For many of us, the traditional career is dead. Instead of simply getting a job, those of us who are ambitious for advancement are faced with creating our own opportunities. Even in previously safe fields and industries, the pace of innovation and the spread of global competition have encroached upon previously well-paved career paths.
To grasp the extent of this acceleration, think of the last time you found yourself biting your lip with impatience when collaborating with a less-recently-trained worker, or one who had yet to adjust to a radically altered landscape in your industry or field. Or have you experienced the other side of this, feeling suddenly inept as you struggled to adjust to new tools or realities on the ground – when only a few months or years back, you felt on top of your game?
Such acceleration has radically weakened the capacity of organizations to provide stable ladders to climb.
The bright side is that aspirants who can credibly position themselves as able to address employers' changing needs will find themselves treated as hot commodities in an exceedingly competitive job market. But to achieve this requires a major shift.
In practice, it demands applying some of the practices we usually associate with entrepreneurs. This involves risks, but increasingly, these are outweighed by the risks of not being entrepreneurial in the pursuit of your career goals. Much as businesses make sales by providing solutions to customers' problems, you make yourself a likely hire when you can identify the problem that an employer needs to solve, and offer solutions to it. That way, when a job opens up, you're not another me-too candidate. You're the answer to the employer's prayers.
If this seems like a tall order, ask yourself: how much attention does your resume get when it's deep in a two-inch stack? In industries exposed to waves of disruptive change, the answer is: close to none. So how do you stand out credibly as the answer to an organization's urgent need to get or stay ahead of the curve?
There's no magic bullet, but five steps drawn from Acceleration Group's framework for adaptive positioning can guide your efforts:
Identify >Build >Narrate > Analyze >Connect
Identify: Identify emerging problems that engage your passion and capabilities before you hit the job market. Learn everything you can about them. Become a little obsessed.
Build: Establish your own point of view around what you have identified, and express it actively. Create a blog, produce a rough prototype, plan an event.
Narrate: Craft a vision and a “story” around your passion and expertise. It doesn't have to be the final and complete statement of what you wish to achieve, but it does need to show commitment to something bigger than you.
Analyze: Get to know your target in terms, not of where it is, but of where it's going. As Acceleration Group's Brian Gurski explains: "Every organization exists within an industry that is growing, contracting, changing. You can make much more powerful career choices if you focus on these dynamics."
Connect: Begin making connections around the issue or area of expertise you're developing. Do not call people to ask for a job. Contact people to tell them about the exciting thing you're working on, and to learn about what's exciting that they're working on. Opportunities follow.
Of course, it can be difficult to transform your approach. Most of us get stuck on at least one of the steps. But there are practical tools for moving forward.
Identify >Build > Narrate > Analyze > Connect. These steps are accessible to the resourceful, and the best way to learn is by doing. It's easy to compare yourself unfavorably to confident networkers, peers with impressive credentials and brilliant self-starters. But the fact is that what looks impressive from the outside so often started with the kinds of activities we have described.
The process involved – identifying passions, developing content and projects, crafting your own story, learning about areas of interest and making connections around them – is not a paint-by-numbers exercise. Still, it's more straightforward than it may seem. It starts with the simple act of noticing problems that need to be solved, asking how things could work better, and identifying what emerging factors might make this possible. By positioning yourself as actively working to solve such problems, you set yourself apart meaningfully from all those who are still hoping someone else will create a space for them to fill.
Alejandro Crawford graduated from the Tuck School of Business in 2003 and is a senior consultant at Acceleration Group. He teaches growth and digital strategy at Baruch's Zicklin School of Business and the New School. Lisa Chau recently returned to Manhattan after working for her alma mater, Dartmouth College, for more than five years. She will be offering consulting services as of July 2013.