How to own your career

Last week I attended a panel discussion with high ranking people from politics, academia and economy in Geneva. Including an ambassador for the UN who’s also an Executive Director in the Secretariat of the High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation (I had no idea such a position existed) and the Director General from the ILO (International Labour Organisation). The event was part of the ILO 24-hour Global Tour to celebrate its Centenary.

The topic of the discussion: “How to shape a future that works”. Transforming the global response to the future of work.

I won’t go through all the details what was discussed (as many of it was pretty theoretical anyway). What was clear though was, that on this level a lot of policies & regulations are being discussed from a 100-miles above view, which does not really help the individual.

The world (of work) is massively changing

The world keeps changing and Richard Baldwin, Professor for International economy at the Graduate Institute Geneva, summarized those shifts very well at the beginning of the discussion:

  1. Old school thinking and working won’t work anymore
  2. Enterprises of all shapes and sizes have to become more adaptable and flexible to the ever changing and moving market place
  3. Innovation and adaptability are more important than cost optimisation
  4. To launch products quickly and efficiently is more relevant that streamlining processes
  5. Strict and static hierarchies are a thing of the past and will shift into agile and flatter organisational models
  6. Many companies may even move towards project-oriented organisational models
  7. Long-term employee contracts will be replaced by fixed term contracts
  8. More and more people will work remote
  9. Soft skills are not soft, but fundamental to be successful in the future working world
  10. Life-long learning is essential and whereas education and degrees are important, the path afterwards is far more relevant.

I believe those points are very valid, having worked with many organisations on all scales (corporate to start-up) and having seen and experienced those trends  - or the pains from not being there yet!

Disaster or opportunity?

The whole (working) world is on the move and it will have major impacts on each of us! Now – what are we as individuals doing now with the knowledge?

We can actually look at the situation from two very different angles:

  • What a disaster – I have no idea how my future career and working life will look like, if everything is changing, who will take care of me OR
  • Great – things are on the move, which will open up a plethora of opportunities and possibilities for me. Let’s get going, I own my career.

Which side will you take?

I’ve clearly voted for the second one. And quite honestly, I believe that is the only way forward. We cannot wait for anybody to sort things out for us: Our employer, our boss, the government or the unions or whoever me might believe it is.

It’s on us to take things into our own hands. And if we don’t like where we are, we better change it.

What does this mean though, and what does it really take to “own your career”?

5 Pre-requisites to own your career (and life)

I’ve decided quite some time ago to own my career and to determine myself how my path looks like.

It was not always like that: when I was in the corporate world, I pretty much went through the motions. I had a job, was offered another (yes, I was that lucky a number of times) with more money or a better position…and I went for it. Not really considering where I really wanted to go. Yes, there were a few bumps here and there, still waiting for something to show up at the horizon always seemed to work. Until I lost a really well-paid job and got divorced at the same time.

This made me stop and think. It still took me another decade to come to grips with what it means to “own my career”  - or even more to the point, to own my life.

Let me share the main lessons I’ve learned in the last 10 years:

1. No vision – no owning. If we don’t have a clue what we really want and what we’d like to do in our career, meaning how and where we see ourselves, it will be really difficult to own anything. The key here is CLARITY.

So, you could ask yourself the question: Who am I or plan to be in my career: The team leader, executive, who loves to help a team thrive? The analyst or scientist, who loves to solve issues or problems?

This tends to be quite a revealing question for people I work with when they are in a transition, as it often turns out that they don’t have a clue how they consider themselves. It has something really liberating if we know that – which might, by the way, not following any conventional path or the expectations from people around us. 

People who have left “great” careers to pursue what they are really passionate about, know what I’m talking about. This often meets anything else than understanding in our direct environment.

Remember – it’s your life, nobody else’s. So, you better get clarity about what you really want, before you find yourself at the end of your career and you realize that deep inside you never liked or even hated what you did for decades! Or you notice that you only fulfilled other people's or society's expectations. No-one wants to wake up to that realisation. 

2. Taking responsibility - having the power

It is comparably easy to shift responsibility to the circumstances, the employer or boss or colleagues, the society, our parents, childhood...You name it….

 Because then we don’t have to face tough situations, as we push the responsibility to someone else. In the first place this is of course easier. Phew, relief. The thing is though – it will catch up with us, as it affects us sooner or later. And then we will find out that we’ve given up our power over our life to others or the situation we’re in. We’ve become a victim, instead of a leader of our own life and career. And that gets us stuck. Immediately.

Overtaking responsibility for ourselves, our behaviour, our direction, our career – our life means that we are in power. No-one else.

Because you are the only person you can really direct and change, but not necessarily your circumstances and most definitely not other people. I know it’s annoying, when we realize that we are in the driver seat, as it can be harder and mean more effort. Not just going letting things happen, but taking action to get where we want to.

