Constant change is the new status quo and uncertainty the only certainty in business. Want to find ongoing success in your field, consistently stay ahead of the curve and/or find ways to skyrocket your way up the corporate ladder if you're an entrepreneurial thinker operating inside a larger organization? To ensure ongoing growth and career progression, tomorrow’s leaders must become more forward-thinking, resilient and able to improvise.
But, as interviews with scores of leading business researchers, academics and senior leaders at global innovators such as Cisco, Merck and EMC reveal, this process is seldom instinctive. Rather, it requires professionals to anticipate continuous career disruption, and take calculated steps to acquire “elastic skills” — widely applicable talents such as project management, critical/design thinking and communications skills — that can easily be remolded to fit any role or industry.
Most strikingly though, the process of gaining them often requires one to execute a series of seemingly counterintuitive career moves at the expense of immediate opportunities for financial gain or advancement.
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Cracking the code
To understand the new model for career success, I interviewed over 125 serial and self-made successes, including a mix of intrapreneurs, entrepreneurs and leadership training professionals, to see how they fueled ongoing career growth both in themselves and others. Feedback indicates that the new formula for career success is simple:
- Stay ahead of shifts in your industry by constantly broadening your experience and perspective.
- Cultivate flexibility and resilience in your career.
- Be a generalist, and learn as much as you can. Learn how to learn.
- Assume that disruptions will occur, and prepare for them in advance.
- Equip yourself with the skills and resources you need to improvise.
- Be purposeful and forward-thinking about the choices you make.
- Use feedback gained from the results of your efforts to keep making more informed choices going forward.
As a simple example, one successful marketing executive guards against career upheaval by taking smart risks. To future-proof himself, he routinely reviews his professional strengths and weaknesses then takes on a progression of carefully chosen job roles that address any shortcomings, and provide education and experience that serve as launch pads to future opportunities. This exercise includes making PowerPoint presentations of his own skills and experiences to determine where proficiency is lacking. He then specifically seeks out more challenging roles and responsibilities that allow him to fill in the gaps, exercise new professional abilities and demonstrate competence in unfamiliar areas over time.
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To master the art of salesmanship and communications, he started his career by serving as a customer service and advertising representative. To gain deeper insights into disciplines such as engineering and project development, and experience working with internal and external partners in multiple industries, he became a product team lead. To cement his ability to execute forward-thinking advertising and promotions strategies, he graduated to the role of VP of marketing and commercialization. And to demonstrate his ability to acquire and retain customers and build successful businesses, he transitioned to the role of VP of revenue to tie all these disciplines together. This process makes him more flexible and attractive to future employers, and capable of self-sustaining independently as needs arise.
A simple formula for success
Surveying participants’ success strategies, it becomes apparent that three new career moves that are equally elastic as the skills they convey — the “sidestep,”“backstep,” and all-important “slingshot” — can help executives sustain upward momentum, even in uncertain times. If you find your career plateauing, you can move sideways, a.k.a. sidestep, into a position of equal rank and pay (into an organization that offers more opportunities for advancement) or take a backstep by moving backwards and accepting a less prestigious title or less pay (say, leaving a Fortune 500 business to work for a start-up for the chance to gain new skills or experience working in emerging markets). Alternately, you can take a slingshot by making both a sidestep and a backstep while staying focused on your ultimate career target: When you apply the knowledge, experience and skills gained through these moves, you’ll leap far ahead.
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Case in point: One executive recently left Google to join a small, unproven start-up offering him more challenging opportunities in a more demanding role and environment — including the chance to head efforts to completely reinvent the business’s brand, product and customer acquisition strategies. A year later, he returned to Google, vaulting himself several rungs up the ladder in terms of rank and pay via this process.
But, equally vital to contemporary career success as cultivating resilience is cultivating the ability to sustainably and strategically improvise. Here’s a simple illustration. Amber Case, a young technology executive we interviewed, graduated during the Great Recession with minimal business experience and qualifications. Instead of taking a low-paying, dead-end job, she instead fast-tracked career success by turning her life into a self-guided MBA program. Committing five years to tackling a semester-like timeline of self-imposed challenges, including launching new conferences and entrepreneurial ventures, she purposefully declined full-time employment to pursue self-directed goals that eliminated gaps in her experience and skill set. Not only did she complete all goals ahead of schedule, and gain talents and knowledge far beyond peers, she proceeded to found a successful online start-up, become a noted industry thought leader, and serve as the youngest-ever member of her college’s board of trustees.
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What you need to know
Two basic principles — being proactive, purposeful and persistent with regard to one’s objectives, but highly flexible with strategic approaches — are central to modern career advancement. As the concept of stretchwork (measured professional growth and expansion) illustrates, finding career success isn’t about instant gratification. It’s about constantly building bridges to future opportunities. Just as organizations must perpetually change and innovate to keep pace with changing circumstances and markets, so too must working professionals. You can better equip yourself to do so by seeking out the tools, training and expertise you need to succeed long before you need them. If you’re adequately prepared to greet impending changes, the rest is all about being ready, willing and able to adapt as situations dictate.