A few weeks ago I was a guest lecturer in the Business School at Centennial College in Toronto. As part of the module on employment preparedness, I was asked to share my career trajectory and speak about employment preparation. As I went through a mental checklist of all the roles I’ve held in my career, I realized that very few came from job searches and I couldn’t even think of one for which I formally prepared.
What therefore qualified me to go speak to students on how to prepare for employment?
I decided I’d have to take a much broader perspective on what it means to be prepared for employment opportunities.
On the day of the lecture, I started with “What did you learn in this class last week?”.
The kid in the front row piped up with very specific examples on how to write a great resume and named places to look for jobs. “Then what?”, I asked. He smiled and said, “Then you get a good job”.
I went up to the girl beside him and asked, “And how do you prepare for your next job?”. Someone behind her yelled, “You always keep your resume up-to-date”.
Being prepared for opportunities throughout your work life takes more than just keeping your resume up-to-date.
Here are a few more things you should do:
1) Align with your Core Values.
These days I value individual empowerment, lifelong learning, and community. Everything I’m involved in touches one or more of these values—whether it’s paid work or not.
I’ve learned that it’s much easier to get up in the morning when the work you’re about to do is consistent with things you value at the moment. That’s right, values will change throughout the span of your working life and the key is to adjust your job because it’s next to impossible to fake your real self for 8 hours a day.
After living as a poor grad student, I leaped out of bed for my first salaried job. Heck, I didn’t even sleep the first time I negotiated myself a nice 6 figure paycheque. I once took a job because I wanted to travel. I later gave it up because I was sick of living out of a suitcase.
Today you’ll find me in non-profit organizations because the work they do tends to have a more direct impact on the lives of individuals and that’s where I find reward. Be prepared to change your job to align with what you value most, whatever that is for you.
2) Diversify your experience.
I know a guy—Eugene—who has spent the last sixteen years sitting behind the same desk doing the same job—he’s good at it and he’s comfortable.
During that same time, I’ve jumped out of my comfort zone at least once a year. I’m not necessarily talking about changing companies or even jobs, I’m talking about raising your hand when a new initiative comes around. Whether I was on temporary loan to another department or leading a cross-functional project team, I gained experience and connections in new areas.
While these assignments were first motivated by my desire to learn something new, it wasn’t long before I realized that having hands-on experience of the inner workings of another department is a lot more valuable than the perspective one might get by just working with them from across the table.
Nothing builds collaboration like having been “one of us”.
Back to Eugene—he’s now typecast into that one role and cannot get anyone including himself to see things otherwise. I’ve gone on to leverage project experience and connections into entirely new jobs. When your job gets comfortable, coast for a while but then be prepared to shake things up.
3) Be open to a non-linear path.
Looking back, I’ve taken opportunities on my terms over what should have been the next logical career step. I worked in my own business when I was twenty-three and in the infancy of the internet that was a more rare feat than it is today.
After grad school I didn’t go straight into a demanding career, I worked as a restaurant manager where I learned that headquarters will attempt to manage every step you take. I later took that discipline to a chaotic place where they were willing to reward nicely for my ability to implement structure.
I’ve gone from a regional role to a national role to a local role—setting aside the expected path to advance personal and financial goals. Later I chose a lateral move only to face colleagues asking me why in the world I wasn’t staying put until the position above opened up.
I suppose it didn’t occur to them that I had no intention of ever working for the jerk three levels up—but then again I was always the only one mapping outcomes several years out. Listen to different perspectives, but be prepared to follow what is right for you.
4) Network, network, and network well.
I cannot stress enough the importance of networking as preparation for employment opportunities. Exchanging business cards, connecting on LinkedIn or reaching out to someone when you need a job are not the right ways to do it.
Going to the company lunch and learn or joining coworkers for drinks—wrong again! I’ve learned that networking delivers results when you invest the time, when you’re willing to give and when you keep expanding beyond your circles.
I’m strategic about my networking. Every week I attend key activities linked to my longer-term goals. I call and email people to share information—sometimes it’s passing on a job posting, other times it’s putting them in contact with someone else. I don’t hesitate to ask for introductions outside my circle and I invite those people to have coffee to explore new interests. I don’t expect instant results but eventually, opportunities present themselves unsolicited.
Last month a woman I met at a networking event a year ago called me with consulting work. The lecturing opportunity came from an acquaintance of an acquaintance.
And last week 2 employment offers came my way from networking relationships I’ve nurtured over the last 4 years. If you want real opportunities, be prepared to invest time and effort in networking.
5) Live within your means.
A few years into my working life I attended a speaker’s event geared at encouraging young women to leadership roles. The speaker was a woman in her 60s who’d had an illustrious career spanning journalism, advertising, and business ownership.
I don’t recall much from her talk but I’ll never forget how she answered that last audience question. “If you could narrow it down for us, what is the one thing that has had the biggest impact on your career?”.
I think we all expected her to say that she had a great mentor, that she worked hard or that she kept learning.
“No”. She said, “I lived within my means”.
By doing so she never stayed trapped in a job for the paycheque. When the opportunity of a lifetime knocked—and it did twice for her—she responded even though the pay was less.
But most importantly it gave her the power to say “I don’t need you David”, when her boss asked her to compromise her values. Throughout my career, I’ve seen people who worked very hard to buy themselves big houses and big vacations—there’s nothing wrong with that.
But there’s an alternative to consider, work hard to buy yourself the privilege to walk away.
Give it all you’ve got but always be prepared to go.