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: You may find yourself saying "but I don't have a passion," or "I'm trying to figure out what my thing is," or even "I just want a good job." Chances are you are going to have to become more of a self-starter than most of your counterparts in previous generations. But being passionate, innovative and entrepreneurial doesn't take special genius or wild-eyed zeal. Instead, it involves noticing things that ought to work differently and examining what could make a better alternative possible. The authors have observed this over and over among business owners and organizations pursuing innovation. Real-world opportunities so often begin with the simple questions: "What ought to work differently? What's preventing that from being the case? And what can we do about it?"
- Build: If you get stuck at this second step, skip it and focus on the subsequent steps of narrating your story and making connections. Then go back and reflect on what you've learned by narrating and connecting. Use this to start establishing a point of view and expressing it in activities that affiliate you with the solutions you are endeavoring to help bring about. Even very simple actions, when taken consistently, can begin to make your positioning resonate. Melissa Llarena, President of Career Outcomes Matter, gives aspirants advice of a kind typically followed by business owners and marketers: "The easiest way to build your expertise online is by picking the three to five keywords that you want to be associated with and continuously using them in all of your content. The only caveat is that you must write for a human being, not just a Google algorithm … Still, figuring out those keywords will help you focus your content themes."
- Narrate: If you cannot get past this third step, consider using Mike Hemingway's MOAT (Mission, Objective, Ambition, Tactic) questions. Like many of the techniques we are describing, these were developed to guide business owners and executives. The bottom line: answer the big questions about what you would like to have given to others through your work and what you'd like them to value about this. This doesn't mean something general or instrumental like "they thought I did a great job." Instead, it has to do with the deeper needs that you helped address. (You can learn more about MOAT from Mike and his firm Brand Hunger.)
- Analyze: Don't wait for some expert to tell you how things are developing, or assume you need to generate reams of research to get some answers. Look at an industry, organization, problem or trend with fresh eyes (which you have focused through the process of researching and articulating your issue in steps 1-3). Many of the best insights arise this way, in fields ranging from finance to the hard sciences. Importantly, do it your way: if solitary research isn't your thing, skip ahead to the "connect" step. As you make connections, refine your thinking and your concrete examples by eliciting input (and engaging social media feedback) about what you're doing. If you're more of an introvert, use your research and thinking to give you something substantial to connect around.
- Connect: This step can be uncomfortable for those who don't easily reach out to strangers. Ease into this process by finding folks who have a shared loyalty or background, whether based on school ties, geography or a personal interest. And use introductions to your advantage: get an email introduction from someone who knows the person you want to know – current services like LinkedIn make this easy. Remember: accomplished professionals are often eager to help aspirants, especially if they're taking the steps in this framework rather than presenting themselves as one more job seeker intent merely on getting something from them.
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.
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