How we reinvent our skill sets is always an important topic, but especially now. In the current COVID-19 environment, we all have to be a little sharper about how we do our jobs and see around corners to stay ahead of what’s next.
There were obvious transitions as things went virtual and everyone had to adapt quickly to change. Now we have more of an opportunity to be strategic about our careers, reimagining a path and being nimble and agile in our thinking. We are acutely aware that things we knew to be true in the past can’t be counted on anymore. It’s time to question assumptions and build on our skills, talents, and attributes to thrive and succeed.
You eliminated, reduced, added, or changed a bunch of things amid the pandemic, but now ask yourself if you’re doing the right things. The business terrain looks very different from what was familiar just six months ago. Going forward, we don’t know what the economy or the virus is going to do, so we need to build in resiliency and be ready for anything. A foundational skill for everyone is reinvention — and it is a lifelong adventure.
Strategies to keep your career strong
Through my research over the past decade, I’ve identified nine strategies to be most relevant when looking at how to adapt, thrive, and be agile. They leverage the skills you have worked so hard to build and put those skills to work for you whatever challenges come your way. I’ll show you how to put the strategies into action with examples.
1. Embrace a proactive mindset
Joanne’s passion was that she wanted to be a chef in the restaurant sector, but she had no experience at all. If you don’t have the experience on paper, how do you get qualified and separate yourself? A lot of people feel held back by lack of experience. But in a world of more than 7 billion people, you will always have less experience than someone.
Joanne knew just sending in a résumé without any experience would not work and she needed to distinguish herself. She decided to be proactive and wrote a personal letter to every top chef in Boston explaining in detail why she admired them, what she wanted to learn from them, what experience she did have, and that she was willing to start at the bottom and do anything. One of the top chefs in Boston just had her prep cook quit, and she was moved by Joanne’s letter and decided to hire her and give her a chance.
Now Joanne is an award-winning chef who owns four restaurants. Some people could say that was just luck. But in a matter of weeks, 100% of the chefs wrote back to her, which is powerful. We have to be proactive and not be held back.
2. Map your future
Lenny was rising quickly within his organization at age 35. I heard about him when I was consulting at a hospital in New York. When I finally met him and asked him how he did it, he told me that he pre-wrote his résumé. Most of us update our résumé every year or so, but he writes his résumé five years in the future, precisely setting down the job he wants to have, responsibilities of that job, and jobs he will need to have in between to get there. This exercise creates an action plan by working backward and enables him to identify where the gaps are and to get the training and experiences he needs to get to be where he wants to be in five years.
Today Lenny is the head of innovation at another hospital. Mapping out our future is not just wishing and hoping but requires precision to think through the skills we need and how to close the gaps.
3. Embrace starting from zero
I write a lot about the power of entrepreneurial thinking. Todd had a small niche business as a youth mindset sports coach, but he wanted to grow his business. He didn’t have a lot of money to advertise. He asked an important question, “What do I have?” He had time and was a good public speaker. It’s an important question for all of us to ask because we all have something.
Todd reached out to all the youth sports organizations in Western Canada and offered to speak to their people for free. The only stipulation he made was that for every kid who attended, one parent also attended. He got a lot of youth clients out of this but also expanded his practice in unexpected areas. Parents heard him speak and asked if he would coach adults, and he ended up gaining some very prestigious clients as an executive coach.
4. The power of a sprint
Michael was a consultant and wanted to start his own business, but he had never gotten his own clients. I was impressed with his philosophy. Michael challenged himself and decided that for 30 days he would do everything he could to reach out to everyone he knew, and if he couldn’t get one client in that time he would give up and move on. He got three new clients.
In challenging circumstances like COVID-19, a possible response is to freeze in fear. But hunkering down and doing nothing is often not the right move when we need to take action. We all know people who keep talking about starting something new but never force themselves to take action and make a commitment to do it by a deadline. Create a trigger for action and let your passion run; the combination will drive something truly powerful.
