Work: 2 key considerations about your future… or maybe I’m a renegade

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I think a lot about work. Every aspect of work. Not my specific job or career but the overall concept of work.

And I always have. Even when I was in high school/college, I was trying to wrap my head around the different aspects of work. Work life, labor policy, pay, equality, office life, teamwork, reconciling being a non-conformist introvert with the “rah rah” of corporate cheerleading, recruitment, innovation and automation in recruitment, the shift from “pounding the pavement” to targeted online search and the role of technology in hiring and working, the economics of hiring, maintaining a workforce, building small businesses and startups, fitting into a corporate culture (or not) and finding one’s professional niche. I have thought a lot about the past (the “job for life”), the present (freelance/for-hire/impermanent job culture) and the future. All of this can include everything from education and how people learn and enter the workforce to how individuals can find just the right career and balance that works for them. It’s no more cookie cutter than anything else in life, but often it feels like the whole concept of work life is a conveyer belt in a factory making millions of the same commoditized, non-differentiated product.

No, not every company or job is alike. Very different cultures, industries, expectations… but when it’s boiled down to, for example, the job ad – the hook that gets someone to apply in the first place – there is very little differentiation. Recruiters can ask for different approaches to applying (for example, “send us a video and tell us about yourself” – but that just lights up all the pseudo-legal, proto-litigious lights in my head, “And open myself up for blind discrimination because I’m a middle aged lady?”) and change things up, but even the fresh wording in job ads is filled with subtle and not-so-subtle coding. A lot like real estate ads that describe a dilapidated shithole as a place with a lot of potential, if you just think outside the box and will just use your imagination, elbow grease and a lot of energy to turn it into your dream home, many jobs turn out to be the same.

And maybe these limit us – all of us. For example, I might see a job description that mentions how “young” and “fresh” the company is – I am immediately thinking about how environments emphasizing youth, a. probably don’t want anyone over 30, b. no one over 30 and/or really experienced wants to be there, c. the company probably demands much more than they give back, d. it would not be a good fit. And maybe nine times out of ten, it wouldn’t be a good fit. BUT… what if the job description was written by just one person who had a bias or interpretation and that is not at all what the job or company was about? Or, what if, like Microsoft, every job ad spewed into the world, read like it was written by a computer?

Thinking about limitations, probably the biggest concern/lingering thought I have on work pertains to remote work and home offices. I have long felt that technology would enable employees and employers alike to have their pick of the right fit regardless of geography (this has not managed to bear out the way I expected on a large scale). I’ve become semi-activist in my firm belief in remote/distance/distributed work and flexibility in the workplace. I’ve run my own business from a home office for 19 years without a hitch, but somehow most regular jobs and companies aren’t up to speed with that unless they are working with freelancers/outside “renegades”. So maybe I’m a renegade.

The point of this is that work takes up a lot of our lives. And we can end up feeling pretty miserable just because we take on a job (and stay in it) when it’s not the right fit. I read an article today that highlighted five things you need to make sure you do before you sign the dotted line on any new job.

From this, I took away key two points as an extension of the writer’s points:

It’s so tempting to just take the offer and put the job search to rest — but your career, not to mention your health and sanity, are more important than a quick close!”

This statement is true – no job is worth your sanity or health. You might need a paycheck, and you might say yes to a job that won’t be your career to pay the bills. But looking long-term, you’ve got to look for a good fit. BUT (!) what struck me here is the statement that one puts the job search to rest.

In this day and age, in an uncertain and even unstable economic climate and with the ease/automation of the search, does anyone ever “put the job search to rest”? Aren’t you always kind of keeping your eyes and ears open, feelers out and antennae up? Am I just crazy that I regularly update my CV, I keep an eye on the job market and in-demand skills, that I take on occasional freelance and volunteer opportunities, sometimes apply and interview for jobs (if not to get the job to keep the interview skills intact?)? Maybe because I have obsessed about work all my life this restlessness is to be expected, but perhaps a less obsessive but certainly thoughtful and measured approach (always having the job search at least casually open to possibilities) would be advisable.

The second point:

It can take nerves of steel to pass on a job opportunity, but if you’ve ever had the wrong job, you’ll know why it’s important to have standards.

The wrong job can shorten your lifespan.”

I agree on the stress and shortened lifespan. I’ve had some wrong jobs, and I found myself tied in knots, stressed, unable to sleep… and so blinded by the need for a job that I could not even recognize the signs until I had moved on to a new/better situation. Stay clued in when your mind, body and heart are trying to tell you something. It, as the above states, requires nerves of steel to say no – but you are your own best – and sometimes only – advocate. You’ve got to have the guts to say no, back out or take yourself out of the running if the fit just isn’t there or if you have doubts. Or even sometimes when your own life circumstances change and might render you temporarily the wrong fit for a job or company. I have finally learned to do this – for the most part. Sometimes it’s complicated, and a job offer (or job) has a lot of contingencies sucking you in like eight octopus arms squeezing you. Even after some let go, others still tether you there. Recognizing those tethers and figuring out how to ease your way free of them can be a good strategy.

But… what most struck me with this statement is not just that you should say no to the job offer but also that you should think seriously about whether to even go through with the interview – or subsequent interviews in the case of multiple interviews. Sometimes you see a job that looks perfect on paper. You read the ad and you check all the boxes and are ready for or need a new challenge. You apply. You are asked to an interview, but something about the initial exchange leaves you ill at ease. I have learned that this too is a test of will. When I was young and freshly out of college, just getting interviews was a triumph. I went to a lot of painful interviews for things I did not remotely want to do. Back then I sort of had to – but that marked me and influenced this idea that I couldn’t say no, especially because I was the one who had initiated the application process. But you can and should say no if something feels “off” – while you may well have been interested in the first place, interest cools – and you will thank yourself later for not putting yourself in an awkward situation (and for not wasting your own or a potential employer’s time).

It’s your life, your work. You don’t have to be a renegade but you also don’t have to settle for anything that threatens to kill you. If the wrong job can shorten your lifespan, at least find a way to dominate and enjoy the lifespan you have.

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.