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The High School Sweetheart Approach to Employment

22nd October 2014 by admin 1 Comment

The world of work has changed.  That’s obvious.  What isn’t so clear is how that change will affect our employment.  If the gold watch and career ladder are gone, what kind of relationship will we have with our employers?

Enter the metaphors.  Folks are trying to explain the new employment experience by comparing it to something most of us already know or understand.

There’s the metaphor of a movie production company.  Some opine that work will now resemble employers assembling a crew of skilled individuals to complete a specific project at which point, the crew will disband and each person will head off to another employer to work on a different project.  It’s a good description of the gig economy, but at least for now, not the norm most of us experience in our employment.

And more recently, there’s been the metaphor of a military “tour of duty.”  People will go to work with the expectation that the duration of their job will be no more than 2-3 years and then they will move on to their next assignment.  In the military, however, while your tours change, your employer never does – you’re always working for the Army or the Navy or the Air Force – so the metaphor is more appropriate for internal mobility than for people who work for entirely different organizations.

Which brings me to my metaphor.  I call it the “high school sweetheart” view of employment.  Think back to those halcyon days of youth when romance was in the air.  Those relationships were intense, full of excitement and, in most cases, built with declarations or at least intentions of undying commitment.  Your high school sweetheart was everything to you … until they weren’t.  The breakups were often painful, but they were also an opportunity.  They freed you to look for a new sweetheart and start yet another romance that was (hopefully) just as sweet and memorable.

Those iterative romantic experiences are as close as a metaphor can get to what your employment experience will feel like in today’s world of work.  You’ll meet a great employer, fall in love with the organization and the work it offers and you’ll commit yourself to both, until the bloom – for whatever reason – wears off the rose.  That may take two or three or even four years, but when it does – and it almost always will – you’ll store away the (good) memories and move on to your next romance, full of curiosity and optimism about the future.

Thanks for reading,

The Divergent Job Seeker

21st August 2014 by admin No Comments

If you have a young adult in the house, you probably have heard of the book series entitled Divergent.  Now a hit movie, it’s the story of a young girl who doesn’t fit the mold in a dystopian future society.  Unlike most of her peers, she isn’t defined by the accepted attributes of her group, but instead forges an identity that is unique to her.  In very general terms, that’s exactly what those in transition must do to succeed in today’s tough hiring environment.

While there are exceptions, most of the openings advertised online –whether they appear on a job board or a social media site – attract dozens, sometime hundreds of applications.  The challenge for all of the people represented by those applications is to distinguish themselves from the herd.  Or to put it another way, to have a credible shot at getting an interview and thus landing a job, they have to find a way to appear divergent.

In the old days circa the 20th century, the key was to make your resume distinctive.  Job seekers printed it on colored paper, used a non-traditional font or even tied a shoe to it (to get their foot in the door).  They used a surrogate – that artificial, two-page document – as a stand in for their work capabilities so they would stand out in the job market.

Today, a stand out resume isn’t enough.  Employers want a more comprehensive portrait of prospective employees and they’re turning to two kinds of sources to get it: social media sites like LinkedIn and Facebook and “people aggregators” like Entelo and HiringSolved that scour the Web to collect all of the information about an individual available anywhere online.  So, the best way to set yourself apart isn’t by developing a distinctive resume; it’s by developing a distinctive reputation.  Resumes are still very important, but reputations are even more so.

A Distinctive Reputation

A distinctive reputation would typically be built over the course of your career.  This “employment reputation” would encompass (among other things):
•    What you did at your previous jobs and how well you did it;
•    Your contributions to your field at your professional society or trade association;
•    Your relationships with previous coworkers, bosses and classmates; and
•    Your career track record, including your promotions and special assignments.
In addition, of course, a distinctive reputation is also built by what you didn’t do, especially online.  Sadly, a lot of people have damaged their reputation by posting inappropriate pictures or obscene or defamatory messages on social media sites.

So, how do you take all of that and turn it into a distinctive reputation during a job search?  How do you make the reputation you’ve already established look divergent to employers?  The answer itself is divergent: you have to avoid muddying your employment reputation by wrapping it in a job seeker veneer.

You may be looking for a job, but you don’t want that to be an employer’s first impression of you.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a job seeker, but positioning yourself as one in the job market can overshadow your employment reputation and make you look like every other person in the job market.

