BUILD A STRONG FOUNDATION
There are some key fundamentals of building a successful career, whether you are just starting out, or are closing in on retirement. And they apply to all walks of life – if you are a butcher, a baker or a computer systems analyst.
Fair warning, the following tried-and-true strategies will have little impact on what you do every day. They will not necessarily help you meet an assignment due by Friday morning, or complete a to-do list.
Instead, they are foundations that will give you a solid base on which to build a successful career that can withstand unexpected changes. These ideas will also help you put work and career in proper perspective, because there is a lot more to life beyond the daily grind.
THE VALUE OF NETWORKING
There’s no getting around it: Networking has an awful reputation. It conjures up images of self-absorbed corporate ladder-climbers whose main interest is, “What’s in it for me?”
But there is almost unanimous agreement among researchers that building and nurturing relationships with people — current and former colleagues and people we respect in the business — provides a strong medium for a vibrant career and a cushion for when the unplanned happens.
The good news is that you already enjoy the benefits of networks, both formal and informal.
Think of the people you work with every day, the people you’ll ask, “Why isn’t the printer working?” or “Have you tried the new coffee place down the street?” Think of this as your local network.
Then think of co-workers you run into on a regular basis; these are people you have a working relationship with and know well enough to have an occasional conversation. You might call them your outer circle.
Next, former colleagues and old bosses. They might be your extended circle.
That’s just three very generalized networks. You could have many more – a network built around the company softball team, or parents who can suggest daycare providers, or a companywide project you are involved in.
Networks provide a connection with fellow workers, an emotional link with someone who knows us. But they also provide a source of information or business intel – about your department, your business or your industry.
In fact, it is often the distant links in your networks that provide the most value – such as helping you find a job. The sociologist Mark Granovetter makes a distinction between strong ties (close friends, family, co-workers) and weak ties (former classmates, ex-colleagues, people we know but not well). In “The Strength of Weak Ties,” he shows how these more distant links provide doorways into other networks we wouldn’t normally have access to.
Your goal is to attend to these different relationships the way you might attend to a garden. They require some nurturing, some giving in order to receive. In other words, pay attention and put in some time.
HOW TO GET STARTED
If you sense your networking muscles need some exercise, here are a few ways to get started. In all these cases, you will often have to be the initiator. So get used to that idea.
- Start small. When you run into a former coworker at your place of business, say more than a quick hello. Try to take a moment and find out how they are doing. Jobs and responsibilities are always changing, and, frankly, it’s nice when someone takes a sincere interest in our lives.
- Take a leap. Invite folks to drinks after work, or to join you in a company-sponsored volunteer effort. The thing here is just getting to know people a bit better beyond working hours.
- Use social media. Social media is rightly maligned for so many reasons, but there’s no doubt it can be an effective career tool. LinkedIn and Facebook can provide an effective and relatively painless way to reach out to people you know, especially those who have changed jobs. Think of a colleague or classmate you’ve lost touch with, and make contact with a simple “what’s new?” message. Relate a little (no more than a few sentences!) on what you’ve been up to, and ask how they’ve been doing. The thing to avoid here is sounding, well, needy or creepy – that just confirms the worst stereotypes of networks.
- Just be sincere: You are trying to re-establish connections with some old co-workers. And don’t take it personally if you don’t hear back; if your colleague wants to write back, he or she will.
- Remember to keep your profiles up to date. Whatever your feelings about social media, an outdated profile isn’t doing you any good.
NETWORKING ALONE ISN’T ENOUGH
The kind of networking described here is a slow and steady expansion of your social contacts in your company and industry. It has emotional benefits and it improves your business savvy.
But it won’t instantly land job-seekers an interview with a C.E.O., or the chance to pitch a start-up idea to venture capitalists.
Not that it can’t. Your friend from college might just know someone who knows someone, but often when we hear about people who have gotten a big break, it’s because they created something that got some notice. In a recent essay, Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School, urged that doing impressive work may be as important as networking skills:
“In life, it certainly helps to know the right people. But how hard they go to bat for you, how far they stick their necks out for you, depends on what you have to offer. Building a powerful network doesn’t require you to be an expert at networking. It just requires you to be an expert at something.”
Careers thrive when people keep up with changes in their fields. In every endeavor there is new technology, new “best practices,” changing regulations and previously unforeseen challenges. This applies to both the skilled mason and the architect of office towers.
Most jobs fall into a pattern over time – or at least they seem to — but in fact they are changing in incremental ways. We may fail to anticipate the changes around the corner.
Staying on top of changes in your field can keep your career on track and vibrant. You may see an unexpected opportunity when a job opening is posted. Or it may tell you that it’s time to get out of our job, before it changes for the worse.
The goal here: Keep your head up, and avoid falling into a rut.
Some ways to achieve this:
- Join a professional organization and attend their events. Better yet, take part in different projects and help make presentations. You’ll learn more about your field, gain valuable experience, raise your profile and meet new people in your industry.
- Enroll in workshops and training sessions. If they are offered at your workplace, these opportunities will expose you to something new, even if they don’t always overlap with your current job.
- Continue your education by taking classes in your field. There are several ways to do this, from the many free and relatively cheap courses online to attending a local brick-and-mortar school. Some labor unions, too, offer training. If you aren’t sure what kind of course to take, ask coworkers or your supervisor. (If you hope to use this extra class to launch a move into another field, make sure you have guidance from people in that line of work.) Are you seeking a specific degree or certificate, such as an M.B.A., or simply looking for a course to fill in a gap in your knowledge? You can find both kinds of courses, but don’t confuse one with the other. And be sure to check whether your employer can help underwrite the tuition. Many companies offer this benefit for classes that relate to your job. If this is an option, make sure your course plan satisfies your company’s rules.
- Become the teacher. If you have a special skill or knowledge, consider becoming an adjunct professor in your field at a college or university. Higher education institutions rely on adjuncts to teach professional courses. You’ll earn some extra money and meet other adjuncts, who will give you new perspectives on your field.
BUT REMEMBER … YOU ARE NOT YOUR CAREER
It’s important to remember that your career does not define you. Ask David M. Solomon, a co-president of Goldman Sachs, perhaps the most influential bank on Wall Street, who spends his free time spinning tunes as D.J. D-Sol. Or Mike Esposito, a good friend, who was a prize-winning woodcarver when he wasn’t working as a telephone line technician.
Taking an interest in something unrelated to your work can be a way to energize your interest in all things. Studies have shown that stimulating hobbies and interests correlate with less burnout and a greater ability to overcome adversity in your job.
The goal is to find something that has nothing to do with your job or family obligations, but has everything to do with what makes you tick.
Some ideas to get you started:
- Take up creative activities like knitting and weaving, stress-busters sometimes known as “moving meditation”; or with your spouse or a friend take up a sportyou’ve always been interested in; or learn to play a musical instrument or join a chorus.
- Volunteer for a cause you feel strongly about. Look for creative avenues to address the problems you are working on.
- If you prefer intellectual stimulation, take courses in subjects you always wanted to take in college but skipped – art history, astronomy, history, whatever.
- Get involved in community theater, rock climbing, adult coloring books, stand-up comedy … the list is almost endless.
You’re not necessarily exploring an alternative career, but letting your nonwork curiosity flourish for a while. It’s a phenomenon explored by David Heenan in his book “Double Lives,” which encourages “parallel paths” – your career and an outside interest.
It’s not a stretch to predict that your outside interest will make your workday hassles easier to handle, relieving some of the self-induced pressure and opening up some creative energy that can be directed at your work assignments.