Even if we get fired or can’t find a job for ages, WE have the choice to change direction and (re)build what we decide to.

“But Claudia – MY situation is very different”, you might say. Yes. Probably different than mine and different from others. As is theirs from yours. That does not change the principle that we are in charge. And responsible for our own path. Which means  - and I know I repeat myself here (as it’s so damn important) – that YOU are in power. And you can move forward.

3. Courage  - to take the right decisions and actions

If you decide to own your career and life and you take responsibility, it will mean that you might take some decisions or do things which some people – including family – won’t like. Let’s say you switch your career, which might mean that down-sizing is necessary, but you’ll be happier. Or you start your own business which will take some time and effort to ramp up. Or you realize that you’d like to structure and run your current job in a different way. This will have consequences for the people around you as well and won’t always earn you brownie points. Hence it takes courage to say, live and go for your truth – for a live and career you know will give you the life you want, whatever it is.

I’m not saying become an inconsiderate prick towards everybody around you by the way. I have a family too and when I changed my career the second time in my life a couple of years ago, of course I discussed it with my partner. How can we both support this move, what does it really mean and what kind of consequences will it have.

Courage is not just required when changing your career. It might well be that you’re in your dream job, but things don’t go as you want them to go. Then getting clarity (point 1), and putting an action plan in place to get where you’d like to be and then taking action takes courage too.

By the way, that does not mean we’ll never be afraid of moving into the one or the other direction. Fear and courage will always go hand in hand. I experience that on a regular basis. The difficult conversations or decisions got to take place anyway!

4. Confidence - that you can figure things out

Most people around me have always assumed that I must have a lot of confidence. As I used to speak up, tried new things, had this story book career (from the outside) and came across as if nothing could rattle me. Unfortunately, this was only partly true. Sometimes the REAL confidence was simply lacking, so I faked it and behaved “professionally”, despite being afraid, agitated or insecure at the inside.

The REAL confidence, however only materialized when I started connecting with who I really am, not to who I THOUGHT I was or had to be. This gave me a solid sense of feeling safe and calm, regardless of what happens around me and the confidence that I can figure things out. Don’t believe for a second that I never wobble, still, I just know how to get back on track quickly now.

A great way to feed confidence: Competence.

Competence feeds confidence feeds competence feeds confidence. Nice little loop which always goes upwards. Moving up in this loop helps us to believe in ourselves and our choices. Without confidence we won’t take action as we’re probably lacking our capability to sort things out so that they work.

We might indeed fail or fall flat on our faces from time to time. That’s life. Then our courage and confidence will help us getting up again, dust ourselves off and move on.

5. Learning (skills) and growing (yourself) 

We all go through different phases in our life. What we decided our goals or vision might be at the age of 25 might have changed when we are 40 or 50. This has to do with family, our career and our personal perspective and view of the world, which tends to change with growing experience (if we’re lucky).

I personally believe that planning our learning and personal growth is crucial for owning our life and our career. Why? Because the better we know ourselves (personal growth) and the better we get in the topic of our career (skills), the more targeted we progress on the path we’ve chosen to go and the better we become in doing what we’re doing.

Don’t leave your learning and growing to co-incidence!

Learning is part of every career meanwhile and if we have a job which we really enjoy, learning new skills to master the topic is huge fun, even if it’s not always easy.

I remember very well, that I acquired a lot of online marketing knowledge, including building websites, copy writing, putting together programs, filming videos….and lots more when I pivoted my business some time ago. Sometimes I was close to pulling out my hair (particularly when the technical stuff did not work out right away) and still I enjoyed it when I finally sussed it out!

The personal growth in our life and career is also often triggered by necessity: we’ve lost a job and have to deal with the emotions coming along with that situation. Or another person got the promotion we lined up for. Or we start a business and fail or don’t get into action at all. On the personal side this might be a relationship going wrong or braking apart or losing a loved one.

In short: adversities that we face in life. Even if those rather drastic situations never happened in your life, there will probably been others: the communication with your boss seems to go wrong often or the team you’re leading does not perform or follow your lead. A project failed or you wasted money on an investment that never resulted in the desired ROI.

All opportunities to learn and grow. I personally take it even a step further and become curious as to WHY this mostly uncomfortable or even devasting situation in my life happened. Life’s always telling us something…and if things go wrong it’s a chance to look deeper. INSIDE OF US.

And meanwhile I often manage to be grateful for those moments as they help me raise my awareness for myself and reflect on my reasons to act or react as I do and finally to shift in a direction that serves me, my career, my life and others better.

Because funnily enough we can always get better. Not in who we are, but in how we behave, how we react and how we deal with difficult situations. And voilà, we’ve already grown another bit. 

What are you going to do to own your career?

©Claudia Hesse

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