To be distinctive in that environment, therefore, take steps that will reinforce your reputation as a seasoned and capable employee in you r field.  For example:
•    Don’t spend a minute on job search-related blogs, LinkedIn groups or Facebook pages.  Instead, invest your time at sites dedicated to your career field and industry.
•    Don’t be a lurker on those sites and simply read what others are saying.  Instead, contribute your expertise to the discussion, wherever possible, citing your employment experience to bolster your comments.
•    Don’t be invisible at the local and national meetings of your professional society and trade association.  Instead, attend their meetings, join their special task forces and get involved in their other activities.
•    Don’t attend the meetings of those groups as a job seeker.  Instead, interact with others as a confident and capable peer in your field.

Once you’ve done that – once you’ve reinforced your employment reputation – then connect to those you’ve met on those career field and industry blogs and at those society and association meetings to let them know you’re looking for the next step in your career.  You’ll stand out in their minds because you’ll have behaved differently than everyone else in transition.  You’ll look divergent.

Thanks for reading,

The Talent Ceiling Facing People Over 50

17th July 2014 by admin 1 Comment

Every human being is a person of talent.  Sadly, that’s hard for many of us to believe given how demeaning our experience has been in the job market.  But, all of us do in fact have talent, and we can bring that talent to work with us.  The problem is that too many employers ignore our talent or, worse, disrespect it.  And, that’s especially true for people over the age of 50.

Talent is the capacity for excellence.  Despite what Gifted and Talented programs in elementary school and made-for-TV dance contests would have you believe, it is neither rare nor limited to individuals with rocket science IQs, the athleticism of Derek Jeter or the voice of Lady GaGa.  Quite the contrary – talent is an attribute of our species.

Like our opposable thumb, talent is one of the characteristics that defines being human.  Every one of you reading this column as well as every one of your spouses, kids and grandkids, parents and siblings have been born with the gift of talent.  If you’re breathing, you ARE a person of talent.

Sadly, however, many of us will spend thirty or forty years at work and never use our capacity for excellence.  Sometimes, that’s our fault – we aren’t willing to do the hard work involved in discovering our talent or acquiring the skills and knowledge to apply it effectively on-the-job.  In many other cases, however, the fault lies with our employers.  They think talent follows a bell shaped curve and that most of us reside in the mediocre middle.

Even worse, too many employers (or the employees they tolerate) are convinced that talent is age dependent – it is only found in those who are young.  Their bias is based on hair color and a few wrinkles, but it is just as insidious as a bias based on gender or ethnicity.  In the minds of these bigots, anyone over the age of 50 has nothing to contribute and should, therefore, be ignored in the job market and shoved aside in the workplace.  Consciously or unconsciously, they have created a <i>Talent Ceiling</i>.

Breaking Through the Talent Ceiling

Like the glass ceiling, the talent ceiling is a barrier – a human-imposed obstacle that keeps other qualified humans from achieving their full potential.  Both are rooted in arrogance and utterly false beliefs about a segment of our society.  The talent ceiling, however, affects men as well as women.  It is the most democratic of barriers.

Sadly, research and our experience indicate that the glass ceiling and other workplace barriers are remarkably durable.  Neither laws nor media approbation have been able to eliminate a single one, including the talent ceiling.  So, if you’re an over 50 person of talent, what should you do?  Venting on social media may help you feel better, but it does nothing to correct the perpetrators.  And sadly, talking to them – trying to reason them out of their bias – is unlikely to have much of an impact, at least in our lifetime.

The key to smashing the talent ceiling isn’t to call prejudiced people out, it is to talk up people who are impartial and fair.  Shame doesn’t work with talent bigots, but success can overwhelm them.  Our goal, therefore, should be to celebrate and promote the actions of those organizations and individuals who respect persons of talent over the age of 50.

The talent ceiling exists at the corporate level in some organizations and at the office or even the team level in others.  So, tap the community of 50+ talent in your area to identify the employers, managers and supervisors who recognize and reward excellence on the job regardless of the age of the person using it.  Build this “database of tolerance” and then use social media to promote it to your friends and colleagues and theirs, as well.

The goal is to define success in your hometown or your career field as the standard established by those organizations and individuals who are champions of ageless talent.  They are the ones who encourage and support the capacity for excellence even when it has gray hair.  When you celebrate their values and culture, you make it clear that everyone else is channeling failure.

Breaking through the talent ceiling won’t be accomplished by laws or the arguments of pundits, at least not while most of us are working.  It will happen, however.  And it will be accomplished by over 50 persons of talent talking up those organizations and individuals who value and respect talent wherever it is found.  They are the champions of change, and we should do everything we can to help them bring it about.

