The changing workscape: Clawing your way to a “career”

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It’s never permanent – and would you want it to be? Recently I had a conversation with someone who had been a die-hard loyalist to a company, going so far as to say that he “would have died” for the company, and he was devastated when he got laid off. My response was that my own feeling about companies is that it’s a “two-way street of disposability”.

Much like the trend of offering “every man for himself” “hot desks” in workplaces (a step beyond the open landscape office we all hate so much), jobs themselves are becoming a bit like hot desks. We are doing one thing (sitting somewhere) and the next thing we know we are on an entirely different career path (or desk). No rhyme or reason behind it – but the changing organization or – some factor (who knows what?) – means that a lot of people get in line for one career and end up with something else without having had much say in it. All this just to point out that sometimes we find ourselves cobbling together or clawing our way to a career. And the bottom line – nothing is ever permanent.

In fact, at least in American workplaces, the prospect of a “career job” has never been less likely. At the core of this article, the CEO of online recruiting site, Jobvite, Dan Finnigan, explains that today’s workforce will be made up of people whose careers comprise up to 20 jobs, and will require a lot of shifting and changing jobs. In an environment of economic uncertainty in particular, “…employment—even for well-educated and -trained professionals—is never a sure thing.” The essence of the article – and of career building in general – is that we, in some ways, end up being our own architects. Sometimes driving the process, sometimes clawing our way in or up. Either way, as the article states, employed people never feel secure, and even if they are happy with their current situations, they actively search for the next job or next connection that might lead to a job.

A side note: Of course cultivating all these connections can also lead to the ultimate in cobbled-together careers: freelancing/running your own business. It can be satisfying to pick and choose what work you do and want companies and industries to work for (if you have that luxury), but not everyone wants to or can do this.

But along the same lines, the job market being what it is – with everyone on the hunt all the time – are perceptions changing about what constitutes a career and how to get there? Are our frames about “working” changing at all? A recent article I stumbled across on LinkedIn covered how most people synthesize information, which then creates certain “frames” that frame or govern the way things are or how we think they are supposed to be. The article takes the frames theme a step further by questioning the frames we commonly have for how we perceive work and the search for meaningful careers.

“We have frames that we’ve been building since we were children, and those frames dictate how life is supposed to go.

The collection of frames itself becomes our religion. We don’t question our frames. We’re very comfortable with them, because we grew up with them. We don’t even see them. It’s the examination of those frames, questioning them and pulling them apart, that makes up much of our activity and our worldview at Human Workplace.

One of the biggest job-search frames most of carry around is the frame “You’re lucky to get a job at all. Who are you to be choosy?”

Another one is the frame “The employer is always in the driver’s seat.”

This is a good and relevant question given the landscape of free-market, gun-for-hire workers: Who are you to be choosy? But shouldn’t one be choosy? We are choosy about everything else – so how is it our frame when it comes to work has been built using limitation-inducing barriers?

The Art of the Recommendation

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“Miss A, who graduated six years back,
has air-expressed me an imposing stack
of forms in furtherance of her heart’s desire:
a Ph.D. Not wishing to deny her,
I dredge around for something laudatory
to say that won’t be simply a tall story;
in fact, I search for memories of her,
and draw a blank—or say, at best a blur.”

“Try as I may,
I cannot render palpable Miss A,
who, with five hundred classmates, left few traces
when she decamped. Those mortarboard-crowned faces,
multitudes, beaming, ardent to improve
a world advancing dumbly in its groove,
crossing the stage that day—to be consigned
to a cold-storage portion of the mind . . .
What could be sadder? (She remembered me.)
The transcript says I gave Miss A a B.”
-Robert B. Shaw “Letter of Recommendation

I start so many stories with something like “back in the old days” as though I am 90. My life, though, is split between the pre-tech and post-tech world. My undergraduate university years happened around the same time that most people just started using email. The process of requesting recommendations from professors was excessively long and formal and took forever. Yet it was – and remains – necessary. It’s changed, of course, with online university applications.

This has carried over into the employment recommendation scenario, and nowhere is this more prevalent than LinkedIn, where all the professional networking takes place. I think we can all agree that the endorsements for skills are pretty meaningless. How many times have I been endorsed by people I don’t know for skills that they could not possibly know that I have? It’s a joke. The personal recommendation, though, is another story.

The other day I wrote my first LinkedIn recommendation for someone. Perhaps it is random of me to just decide to write a recommendation for no real reason. Apparently it is customary to request recommendations from people. Even though that has been the tradition in the past and makes sense when a person needs a recommendation, it does not seem bizarre to me if a person (like me) is inspired and decides to write a recommendation spontaneously. I am often inspired by colleagues and feel like a bit of formal praise is not out of order. Is this strange? Is there some kind of protocol about this of which I am remarkably ignorant or to which I am oblivious?

