Survive and Thrive – Extraordinary Times Call For Extraordinary Career Planning

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The future is not the past. In the famous words of Yogi Berra, “The future ain’t what is used to be.” And in the famous, although often misquoted, words of George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” These are extraordinary times in the financial markets. Some experts are using the “D” word. Most of us haven’t had first-hand experience with the stock market crash of 1929, but we have all heard the horror stories … people losing everything and jumping out of windows on Wall Street. The windows on Wall Street today ( as in most other modern office buildings) don’t open, so it’s unlikely we’ll see the same scenario … but there is the possibility of the economy crashing with resulting severe impact to those on Wall Street as well as to those of us on Main Street America. Career planning is probably the furthest thing from your mind right now. Maybe career panic is a more accurate description? Some thoughts you may be having are: Will I still have a job? How will I pay my bills? What about college tuition for my kids? The answers to all of these questions are the same: We just don’t know. But we do know that we need to have a plan for whatever may happen. So … to begin the process, let’s talk about junk.

Junk collecting is not an option. We Americans are great junk collectors. Let me first define what I mean by “junk”. Junk is anything we don’t really need, and our lives are full of it. Just look around you. Maybe you’ve never thought about what you really need. To get a handle on it, let’s make a list. Start by drawing a line down the middle of a sheet of paper. Label the first column “Needs” and the second column “Costs”. Remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pyramid? What’s at the bottom of that pyramid? Food, water, shelter, clothing. Moving up the pyramid, what’s on the next level? Safety and security. Think about your needs in this context. Some examples of needs are: Your home: paying your mortgage or rent, utilities (heat, lights, phone …) and maintenance (fixing the roof, etc.), Your car: gas and maintenance, Groceries – well, you get the idea. Now figure out what it costs for you to fill each of these needs. Note the cost of each need in column 2. Then, total column 2. This is your financial survival level – everything you’re spending money on that isn’t on this list may be considered “junk”. Is this mind-blowing or does it sound okay to you? For some people, listing their needs can be a very difficult exercise. Some people believe they need two homes, four cars, private school for the kids, several vacations each year, designer clothes, etc. And maybe in some way they do … that is for them to decide. For most of us, however, this list is short and simple, and it provides us with a solid framework for decision making … it gives us the opportunity to choose wisely. As we consider the “junk” that isn’t on the list, we can either add more things to our list of needs, or we can choose not to spend our money on those things. We can instead put that money aside to build a more comfortable cushion for the future. Financial stability is an important factor in career planning, especially in this unstable economy with its far-reaching consequences. And among these consequences are changing career paths.

Career paths are dead – long live career directions. Many of us have set out on the “yellow brick road” career path. We have hopped, skipped and jumped along this path, heading toward the Emerald City shining in the distance. But … what happens when we reach the Emerald City? We may see the wizard behind the curtain and discover that Oz isn’t at all what we expected. Or, there’s another possible scenario … before we even reach the Emerald City, Oz may fade away. The truth is that specialized career paths today are like the yellow brick road, leading us toward a goal that may in the end not satisfy our needs. A career path may in fact become a career dead end. So what’s the alternative? Identify a career “direction” that matches your capabilities: your interests (what you want to do), your strengths (what you do easily), and your competencies (what you do well). A career direction is broader than a career path. It contains many intersecting paths. If one path “dead ends”, you can follow another. One example of this is the project manager career path. Many people think about the role of project manager only in the context of Information Technology, but the skills of a project manager can be applied to a variety of industries and functions. For example, an I.T. project manager with capabilities in home carpentry may become a project manager in the construction industry.

Plan A, Plan B …? Career scenario planning is the way to go. Changing our thinking about career development from a career path to a career direction can help us to identify possibilities we may not have considered before. Most of us have a Plan A, a career path we’re already following. But what will happen if that career path goes away? There’s always Plan B … that is, if you already have a Plan B already in mind. What if Plan B disappears … then what? Rather than trying to identify other paths to follow, begin with what is happening in the business world. What industries may decline? What industries may flourish? What roles will be in greatest demand in these industries? Which of these roles match your interests? Can you leverage your strengths in these roles? Are your competencies among those required for these roles? If so, add these career paths to your overall career direction.

Generalists, specialists, versatilists … oh my! Let’s look back in time to the American frontier. To be successful on the frontier, many different skills were needed – and if you didn’t have the needed skills, and no one was around to help you, you were in deep trouble – possibly in a life or death situation. To survive, frontiersmen and women became “generalists” – Jacks and Jills of all trades – hunting, building, farming, cooking, etc. As the population grew and towns sprung up, people began to specialize… blacksmiths, bankers, shopkeepers, etc. There was still a need for generalists, and some people were both. These people might be referred to as versatilists. Today people are playing multiple roles: generalists, specialists, versatilists – but there is another role we should all consider adopting – the role of “survivalist”. I’m not referring to the people who have retreated from society and are preparing for Armageddon. I’m talking about those who are adept at surviving and thriving in a world that is rapidly changing and highly unpredictable. Financial stability helps, but the best survival tool you can have is to understand what you can do and, even more important, who you are.

Who are you – really? “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. Remember this quote from the historical novel: Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens? Character is forged in the worst of times. In the novel, the disreputable English barrister Sydney Carton learns who he is through deciding to make the ultimate sacrifice, giving his life for the disenfranchised French nobleman, Charles Darnay. Carton says “It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done …” Most of us have found ourselves in difficult, though far less dramatic, circumstances in the past, and in these circumstances we, too, learned who we really are. We learned what is most important to us … we found our values. This is a time to reconnect with those values. So what is it going to take for you to survive and thrive in these extraordinary times? Three things: Understanding and stabilizing your financial situation as much as possible, understanding who you are (your values) and what you can do (your capabilities), and identifying a wide variety of scenarios and possibilities for your career. Oh, yes … and being open to new opportunities when they come along – and they will.

I wish you extraordinary career success!

JOANNE DUSTIN, Executive Consultant and Coach

Joanne Dustin is a organization and career consultant and coach focused on leadership development, career development, organizational change management, and talent management.

Joanne is the founder and principal of Synergy Consulting Collaborative [http://www.synergyconsultingcollaborative.com] an association of independent consultants, focused on strengthening organizational effectiveness through employee engagement.