Thanks for reading,

How to Interpret a Job Posting

10th July 2014 by admin No Comments

Job postings are the lingua franca of the job market.  They are the way employers communicate with job seekers.  All too often, however, the messages conveyed by those ads are one-sided and muddled by corporate jargon.  So, how can you interpret the content of job postings to determine which openings are right for you?

Click here to read the rest of the column in my latest job search newsletter.

Her and Them

11th June 2014 by admin No Comments

Perhaps you’ve seen the move.  Her is about a man who falls in love with his computer’s operating system.  It’s a cautionary tale about what can happen when we become too reliant on or addicted to our gadgets.  And yet, there’s a larger story, one that provides an important insight for Career Activists.

For several years now, we’ve been warned about the approaching “singularity.”  That term was coined by the science fiction writer and academician Vernor Vinge to signify the point in time when machines would become smarter than the humans who created them.

While Vinge put that date a quarter century or more in the future, others argue that it’s already come and gone.  In Race Against the Machine, for example, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee provide example after example of human workers being replaced by their wire and transistor coworkers.

Lawyers, x-ray technicians, bank tellers, auto workers and a growing list of people in other fields are all now facing technological unemployment.  It is a real and proximate threat to just about every person’s career.  Unfortunately, however, it’s only half of the danger.

We Should Also Be Concerned About Them

Today, workers are just as threatened by their employers.  Not because they are malevolent, but because, like machines, they were created to perform a task, not care for those who are affected by their doing so.  Whether they’re small local employers or huge public corporations, their job is to generate a profit for their shareholders period, full stop.

But what about corporate citizenship?  Aren’t the best companies also good neighbors?  Of course they are … as long as playing that role doesn’t in any way diminish their bottom line.  They may provide free lunches and child care are on campus, they may donate to the local hospital and youth clubs, but if their profits are jeopardized, they won’t hesitate a second to lay off workers and cut salaries.

It’s not in their organizational DNA to be sympathetic or compassionate.  Those are human attributes, and Career Activists accept that companies no less than machines are unsympathetic and dispassionate.  Like the lead character in Her, we can love them all we want, but don’t expect that love to be returned.

Instead, think of companies as “Them.”  They are, as Mitt Romney pointed out in his presidential bid, composed of people, BUT those people are assigned jobs – jobs that are designed to ensure the company’s survival and prosperity, not its workers.

Taking that view of employers does two things for you.  First, it keeps you from being blindsided by naiveté.  It gives you the acuity to avoid that terrible moment when you walk in the office one Monday and – out of the blue and with no warning – find a pink slip on your desk.

Second, it forces you to acknowledge that you can’t rely on Them for career security, you have to create it for yourself.  You can’t depend on Them for loyalty or even support for your service over the years, you have to be loyal to and support yourself.  You have to be a Career Activist.

Thanks for reading,

The Ineluctable Euphoria of Solving Your Employer’s Problems

31st March 2014 by admin No Comments

Arthur C. Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, made an interesting observation in this Sunday’s New York Times.  He wrote, “Problem solvers are happier than bystanders and victims of circumstances.”  It could have been an aphorism for Career Activism.

Career Activists face two kinds of problems: those which occur in the course of their own career – the bigoted bosses, the automation of some or all of a career field – and those that develop on-the-job.  I’ve talked a good deal about the former, so let’s spend a little time on the latter – on the problems we face while working for our employers.

Crises seem to be an integral pattern in the fabric of contemporary work.  Whether it’s an unexpected rush of new orders (a happy problem) or the sudden departure of a coworker (a difficult one), they create extraordinary situations that require extraordinary performance.  And, for of us, at least, they pose a choice.

We can sit back and absolve ourselves of any responsibility for solving our employer’s problems because, after all, doing so isn’t a part of our job description.  We don’t get paid to deal with their problems, just to do our jobs.  So why put ourselves out and, especially in today’s unforgiving environment, take on the risk of failure and the possibility of harming our own wellbeing?

Or, we can take the exact opposite view and see solving problems as an unwritten but integral aspect of our job and act to address them as soon as they occur.  That’s not to say that “normal work” isn’t important, but rather to acknowledge that abnormal situations aren’t irritating disruptions but precious opportunities.  They are a rare intersection of chance and challenge that enables us to test ourselves and demonstrate our capacity for excellence.

