Making all the right moves

Written by John Lees on 1 June 2013 in Features

John Lees explains how people can successfully manage their careers, even in these uncertain times

Workers and employers alike are confused by the current climate. For employees, job insecurity is deepened by near-constant restructuring and change. For job seekers, worthwhile roles are revealed only through a highly creative search.

The talent management agenda has been torn up and patched up so often that organisations swing between investing in the workforce and displacing it on what feels like a monthly basis. Being hand-picked one month and parked the next demolishes the psychological contract pretty quickly.

Today's market features flat organisations that offer little room for organised progression, and yet staff are staying longer than they would have done under kinder conditions. This presents critical career management issues. Managing staff who are hanging onto jobs as a safe haven in the storm is a different game - how do you develop someone whose main career tools are sandbags and a tin hat? How will organisations manage future growth cycles with a market full of people who only know how to reduce costs?

In a flat world people long for new dimensions. As staff stay longer it becomes important to explore long-term motivation, and engagement surveys increasingly feature requests for support from under-engaged employees who have stopped learning. These requests are often expressed in terms of additional support around "career management". What does this really mean?

The death of career planning?

In a world in which organisations redefine themselves completely in under five years, it's unrealistic to believe you can plan personal pathways lasting decades. Every generation needs to craft its own, distinctive career deal.

Positioning still matters. Getting the right grounding experience in the first decade of a career can be formative, and organisations are still impressed by the right job titles and organisation names. There is an art to moving ahead - but in a less predictable work environment, our radar needs to be tuned to sideways moves, useful attachments and amassing the right experience. Many individuals see any role they take as a series of interconnected projects with clear learning outcomes and CV value.

Passive career-making, once the default option, is now a very weak option - careers and jobs need to be invented, shaped, chased down. Anyone taking a dull job just to pay the bills will be explaining this choice many years down the line.

Career awareness

Many people mistakenly believe that every senior player they know has a step-by-step career plan, but it's largely a workplace myth. Long-term career planning has switched from difficult to near-impossible. Since the problem is too big to tackle, we feel we have permission to do nothing at all. Allowing things to 'just come along' is, at heart, the nation's favourite career plan.

'Career awareness' is a different model, with a rolling focus on the next 12 to 18 months. It begins by ignoring the temptations of new jobs and organisations, and asks three core questions:

  • what kind of work do I find stimulating, even inspiring?
  • what organisational problems and aspirations are visible to me?
  • how can I exploit the overlap, or create one?

Question 2, looking at the needs of your (current or next) employer, is often missing. A coaching culture makes people highly aware of personal goals, but often without setting them against organisational agendas. Individuals get very different results if they research their own organisation as if it was a sales account they were trying to win.

Uncertain territory - career conversations

Ironically, in a decade in which the psychological contract between employer and employee is sometimes threadbare, organisations are becoming more interested in having career conversations. A key ingredient in any talent management process, these usually work best outside the framework of an appraisal (which tends to be far more closed down about acceptable evidence and outcomes) and require a change of mind-set away from the usual.

These kinds of conversations don't happen by accident or instinct. The individual needs to enter the conversation with a clear sense that he has equal, shared responsibility for shaping his career. He needs to be able to talk about where he has added value already, how he wants his job to grow or change, and to package career development needs in activities the organisation can recognise and find useful. People having regular career conversations need to spend at least one day a quarter cataloguing skills, successes, learning and contribution to the organisation. This allows them to communicate a concise summary of what they have added to the role and what they propose to bring to it within the next 12 months.

Career conversations are about matching personal career goals and the organisation's agenda. Astute individuals understand that they have to make a business case; sometimes their 'pitch' is a conditional offer - managers are often more likely to accept a pilot scheme or a mini-project than a huge and permanent change.

Here's the SIGN structure for a career conversation, outlined in my book Take Control of Your Career:

  • self Your skills, know-how, motivations and values
  • impact Where you have added value in the last 12 months
  • goals A win/win offer of a project or role extension
  • next step The first steps that might make change happen.

This exchange also needs a rare mix of open-mindedness, probing and 'what if' thinking from managers, who need to understand how motivation works and properly listen to developmental needs. They also need an informed overview of what can be changed, what cannot, and how to give feedback in either scenario.

Questions to help individuals compose a career 'offer'

  • What skills and know-how do I want to acquire in the future?
  • Which teams or individuals would I like to work with?
  • Which projects or clients would be perfect for me?
  • Which of my career drivers are not being fully addressed?
  • What will motivate me to improve my work performance?
  • How might I be able to reduce or delegate tasks I find demotivating?
  • What specific projects or areas of responsibility can I suggest to improve my job?
  • What project ideas, initiatives or pilot studies can I suggest?
  • How can I communicate the benefits to my employer?
  • Who else do I need to convince?
  • What quick wins can I offer my employer that will benefit our customers and bottom line?