In a former job, we had an employee-of-the-month competition. No one at my branch had ever won. Everyone believed that it was largely because we were a small office compared to some of the larger offices. The voting was done by a “board” of managers, but the number of people from each office was proportional to the number of employees in each office, so voting was always stacked against the smaller offices, including ours. At some point voting changed to enable the full staff to vote. And the staff could submit written nominations (which would be put up for a vote without any names – of either the nominator or nominee). And that is when our office started to win. I nominated three people from my office, resulting in three consecutive wins in the final three months of my employment there (before moving to Iceland). This reinforced the idea that, in the absence of distractions, we go back to basics of perception and applying specific skills. Things in this case boiled down to how things were written and a lot less about reality. While I have no doubt that the people I nominated deserved to win, our little team that had never won started to win because the emphasis of the competition changed.

The changing workscape: Going it alone

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Whether picking up freelance projects here and there as a kind of sole proprietor or doing something a bit more formal, setting up a company and running it, the current job market coupled with the difficulty of being “seen” by recruiters (even if you’ve got the experience, talent and skills required) are making more and more people choose to go it alone. Obviously deciding to work for yourself requires a kind of independence, confidence and belief in your skills and ideas that will give you the strength to persevere through lean times. The challenges of launching and marketing a new business – and the need to basically do at least two jobs at all times (the job/specialty you are selling and then the actual selling/marketing of those services) can be daunting. Never mind the bureaucracy and accounting work you will have to consider…

But going into business for yourself isn’t all risk, no reward – or people would not do it, keep doing it and loving it.

Beginning to see the light
The job search has been long and tough – very few interviews, or a lot of interviews that lead nowhere, and you start to think that maybe you would be better off – and much more in control of your professional destiny – if you strike out on your own. This initial “seeing the light” can be deceptive, of course, because on the surface it sounds a lot easier to just take matters into your own hands and go from there. If you’ve never started or run a business, though, you could be in for a few surprises in terms of how difficult it can be. Do your homework. But don’t let the challenges stop you. You will actually be a stronger person and may either become a successful businessperson, recognizing that this is where you belong – or you may just bolster yourself and gain insight and independence enough to know that you do belong in a regular job. But the experience of starting your own business and creating your own job has prepared you in whole new ways you could not even have imagined for the job you eventually seek. You are broadening your horizons no matter what road you take.

But first things first.

How did the “light” first come on that made you consider becoming your own boss?

The hard search – not being seen
The aforementioned “not being seen” in the job hunt is becoming more common. A recent, popular thread on LinkedIn discussed the increasing difficulty of differentiating yourself as a job candidate, particularly when you are something of a jack-of-all-trades. This inspired me to write on the subject of recruitment and HR and the foibles therein. A friend and former professor sent me another article about how HR has begun to embrace “big data” – and this is starting to influence hiring and retention decisions to, as the article points out, an almost creepy degree.

A true jack-of-all-trades, as many people pointed out in the comments to this post on LinkedIn, may be better off channeling all of those myriad skills into his or her own enterprise. If someone else cannot take in and appreciate the generalist, DIY, can-do approach to business, who better to benefit from your work than you – and the stable of clients you eventually cultivate?

When you have done your due diligence – and that means, really taking the time to tailor each application you submit (which may mean cutting back on the jack-of-all-trades theme to market yourself as a specialist in a few key areas, targeted for the specific job) – and you still find yourself getting nowhere, it might be time to apply the same efforts you make in the job search to assessing what kind of business you could do on your own using the skills in your toolbox that others have not seemed to cotton to. Do some market analysis – what needs exist that you can address?

This may be the best way to be seen and to make a mark.

The risk of self-employment 
Most things really worth doing do not come without any risk.

The biggest risk – you might fail. Many small businesses fail. It’s par for the course. But is failure in this case really failure? It’s a mixed bag. You may lose your shirt, but you know that there is always another shirt where that one came from. You will never learn as much as fast as you do in starting and running your own business – succeed or fail. If you fail, you take away valuable lessons and experience. You can either apply these lessons to your next business venture (the entrepreneurial bug is strong once you start) or apply the lessons to your next job. You are richer for it. “..a recent survey of 1,000 small business owners (conducted by Deluxe Corp and reported in Business Insider) shows that the vast majority of them are confident in their endeavors and say they’d rather embrace potential failure than never try at all”. Once you make up your mind, you’re pretty sure that you can live with failure – and need to be optimistic about success, regardless of the statistics, or you would not be likely to give the business your all.

Some might argue that it is a risk to work for yourself because you are sort of taking yourself out of the workforce specifically in your field and thus might fall behind on new trends or technologies because you are not active in that field. I doubt this. If you’re leveraging your former experience, chances are, as a self-employed person in a similar field, you have to stay ahead of the curve on trends to be competitive. This is why companies will turn to you – as your own enterprise, you are expected to be on the cutting edge. You might ultimately end up ahead of the game.

