The 3 Basic Challenges in Any Career

The 3 Basic Challenges in Any Career

At the heart of the matter, there are only three basic career challenges:

  • Finding a new job
  • Leaving an old job
  • Performing in a current job

How to get somewhere, how to leave somewhere and how to be somewhere. That’s it.

shutterstock_291297941 (cropped chess pieces)

We go through our daily lives focused on one or more variants of these problems:

Bringing Our “A Game”

Playing to Our Strengths

Interviewing for a New Role

Surviving a Toxic Workplace

Managing Up

Cultivating a Leadership Presence

Setting Boundaries

Changing Fields

Getting Organized

Surviving a Layoff

Gunning for a Promotion

The truth is that each one of us needs to focus on each of these three basic career challenges on a regular basis, whether it is one or more of the variants I mention above or others. We often get focused on the specific “problem at hand, ” and often in a negative way – hating our boss, hating our hours, hating the product we sell, hating our commute, etc.

If you are consistently focused on the micro-issues, you can lose sight of these macro-challenges in your career: how to get somewhere, how to leavesomewhere and how to be somewhere.

As we all know, no job is permanent in today’s world. Even if you love your job or feel that you need (a relative term) to stay with a specific employer for the foreseeable future, your role is constantly changing and your current situation may not be forever. Being in a role, i.e., drilling down to understand what your company or organization is seeking to accomplish and how you can play a greater role in its continued growth and success, is a skill that is infinitely transferable and, in fact, the most important career skill one can have.

Many of us, however, are locked into the particular career problem de jour without keeping our eyes locked on these medium, long-term and ultimate goals. Others only muse about they would like to do or be next, without taking the time to consider logically each individual step to get them there or asking themselves how they can perform better in their current roles. If you fall into either of these camps, you will suffer from disengagement from your career, because you have relinquished the power to drive it. You may have your hands on the wheel, but your can’t ascertain your speed or direction.

Rather than thinking of each of these three basic career challenges (where you are going, what you are leaving behind and how to live in your current role) as individual hurdles, envision your career as a continuum. Each challenge provides the context for the others, and each stage of the process sheds light on the other stages.

1) Finding a new job

What is your target? Do you have clear focus on what you are seeking and why (specifically, what differentiates a new role from those you have previously held)?

If you can’t see what’s on your horizon, what can you do to gain focus? Exercises that help you clarify your own values and value proposition are very helpful in this regard, as is working with a career coach or mentor. (But remember that mentors, and some coaches, have their own biases and blind spots.)

Along with your increased focus, what can you do to present yourself as a compelling candidate? Your résumé is a core document, but don’t forget about cover letters, deal sheets, bios, websites and LinkedIn, to the extent that any of these can help you advance your goals. Beyond the documents, networking and interviewing skills are key, and they both build on the same principles of presenting ourselves well and being able to translate our message to our target audience. These “personal branding” muscles – to use a current buzzword – are ones we should be exercising every day, so they are strong when needed. Lastly, remember that the best momentum comes from what you are already doing – the current aspects of your professional life, written broadly – and that means all of your career accomplishments, talents and transferable skills, not only the obvious ones.

2) Leaving an old job

If you are familiar with change management, you may already recognize that all change involves loss, even changes from which we stand much to gain. Practicing the art of letting go and visualizing yourself in a changed space before you want or need to leave a job will help prepare you for taking that leap. If the choice to leave is yours, these actions can also help give you the motivation to make the change. The worst place to be in a career (relationship, etc.) is unhappy with where you are and unmotivated to do anything about it, which becomes a cycle that is hard to break. Staying attuned to the art of moving on and aware that you have the power to re-create your own circumstances are decisive factors in your career success.

In addition, even before you are on the crux of leaving a role, think about who and what will be left behind. How can you put yourself in a good place each day, as if it were your last day in the role? One example of such preparation is to cultivate key relationships that you would like to maintain after you leave. Another is to resolve or mitigate any disputes that should not be left to linger, if possible. The world gets metaphorically smaller each day, and former work colleagues can easily become future ones, sometimes for the better. In addition, if your new role will be within the same organization (e.g., a promotion), you will get more help, input and support from former colleagues by creating meaningful relationships before the change and maintaining them after your move. Even if certain colleagues seem to have no visible impact on your new position, you can never truly estimate or measure the value of having a solid base of supporters for your cause.

3) Performing in a current job

First, there’s the art of mindfulness and “being in the moment” to be truly productive, connected and alive.

Second, you really can take it with you. By that I mean that whatever progress you make in a current role, you are not only advancing the goals of your company or organization, you are also growing yourself. Unfortunately, as a career coach, I see firsthand how this is something we can easily miss. As I work on résumé writing with clients, for example, I often find they have not “connected the dots” on how their contributions and experience make them compelling candidates to their target audiences. I approach the résumé writing process not only an exercise in putting the right words on the page, but also in formulating the client’s strongest message (i.e., values and value proposition) in the first place.

Last week, for example, I worked with a client who had a junior-sounding “compliance analyst” role on her résumé. As we spoke further, it became clear that (at her relatively small company) she had not only drafted documents, trained staff and the like, she had also essentially co-lead the creation and formalization of the company’s compliance program. While her current role was not where she wanted to stay, it gave her a realm of tools to bridge and bootstrap to her next move. In addition, as she continued to stay fully engaged in the role, she then brought the company through a series of risk-reward analyses and improvements designed to laser-focus their risk-mitigation efforts on the changes that really mattered to their viability and bottom line. I gave her the language to discuss her experience in a larger context, and with that context she is able to more fully leverage her value proposition.

This client’s lessons, successes and wounds – garnered from the process of discerning, persuading and negotiating game-changing measures across business teams and other functions – will serve her well in any future career. As you reflect on your own career, you may find the same hidden gems are planted as you remain engaged and present, for your employer’s growth and your own.

Copyright 2016 Anne Marie Segal.

Originally published as “The Three Macro-Challenges of Your Career” on LinkedIn Pulse.

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