Learning curves

Every job has its learning curve. The first few weeks in a job might be a white-knuckle ride, but the experience is usually stimulating. Then, even in complex roles, the curve flattens out. Some jobs are mastered within two to three months, others take a couple of annual cycles, and roles such as sales or recruitment can become repetitive processes.

What happens when the learning curve flattens out? Without intervention, it dips and motivation starts to decline. When people feel underemployed and under-challenged, this has an impact on their self-image and is picked up by others. This issue is, of course, magnified when the economic climate encourages workers to sit tight in a job rather than allowing market pressures to move them on.

Astute organisations recognise that things can be done to edge the learning curve above the horizontal. The right mix is dependent on the individual but the answer is nearly always about a challenge that takes him beyond his comfort zone - this might be about a new project or a learning event, but might just as easily be an opportunity to mentor or train others.

Job sculpting

One tool that can provide an upward trajectory to learning curves and a useful ingredient in a career conversation is job sculpting. This starts with recognising that autonomy is a key driver for most workers (as Daniel Pink argues in Drive). Workers generally find work more interesting and experience renewed motivation when they have some degree of control over how they do it; interestingly, this is sometimes astonishingly easy to implement.

All work is a deal, a compromise between what an employer needs and what an individual worker wants out of life. Every job has a central core of tasks that need to be accomplished and an outer zone in which energised and creative workers can add value to the role. Indeed, anyone who merely adapts to their job description and finds nothing new to add to the job is staying in a very low gear.

Job sculpting, or role extension, goes further. Allowing someone just a small percentage of their working year to focus on a project of their own choosing adds an important dimension at a time when formal promotions are thin on the ground. In practice, the nature of the task can vary widely: some organisations actively seek suggestions for new ideas that the individual can implement to add to his role value, while others are equally happy for the project to be charitable and focused on the wider community.

Shaping your own job is a strong retention lever because it allows organisations to provide (or at least tolerate) a broader range of contexts for skill development.

Organisational mapping

Another concept proving a useful career tool in organisations is cultivating the skill of mapping.

Look at the instinctive behaviours of those who shine and rise up the ranks. They have often worked out who to influence, where to gather information and how to keep their fingers on the pulse. They draw, and draw upon, accurate pictures of how the organisation actually operates, in terms of structures and relationships.

This skill can be absorbed and developed, but it's not about reading organisational charts.

Begin by focusing on the key functions, projects and issues that top performers keep in mind, and list them in a matrix. Then ask other staff to give a score recording the perceived level of importance of these topics. This in itself reveals considerable gaps in the way people decode the organisation.

Next, ask your team to give these issues a second score, which indicates how well informed they feel. The gaps that emerge can easily be translated into an action plan that will nearly always be about forming new relationships and learning to be a better information broker and resource finder.

Helping people see themselves as they are seen

Dump any lingering misconceptions about how people make progress in organisations. We believe that people get promoted because of year-round performance, then remain perplexed at the 'something extra' required to get them noticed. Alternatively, they adopt a 1950s model of work - work hard and keep your head down - often without being noticed at all.

Reputations aren't shaped by year-round activity, but by flash-moments in which people are suddenly seen in a different and positive light by people who matter. This may happen by chance if the CEO happens to be in the room, but well-navigated careers are often built around a conscious decision to create and manage opportunities that enhance visibility, for example attachment to the right project or team.

Personal reputations are built on sound bites just as much as brands. Too many individuals try to navigate their careers without having a grip on how they are seen by others - particularly those within their circle of influence. This matters even more if you're trying to build external relationships and hope to be visible in the hidden job market.

You may worry too much or too little about how you are perceived - either will mislead you unless you get good feedback. Interestingly, those who have a clear sense of their impact often have good personal contacts in or near their organisation to give them the insider view. Here a mentor arguably has greater value than a coach - if you can find someone who is more senior than you, actively interested in your development and - most importantly - better at decoding the organisation.

Good advice within fast-moving organisations is to learn the difference between activity and contribution: don't just work hard, work hard on the things that matter. Being seen to make a contribution to the big issues discussed at the highest level is a door-opener.

About the author

John Lees is a career strategist, author of a range of career books and founder of John Lees Associates. He can be contacted on +44 (0)1565 631625 or at

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