Difficulties & hard times
Money, money, money
I think one of the major reasons that more people don’t go into business for themselves, which goes beyond the not knowing how or where to start is the cash flow situation. Not only do you not have start-up costs on hand, but you, like everyone else, have bills to pay. And many people are motivated in large part by the paycheck. A steady job, even one you hate, pays you and ensures that you keep a roof over your head and all the rest. But, while theory won’t keep the wolf from the door, the idea that you work just for a paycheck is the kind of mindset that you should work to change.

Learning curve
You have a lot of skills to apply to the work you eventually want to do in your business. But to get there, there’s a lot to learn about starting, operating and building a business. This kind of knowledge doesn’t come overnight, and you will have to work hard and be patient, embracing what may be a steep and possibly winding learning curve.

Overreaching & lack of planning
You might try to do too much, too fast and overreach. You can easily lose the plot by doing this – and burn yourself out. Be sure to have very specific goals – and don’t stray too far from these, even if you see opportunities to dabble in a bunch of different areas outside your core business. This can lead to trouble, especially in the early days when you struggle to find your footing. You need to have a good plan from the beginning and, while you can exhibit some flexibility, straying too far outside the guidelines can get you into trouble, mired in projects that you cannot fulfill your commitments to. The temptation to do this can be great, especially when money is tight in the beginning, but you’re better off in the long run if you stick to your guns and do not take on something you cannot handle. Does that mean you should not challenge yourself? No, but definitely evaluate whether a project is within the scope of what your business and your expertise can offer. You risk a big bundle of stress, financial losses and a potential hit to your reputation if you don’t manage yourself and your obligations carefully.

Legal trouble
Further on the previous point, if you are careless about making delivery promises or careless in taking care of all the required aspects of establishing a business legally (especially where it concerns intellectual property), you can quickly find yourself in legal trouble. This is somewhere you definitely do not want to go. Failing in a small business is one thing – getting tangled up in lawsuits is entirely another. Always put in the time to make sure everything is above board and legal.

The rewards of self-employment
Flexibility
One of the biggest bonuses of working for yourself is the flexibility you can build into your work life. Sure, you will probably be working most of the time – but it’s your business and your time. When you need to run out and do an errand, no one is looking over your shoulder and asking you to punch a time clock. Your time is your own, and you know that you get what you put into whatever efforts you are making. For me, the home office has been a boon – I have discovered that unknown levels of productivity are possible for me when I am working at home, so the readjustment to office life has just not worked well. Sure, I need to be flexible as well – but having your own business buys you this kind of freedom.

Nonstop learning
If you are anything like me, one of the battles of working in a regular job is that many of them have an initial learning curve (new company, new project) but then once you have mastered a few things, there is not a lot of brain stretching going on. This is not always true – there is always something to learn but you’ve got to be proactive about seeking it out. Sometimes the traditional work environment, even if you are like a sponge, picking up new knowledge and skills, just wants to pigeonhole you into whatever role you are doing, and the lack of growth that results from your gusto to learn leaves the learning less than satisfying. This is never a problem in your own enterprise. You have to learn to keep going, and you will apply everything you learn all the time. For those for whom endless curiosity is a constant nag, self-employment is one salve for the soul.

Building your network, building your reputation
Don’t give yourself a bad reputation! Building up your network of clients is the best way to get more clients. In my own experience, I have tried various types of advertising and marketing, and the single best way – that keeps paying off after literally years – is word of mouth. Former/current clients are asked by friends and peers for recommendations, and even if eight years have gone by, they will remember the work I did and pass my name along.

This leads to the next point – working for yourself, you are the show, so you have to put your best foot forward and manage your reputation. Clearly building a solid reputation with clients makes you memorable, keeps them coming back and will grow your business even without you exerting effort. The effort you make today can pay dividends later.

Satisfaction
You did it! Whether you stick with it forever and keep growing or just do the self-employed thing for a while, you did it. You stuck with it and now have this invaluable experience to show that you’ve got business experience, sense and acumen.

Seeing the signs Do it alone
The way things are going – both in the job market as a whole and in specific industries, and perhaps just in your own field – you should be able to read the writing on the wall to assess whether the time has come to strike out on your own and make a go of it.

It’s not that I am a vocal advocate of starting one’s own business – I have done it because I found myself unemployed and with few options living in a new country. And if it seems like a bureaucratic rat maze navigating the vagaries of legal, financial and other considerations in starting a business in your own city, imagine doing it in a foreign country in a new language. But the fact that I managed means that pretty much anyone can do it if you have a solid plan, a target clientele, a way to market yourself and a lot of patience – and networking skills don’t hurt one bit. It is hard work – perhaps even harder and much more time consuming than going to a regular 9 to 5 job, but it can be a salvation and even an addiction once you start to see positive results and the fruits of your labor.

