Monday, December 25, 2006

Career strategies for the new year

By Barbara Mose, The Globe and Mail

Workers today can be excused if they're feeling a little cocky. Their sense of job security is at a high and, with media reports about employers bemoaning a talent shortage, skilled employees ought to know they are in the driver's seat. This may lead some to believe they can simply coast through 2007 with little care about their careers. But that would be a mistake.

There are still many issues to contend with,such as everyday stress and striking an acceptable balance between work and a personal life, not to mention finding ways to move to the career ladder and finding ways to enrich your work.

This is the perfect time to leverage your confidence to ensure that your work meets your needs. Here are some nuggets of advice to put to work in the upcoming year.

How's the fit?
Find roles and environments that play to your strengths. Your work should support your talents. If you constantly have a feeling that you aren't contributing the way you want, or that you are walking around in a fog because you just "can't get it" or master what is required, you will go into a downward spiral leading to depression. Identify the source of your distress, Is it a critical or micromanaging boss? The boring nature of the tasks you are doing? Is it a lack of appreciation or recognition? Or is it just that the work represents a fundamentally bad fit?

Firm hand on the rudder
Make conscious career decisions. Do not put on the backburner things that you care about deeply. Make a date with yourself at the end of each week and ask yourself: What did I learn? Which of my values and desires are being met? Looking to the future, what will I learn? How can I make my work a better fit? Don't treat your career like a force of nature-something you only think about when it's a disaster.

Roll the dice
Pay attention to niggling voice that says: "You aren't happy." Confront the fear reptile and take a risk. It's not easy, but it's always worth it. You will never have a 100% guarantee in anything in life(except death and taxes). Overcome the anxiety of uncertainty by reminding yourself of your inner resources and of past experiences when you took risks. Don't overestimate negative consequences of the worst-case outcome. No one ever died from a well-planned risk, although many have died psychologically, or least paid a huge emotional price, for having continued in unsuitable work; they now beat themselves up endlessly for it.

Be true to yourself
Know and act on what is most important to you. Keep it front and centre in your mind; use it as a sieve for assessing work commitments and decisions. Your work should support your values. You should feel proud of the choices you make during the day. Many people suffer from shame for having violated their sense of integrity-for example, they have not stood up to argue against an ethical violation. Maintain your own moral compass even if it means standing up to bullies.

Pick your spots
Practice strategic laziness. Avoid the knee-jerk response to agree to every demand on your time. For every request, ask yourself: Why will I do this? How will it meet my needs or the needs of people I care about, whether they be the boss or the kids. What is the cost of doing this in terms of not meeting other obligations? Many people overestimate their own importance, telling themselves it will be a disaster if they don't do something, when in fact it will be merely awkward of disappointing. I have never heard anyone say: "The company went bankrupt because I didn't attend that last-minute evening meeting." And to be honest, I've never heard of anyone being fired because they occasionally turned down a work request.

Find or be a mentor
If you are a younger worker, avail yourself of the huge pool of talented seasoned professionals who want to contribute to other's development as part of their legacy. They can act as a sounding board and share their wisdom... Older workers consistently cite mentoring as one of their most satisfying work activities. It is also a highly prized career skill today. Overworked managers with broader spans of control cannot provide their young staff with the ongoing coaching they so desperately need.

Be financially smart
Start saving young. As the financial planners say, pay yourself first by saving 10% of your income. Although this won't have an immediate impact on your career, it will liberate opportunities long-term, whether to take a sabbatical, or to fund further education. Money buys you freedom to make career and life choices that are not completely driven by debt. Think twice before you buy something. You do not want to find yourself in serious debt, surrounded by a sea of stuff you don't need. Think of your work life in terms of how much pleasure you derive from the challenges and problems you deal with, not your income or job title.

Extend your network
Include people outside your profession drawn from different age groups. The best networkers describe non-industry connections as leading to the most interesting and creative relationships. Think of networking in terms of building knowledge exchanges. Don't evaluate your connections in purely instrumental terms... rather, ask yourself: What is interesting about this person? What can I learn from them? How can I help them?

Broaden your horizons
Identify one new thing you can do at work, something that plays to your strengths, or uses your strengths in different ways.

Enjoy life on the outside
Stretch yourself outside of work. DO something you have never dome before that will give you a sense of pride and will give you a sense of competence... Engaging in non-work activities can provide a huge source of career renewal, especially for midlife workers.

Invest in yourself
Improve one skill that will increase your employability. Think of yourself as the owner of a self-managed skill portfolio that provides you the security to make work choices based on what you want. Too many people stay in jobs they cannot stand because their experiences are not valued by the professional community. If you lost your job tomorrow, could you readily find another source of income? If not, what is the gap and how can you correct it? You should define the currency of your skills by their value on the street, not by your employer's standards.