5. Place small bets
Danny was an early provider of online training courses. His story showcases something we have all likely experienced, spending time and effort on something that you think will be amazing but then nobody wants it. He spent six months creating the perfect marketing course that only one person bought. He was demoralized, but he believed in online courses. A few years later, he placed a small bet. In one hour, he wrote a course description for a course he was thinking about and sent it out asking if people were interested in it, would pay for it, and would beta-test it. The idea connected, and people were willing to pay for it.
We can all stand to waste an hour to get good data but not six months of our lives. You need to ask, “What is the smallest bet I can make?,” test it, get market validation, and save yourself time and heartache.
In a struggling economy like ours right now, a lot of people think they can’t afford to take any risks. But entrepreneurial thinking isn’t so much about risk-taking — rather, it is about risk mitigation. You want to take smart risks: those that bring the greatest reward for the least amount of risk. So, ask yourself: How do I make the risk less risky?
6. Learn from unexpected mentors
Hank was a successful newscaster and investigative reporter. I met her doing something different, at a mystery writing workshop. She had loved mysteries since she was young, and it led to her being a reporter, but it never occurred to her she could write a mystery novel. That changed when her former intern was writing a novel and asked Hank to review her draft. Hank quoted to me the Zen saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” In the course of reading the draft, Hank realized she could write a book, too, and it set her career in a new direction. She has written a number of novels and won awards for them.
The lesson here is to consider any contact as a possible mentor. A mentor doesn’t have to be a senior person. Hank learned something very profound from a much younger woman. Instead of looking for the one perfect mentor, make a conscious effort to spend more time thinking about what you would like to become, what characteristics you would like to have, and whom you want to learn from. Then you can spend more time with those particular people.
7. Bonding and bridging
Robert D. Putnam, a Harvard political scientist, talks a lot about this concept. We all know during fast-moving uncertain times we need to be innovative, and exposure to different types of people is more likely to lead to new ideas and perspectives. But in reality, this process falls short because two different types of relationships exist in our social networks — those with bonding capital and those with bridging capital. Bonding capital is relationships with people like us, like other accountants, people in our firm, or from the same college. We tend to over-index in bonding capital because it is easier to talk to people who are like us. But if we have more people in our network that are like us, we can be weak in bridging capital. Bridging capital, derived from people who are not like us, is critical to perspective and innovation.
It’s a little uncomfortable, but one strategy is to find the overlap between these two circles. You can connect with someone in your network who represents both bonding and bridging capital, like someone in your alumni association who has gone into a very different career from yours. If you’re overweight in bonding capital, you may want to reallocate and develop bridging relationships.
8. Make your ideas visible
Mike used to work for me. He became an entrepreneur who started an urban planning firm in early 2009 and built a very successful business. He picked an emerging area in his field, researched it extensively, and published a “book” of case studies in a PDF document that people could download for free on his website. Within three months, 10,000 people had downloaded it. He quickly established his reputation as an expert, and new clients came to him looking for his expertise.
If you want clients to come to you in this economy, be seen and heard. Maybe you can do webinars, create case studies or ebooks, or write articles for your website or other publications in your field. Make your ideas and expertise visible; it changes the power dynamic and people will come to you.
9. Get luckier
Tony Tjan, a venture capitalist, wrote a book about what made entrepreneurs and executives successful. He found that one in four was a “luck-driven leader.” Luck is something you can’t control. But upstream factors you can control could make you luckier downstream.
Curiosity and humility are the two factors we can control. If we are curious enough to ask questions, question our assumptions, and reach out to people who seem interesting, and if we are humble enough to realize there is always something new to learn, we have created the circumstances where luck can take root.
What will you do differently?
I’ve just given you a lot of possibilities and nine different strategies. You don’t have to do all of them. But I encourage you to pick one of these stories that resonates. What you do differently can lead to dramatically different results that can make you more successful and resilient during these times and over the long term of your career. Watch a recording of an AICPA webcast I presented in June, and get more information and related resources.
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— Dorie Clark is an internationally recognized consultant, keynote speaker, and author, and a professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Ellen Goldstein, the Association’s director–Communications & Special Projects, at Ellen.Goldstein@aicpa-cima.com