The changing workscape: HR – no recourse, no resource

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I will be blunt – when it comes to recruitment and hiring, human resources (HR) is a crock. A lot of time, it is just dumb. Not dumb in the sense that there is no value to HR whatsoever – but dumb in the sense that it is incomplete and inadequate for the functions it tries to perform. It reminds me of the tech talk surrounding the challenges faced by network and cable operators and their becoming “dumb pipes“, e.g. delivering the technology while content providers – and everyone but them – make use of their pipe and profit from it. HR is a kind of dumb pipe sometimes, performing a lot of functions, delivering what they are supposed to – but somewhere the value and content is not what it should be.

I make this blanket statement knowing that it is not always true and that sometimes HR departments are very tightly integrated with the entire company and departmental aims – enough to understand what a company needs (at least to the level that they can screen out clearly unqualified candidates). However, I have experienced just as many HR departments that function as though they are an island, cut off from the rest of the company, completely out of touch both with the needs for which they are trying to find a match and with what the company actually does. (And HR has other responsibilities that are important and better focus areas for them than recruitment, in many cases. Employee relations and development once people are onboard, for example, particularly in environments that have a lot of legal stuff going on.)

Both the employer and potential employee(s) lose out in the HR-led, HR-centric recruitment scenario. Employers may not get to see the applications of candidates who may not have all the right buzzwords in their applications but who do possess the right skill set and broad experience that illustrates an aptitude for whatever kind of work for which they are applying. I think this HR-as-gatekeeper approach often means that the employer does not see the full range of what is available to them – the less integrated an HR department is, the less likely they can adequately screen applications and pass on the best of what is available.

Potential employees also lose out, of course, because in many cases, there are very few avenues by which they can bypass HR. I read an article today about how “jacks-of-all-trades” don’t get hired – often don’t even get interviews. Yes, arguably, there is an art to writing applications, resumes, cover letters, and any applicant in this market knows that you really need to tailor your application package for each job, so creating a three-page resume that delves into all the things you can do versus tailoring an application for the specific job for which you are applying and highlighting your skills and achievements within that field is not the best strategy. Being a jack-of-all-trades and trying to capture all that information and experience in one one-size-fits-all application doesn’t work and probably never will.

But what struck me is that many of the comments on this article focused on the inefficacy of HR. In a case where an applicant does have a very interesting, rich resume filled with his jack-of-all-trades background, an HR specialist might discard the application because it was a bit rough around the edges and because it did not explicitly address specific points in the job ad. This is their job and probably all that time and volume allow for. That said, if non-HR people (departmental staff/management) were actively involved in the hiring and resume-review process, chances of the jack-of-all-trade generalist resume being noticed are probably much higher. Someone working in the department/area for which the job opening is advertised would have much greater insight into the current and future needs of the team and might identify considerably more valuable traits and skills in the applicants’ materials that HR would not be looking for.

Perhaps there is some mutual responsibility here – not wanting to make HR the scapegoat because it has its place and time in the corporate landscape. But removing the HR-as-linebacker function (particularly in cases where HR is really out of touch) and involving departmental resources from the very beginning could open consideration a little wider. Meanwhile, applicants have to take the time, care and responsibility to tailor each application individually.

Likewise, most professional people are essentially jacks-of-all-trades; finding the two or three key strengths in one’s professional skills arsenal does pay off. Example – at my core, I am a writer. I have worked in technical writing, marketing, communications (internal and external), have worked in huge global companies and in tiny little companies as well as my own businesses. This work has crossed industries and sectors and required tremendous adaptation, adoption of new skills and learning whole new industries from the beginning (my most recent jump was from the IT/browser industry to medtech/healthcare with no life sciences or medical experience at all, but I jumped in and learned). This is likely the reality for most professionals – agility and readiness to keep learning and changing. Being able to tailor each application to elevate those key skills that pertain directly to the job to which you are applying, and then adding an “attractive garnish” by including useful and complementary aspects of the other, but less related, skills, will probably produce more results – or at least open a few more doors for interviews.

Maybe this is what HR screeners are not able to discern or appropriately value when reviewing more complicated resumes – this readiness to learn and change and the evidence of it.

Social media fanatic?

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I don’t consider myself to be a social media fanatic, but when I compare my level of activity to that of everyone else, I guess I am pretty active.

But it was almost comical when my colleague sent me an email asking if I made the top-three list of marketers on LinkedIn (within Sweden) for 2013. He asked whether it’s the baking that elevated me there (did he mean that I post baking-related stuff on LinkedIn or that I bribed people with cake? Haha).