For Career Activists, then, the decision to solve an employer’s problems isn’t a choice at all.  In our view, such situations are stepping stones in our career.  Managers may evaluate an employee’s reliable dedication to doing normal work as Above Average or even Superior in their Performance Appraisal, but they will most rapidly advance those who can best deal with the abnormal on-the-job.  They value that person’s contribution the highest and reward them accordingly.

But, as Brooks points out, there is another reason for making the effort and, yes, taking the risk to solve our employer’s problems.  The voluntary commitment of one’s talent in an extraordinary situation closes the synapse of happiness.  It connects us with that sublime feeling of ultimate self-expression – the ineluctable euphoria of being our best as a person – that comes from confronting a test we have chosen to make our own.

Thanks for reading,

GUI Careers

28th March 2014 by admin No Comments

Income inequality is higher now than even during the time of Great Gatsby and the Titanic.

And yet, according to a recent CareerBuilder survey, just 21 percent of today’s employed workers say they plan to make a move in the next year or two.  That’s far below the historical norm for a recovery when workers are prone feel as if their employers have misused them during the preceding recession.

Similarly, according to a recent New York Times article, economists can’t find any evidence that income inequality is bad for individual workers or the economy in general.  You’ve got to be kidding!  Maybe the incredible shrinking paycheck doesn’t affect academicians protected by tenure, but it pinches pretty sharply for everyone else.

So, why aren’t workers leaving their employers?  Some opine that it’s the fear of the unknown in an unpredictable economy.  Maybe that’s true for some, but I fear there’s another, more troubling reason that’s holding a lot of people back.  I call this phenomenon the GUI career.  Sadly, we’re getting used to it.

We’re getting used to having to look over our shoulders constantly, as we worry about whether our job is secure.  If you have any doubt about that, take a trip to the beach this summer.  Two-thirds of those lying on the sand next to you will be checking email from the office on their cell phones.

We’re also getting used to salary increases that don’t keep up with the cost of living.  We take out second mortgages to send our kids to college while our employers book record profits and the corner office crowd has made the golden parachute obsolete.  These days, they’re paid so much, they don’t need a parachute.

And, we watch the idiots in Congress turn our government in to a “de-mock-cracy” even as we’re told that our kids will be the first generation in American history to look forward to a standard of living that is lower than their parents.  We have Government departments in the country that invented high technology that can’t launch a Web-site or make it a priority to oversee the Internet, the largest single channel of commerce in history.

How can you protect yourself in the face of such madness?  Don’t get used to it.  Be at the top of your game and then be indignant if your pay doesn’t race ahead of the cost of living.  Bring your talent to work with you and then be unwilling to work for employers that pay the CEO big bucks while fighting the addition of a buck or two to the minimum wage.  Deliver excellence on-the-job every day, but be loud and in the face of inept corporate leadership.  In short, be a Career Activist.

Thanks for reading,

Good (Career) Literature Deserves Some Respect

26th March 2014 by admin No Comments

There was an engaging article about book clubs in this past Sunday’s New York Times.  As a writer, I was thrilled to learn that there are still millions of Americans who not only sit still long enough to read a book, but they then invest an hour or two of their time to discuss it with friends.

My first thought, of course, was to wonder if these clubs ever read a book about career self-management.  Now to be clear, I’m not talking about job search books, but rather, those that deal with the principles and practices of managing a career successfully.

All of the examples in the Times article involved groups that focus exclusively on fiction, and, more specifically, on what might be characterized as “great literature.”  And sadly, at least to this point, that leaves out books about how you derive more purpose and meaning from the one-third of your life you spend at work.

Yes, I realize that makes me sound just a bit cynical.  But come on, I was an English major in grad school, and even I realize that there’s more to learn than what can be gleaned from the pages of Middlemarch or Ulysses.  Especially in these times of epochal change, wouldn’t it be interesting, let alone helpful, to explore how we can turn employment survival into prosperity?

I suspect that this unwillingness to spend time with a career book derives from the conflicted state of our minds.  Many of us are walking contradictions these days, at least when it comes to our work.

On the one hand, we’re apparently pretty satisfied with our own situation.  A recent survey found that the majority of American workers are happy with their job and employer.  In fact, just 21 percent said they intended to make a change this year or next.  That’s a much lower figure than in other recent recoveries from a recession.

On the other hand, different surveys have found that there is a high level of anxiety among the workforce.  And why shouldn’t there be?  Job security?  It’s gone.  A rising standard of living?  Not since the 1970s.  A better life for our kids?  The middle class is now being squeezed into a faint memory.

