape mentally is much easier for me. I read a ton, business and pleasure, select clients/projects which will challenge me (so not just doing the same old same old no matter how easy it would be), and avoid mass market so-called entertainment (truly the opiate of the masses). Professional or personal life, I find myself in project manager mode for almost any undertaking, finding emotional comfort in those structures. But I also push myself to learn new things, to get outside my comfort zone, to stretch those mental and emotional muscles. This summer I’m taking a two-day illustrated watercolor journaling workshop in Jackson Hole, WY, and next winter I’ll be taking a Power Squadron class in marine systems. I have no talent or expertise in either of these areas, and I’m scared shitless I’ll make a fool of myself, but that too is a price worth paying for stretching one’s mental muscles.
Stay au courant — via lifelong learning.
The good news is that there are more resources than you’ll ever be able to use; the bad news is that there are more resources than you’ll ever be able to use. What we need to know, what’s happening that’s relevant, what we must be able to do is exploding, and it’s just not possible to keep up with everything. But it is possible — and it’s really critical — to have a personal development plan that isn’t tied unduly to any one employer or position.
Staying strong in your relevant strengths and toughening up your relevant weaknesses should be the focus of any professional development plan, but deciding what’s relevant at each juncture takes not only clear-eyed self-appraisal but also a real understanding of what’s coming at you and not just what you can see in your rear view mirror. One of the best uses for social technology, especially if you’re discerning about whom you follow on Twitter or in which discussion groups you participate on LinkedIn, is the value of curation, of people/organizations you respect pointing you to great articles, blog posts, books, conferences and more.
But, no amount of ongoing professional development is a substitute for the more focused educational foundations that great academic preparation delivers. So, whatever else you’re doing in learning, make sure that your foundations are strong enough to hold up over time. And be inspired by a close friend of mine who, never having had the chance to get a college education, is going nights now, in her early forties, to fill that gap even as she holds down a very responsible, professional position.
Stay flexible — adapting and adopting.
Just in my working career, we’ve gone from discussing who should have a telephone (without any qualifier because there was only one color/flavor/vendor/carrier/etc.) and creating HRM policies for when gloves and hats are appropriate to coping with Bring Your Own Device tablets and smartphones with more computing power than the computers that supported NASA when we put a man on the moon and creating HRM policies on tattoos and body piercing. We’ve gone from employer as parent offering lifelong employment in exchange for becoming a “company man” to an era of free agency and employers competing to be “employers of choice.” We’ve gone from one size fits all HRM plans and practices to no size fits anyone, and now we’re all being challenged to work globally, socially, mobily and more.
It’s no wonder that most of us are suffering from mental if not physical whiplash. At the speed of change we’re all experiencing, and which speed will only increase and never again decrease, if you can’t adapt to changing times and adopt new ways of thinking, your career, really your whole life, is in serious jeopardy. But it is absolutely possible to adapt rapidly to needed changes and to adopt new ways of working and thinking when the incentives are right — and here the incentive is professional survival, the strongest one of all.
Stay employable — you’re only as valuable as what you can accomplish tomorrow.
When your entire income is at risk, all the time, you gain a certain perspective on the importance of saying desirable. And when you work with bright, young software and business professionals — like those I’ve worked with across our industry — there’s little to no credit given for what you accomplished ten years ago. What matters is what you can contribute now, and that assessment is made every time a client gets their monthly invoice as well as with each deliverable and work session. The bottom line is that each of us is a business of one, a sole proprietor over our own careers even if we have chosen corporate employment.
I’ll talk a lot more in a future post about the KSAOC aspects of ensuring your professional value tomorrow, but one important and rarely-discussed topic is how well we fit culturally across a wide spectrum of opportunities. Are we able to work comfortably across diverse cultures, socioeconomic group, and organizational differences? Are we likely to be “picked first” for the team or reluctantly included? Does what we do make a bottom line difference in our organizations or to our clients, a difference which is very clear and easily communicated? What I do is pretty hard to describe, except to insiders, and I certainly can’t run a major marketing operation. So I’m dependent on word of mouth, on the people who are most likely to retain me passing along the word that Naomi adds value well beyond her outrageous rates.
Stay visible and connected — building, sustaining your brand and your posse.
It always was and always will be about the power of the network. It really does take a village, the mutual support we derive from friends, family and colleagues, not only to raise our children but also to help us every step of the way through life. We owe so much to those from whom we learned (and continue to learn) our craft, to those who inspired us, and to those to whom we pass along those lessons. And professionally, nothing worth doing in my world has been an entirely solo accomplishment.
Long before anyone had thought of applying information technology to developing and sustaining, as well as tapping into and deploying, one’s network, there were some of us who were just naturals at understanding and unleashing the multiplier effects of a networked professional life and many more who weren’t. And when that network lived only in the minds of its owners, or in entirely personal, manual records, we understood completely the very personal nature of, the entirely KSAOC nature of, both your network and your networking ability.
In our present world of nearly ubiquitous, easily searchable, online rolodexes, not to mention the activity streams we use to keep each other updated on nearly everything, its easy to connect with everyone you ever knew and many about whom you haven’t a clue. But the career amplification network effect isn’t about having a zillion connections (unless you’re a professional recruiter/marketeer/similar) but rather about the quality and usefulness of those connections. Are you connected to the people who matter in your industry/profession is an meaningful way? Do they reach out to you with their questions, industry/professional news, career opportunities and suggestions, further connections, etc? Do you respond in an equally valuable way? Can you reach into that network on short notice to get help with a client, project, professional dilemma, etc.? Is that help prompt and on point? It’s not quantity here that matters, its quality.
I’ve been blessed in my career in many ways, but my network is perhaps my greatest professional asset. And it takes work, it takes rising to the occasion, it takes honesty and reliability to create and sustain a high quality network, regardless of the technology used. And I continue to believe that we are truly judged by the company we keep.
Work your ass off.
What else is there to say? We’re all competing globally for professional opportunities, and we’re competing across many generations. Folks like me are having a terrific time extending our careers rather than spending hours in our bunny slippers with the morning papers. New grads are having the hardest time ever in finding their first opportunities. There’s so much to learn, to know, to do every day, and that’s before we even get to our “day jobs.” And our tablets and smartphones, along with the growth of mobile enterprise (often led by HRM) applications, are allowing us to work anywhere, anytime and under almost any circumstances. There just aren’t any clear lines anymore between work and not work, so we might as well get used to approving leave requests while watching our daughter’s soccer game and screening a video new hire application in the bathroom.
I’ve always held vacations to be sacred, but I’ll never have clean closets or seasonally adjusted floral displays. Our holiday letters have been known to go out in July for the prior year, and I’ll never have a snappy wardrobe. I’ve been working essentially full-time since high school and right through college, and have been overwhelmed by my todo list nearly every day. There may be exceptional people who are able to excel in their personal and professional lives without straining themselves, but I am not one of them. For most of us, what Thomas Edison said is true: “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”