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Saturday, August 23, 2014

Big Project: My Career

     The nurse was showing the newborn to the daddy. “It’s a manager!” she was saying, much as we would announce, “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!”
     It was a cartoon I saw a long time ago, but the effect lingers in the mind. We operate too often on the apparent assumption that our work performance and professional position are not really up to us.
    Whatever came with us at birth, or has been given to us since by the wisdom and goodwill of others, is what we have for a job, seems like. We credit happenstance or lucky chance more than our own conscious effort.
     I’ve known a few people who didn’t buy that concept. All of them have been admirable . . . and successful.

     Think about where careers typically come from, and how they progress. You got a part-time job while you were in school, to pick up a few discretionary bucks or help out the family.
     Further along on the educational track, there may have been an internship or two. Sometimes a friend of the family helped, with or without the general idea of career exploration or resume-building.

     Here’s a typical scenario: College student looks for a summer job. Market is tight, but after a month of trying, he gets a job building prefabricated homes. Then the factory’s orders droop and after two weeks he’s laid off.
     The family has a warm relationship with a local hospital, so he is able to wash windows there part-time.
     One afternoon, he’s walking his favorite old aunt home from her own part-time job, and she suggests he check out the company that had long employed his father, recently deceased.
     Nostalgia reinforces necessity, and he makes the contact. Loyalty may now come into play, because he indeed is hired to a part-time position. That sets up a fulltime job for the next summer, which leads to fulltime employment for a number of years in a career that eventually runs several decades in that industry.
     Another young guy happens to see a help-wanted ad and goes after it to make a few bucks. He gets a friend’s daddy to recommend him for a menial job in a professional office . . . from which the guy retires 50 years later as a senior vice president.

     Such career management by opportunity is not, of course, a bad thing, and the seizing of the right opening is a hallmark of the top succeeder. It’s a good thing, but it most definitely is not the only thing. It is very dangerous when used as the major design tool of a lifetime of work.
     But too often it becomes so. In the workforce for a while, we may pursue a life of opportunity, necessity and familiarity. That “temporary” fulltime job offered by a onetime summer employer, or taken to provide a convenient paycheck, stretches into the second or third decade.
     Was this really the way I should have invested those precious years? Sometimes – maybe often – the answer is “NO.”
     We may start to realize in our 30s and 40s that we’re not really happy or engaged in this work, and it never will get us much of anywhere. Still, it has financed an acceptable lifestyle. Besides, I’ve increasingly come to believe that I am out of touch with the jobseeking way of life. I’m not really eager to plunge into that cold environment.
     I may be defaulting to a conviction that it’s too late for me.

     And then it happens, more and more often in this disruptive age: I get downgraded to a job with grossly inadequate challenge or “downsized” to outright unemployment.        
     Ultimately, when we consider ourselves employees, in a lesser status to employers, we serve the purpose and/or convenience of the people who had the money to hire us.
     They may like us and/or appreciate our contribution, but in the end their business necessity – as they see it – is the determinant of our job situation. With the increasingly abrupt and frequent lurches of our economy, it is unsafe for anyone at any level to relax in the expectation of endless continuity.
     Alternatively, we ourselves may be the ones to realize, perhaps with a deep sense of horror, that dreams of the young years just haven’t come true. We understand that we got busy and just stopped dreaming. Or kept dreaming without waking up and taking real-world action.
     Dreams don’t come true on their own. And we can't depend upon other people, because they have their own dreams. It was all up to us.
     It shouldn’t take that midlife awakening, or demotion or layoff, to make us realize how bankrupt it is to consider our careers totally under the control of random circumstance or someone else – someone whose goals, needs and decisions are significantly at variance with our own.

     Remember, the boss hired me because he/she saw potential in my work that justified giving me money, a place to go every day and things to do that I considered worth doing.
     If I took the job simply to have a paycheck, or because the workplace was convenient, or because my buddy worked there, I made a mistake.
     Unless, of course, the accidental circumstances of my original employment decision transformed into purposeful devotion to the work and to my improvement at doing it – resulting in growth in me that I respected.
     If that happened, it means I began at some point to manage my career, and to increase my value as a junior partner. Rewards come when that happens, and not necessarily in ways that should bind me closer to that organization.
     The next level of personal maturation in my career is when I understand that it is no longer completely up to my employer to calculate my value. This mature insight  is vital to the health of my career.
     It is by no means disloyal for me to consider myself competent independent of this job, this boss and this organization. I would not have become this good at my work, and this respected, without devoting myself to professionalizing my ability to do it.

     Too many top performers fail themselves at this crucial career juncture. They see themselves as creatures of this particular work, this place and this organization. They have achieved excellence  at the work, but have remained seriously incomplete as professionals.
     If such an attitude is not corrected, it is a terrible shortfall, and probably is fatal to the person’s ultimate, deserved success.
     Your career is a very big project within the huge project that is your life, and you can’t afford to allow yourself to the blinded by being inside it.
     Don’t be blinded. Step outside and use the handy objectifying tools of project management to describe, examine, analyze, research, plan and execute your career. Don’t neglect work breakdown, work package specification, risk management and – most of all – stretch goal-setting.
       And, of course, building and leveraging relationships. It worked ‘way back at the beginning. You may just have let go of it too early, and thus never got to claim your true birthright.
     But it’s never too late to retrieve managerial control of this big project, no matter how long ago or how completely you may have surrendered it. You are, after all, the major stakeholder.

See also: "Life Is a Project: How Are You Managing?"

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