Every assumption we’ve held about work for the past forty years has now been overthrown.  If you’re a Baby Boomer, for example, you thought that you’d be pretty well set by this time in your career.  And if you’re a Millennial, you were convinced that a college degree would provide a well-paying job.  Those convictions have turned out to be pipe dreams, not for everyone, of course, but for far too many Americans.

Which brings me back to my original question.  Why aren’t book clubs even occasionally reading a book about the exciting possibilities and very real dangers of today’s hyper-morphing workplace?  If we read “great literature” for the insights it can give us about life, wouldn’t a book that can give us a better understanding of our careers qualify as at least “good literature?”  And, doesn’t good literature deserve at least a little respect?

Thanks for reading,

Separating Yourself From the Shadows

24th March 2014 by admin No Comments

I came across an interesting word in the newspaper the other day and was struck by how little we talk about it in conjunction with our careers.

The word was “interiority.”  In today’s obsessive concern with the externality of our careers – with the push to make more money or to find greater security in our jobs – many of us ignore or lose touch with its interiority.

The dictionary defines interiority as “interior quality or character.”  The interiority of our career, then, is the essence or fundamental nature of the endeavor to which we devote one-third or more of our lives.  It is the answer to the question: what will be the legacy of our work?  In the end, what will it mean … to those with whom we have shared those thirty or forty years and, more importantly, to us?

On one level, of course, we would like to think that we have been good at what we do and can take pride in what we have achieved at work.  Similarly, many of us would like to feel that our work has also earned us recognition and respect from those whose opinions matter to us.

On another level, however, interiority can indicate the quest for something deeper, something more substantial even than pride and respect.  It can signal that we are engaged in probing the unknown extent of ourselves – not as a metaphysical investigation of our humanity, but as a very personal quest to understand who we are as an individual.

A focus on the interiority of our careers can be our pathway to self-knowledge.  It can open us up to learning what we are capable of.  It can give us permission to test the limits of our capacity for excellence, to discover how must greater those limits are than what we had assumed or had been led to believe.  When we value the interiority of our work, we come to understand the fullness of ourselves.

Pride and respect produce satisfaction, but only self-knowledge yields fulfillment.  Satisfaction comes from a sense of accomplishment, from having done good work.  Fulfillment comes from a sense of peace, from having comprehended the substance that separates us from the shadows.  Both are worthy outcomes of interiority, but fulfillment alone is the preeminent state.

Thanks for reading,

For Security at Work Be a Poet

19th March 2014 by admin No Comments

We’ve all heard the news reports about the rise of machines in the workplace.  In the past, robots did manual labor; today they do professional work.  Stock analysts, nurses, telemarketers, even journalists are now being handed their pink slips thanks to some pushy machine.

So, what should a Career Activist do?

The experts suggest that you avoid routine jobs.  Machines thrive where work can be organized into a series of repetitive tasks, whether those tasks involve turning screws on an assembly line or sifting through thousands of previous court cases looking for legal precedents or taking your deposits and even making loans at your local bank or selling you an airline ticket and processing your boarding pass for a business trip or entering new customer data into a computer for an insurance company.

So, thanks for the suggestion, but in reality, there isn’t a job in today’s workplace that doesn’t have at least some routine some of the time.  Unless, of course, you’d like to be a poet.  But then again, that’s probably not an especially good alternative, at least if you want to feed your family.  Which brings us to the hard truth: there is no job today that is inherently safe from automation.  The only way to achieve security, therefore, is to work differently at whatever job you have.

What does that mean?

Refuse to let your employer, your position description or your boss force you to act like a machine.  Despite the examples above, the world will always need assembly line workers, lawyers, bankers, airline customer service reps and data entry people, but the humans who do that work must do it with imagination, insight and wisdom.  In short, they must be poets on-the-job.

Poets use their talent – their inherent capacity for excellence – to do what machines can’t:
•    Be creative – think up new and original ways that your employer could make higher quality products or operate more productively;
•    Think ahead – look at how your employer’s industry or business is evolving and suggest ways for it to leverage those changes to its advantage;
•    Connect the dots – find new and more effective ways for your employer to connect coworkers, business units, or suppliers and vendors.

Thankfully, machines are pedestrian thinkers.  They don’t have a single inspired wire in their boxes.  So, to be secure in today’s increasingly automated world, don’t imitate them.  Be yourself – tap the Shakespeare who lives within.

Thanks for reading,