Hailed as the world’s leading business strategist, award-winning professional speaker Scott Steinberg is among today’s best-known trends experts and futurists, and the bestselling author of “Think Like a Futurist;” “Make Change Work for You: 10 Ways to Future-Proof Yourself, Fearlessly Innovate, and Succeed Despite Uncertainty;” and “Millennial Marketing: Bridging the Generation Gap.” He is also the president and CEO of BIZDEV: The International Association for Business Development and Strategic Partnerships. His website is FuturistsSpeakers.com.
As recent coronavirus-related upheavals that have rocked the working world remind, constant change is the new status quo, and uncertainty the only certainty in business. This radical instability fundamentally undermines the foundation of traditional career advancement models, which are grounded in stable organizations, working environments, and job hierarchies. To ensure ongoing career growth and progression going forward in an age of growing uncertainty, tomorrow’s leaders won’t just need to be more skilled and capable. They’ll also need to be more forward-thinking, resilient and able to improvise as well.
As interviews with scores of leading business researchers, academics and senior leaders at leading startups, and global innovators such as Amazon, Facebook and Mastercard reveal though, this concept is seldom instinctive. Rather, it requires working professionals to anticipate continuous career disruption, and take calculated steps to acquire elastic skills — widely-applicable talents which can easily be remolded to fit any industry, organization or job role. Capable of serving as springboards to future opportunities, these elastic skills can allow workers to become more flexible, agile and adaptable regardless of circumstance, even as knowledge and experience steadily compound. They can also help executives rebound more effectively from unexpected setbacks. But perhaps most strikingly, the process of gaining these skills, and the invaluable insights, contacts and experiences that often accompany them, frequently requires one to execute a series of seemingly counterintuitive career moves — often at the expense of immediate opportunities for advancement or financial gain.
To understand the new model for career success, I interviewed dozens of serial and self-made successes, including a mix of intrapreneurs, entrepreneurs and leadership training professionals, to see how they both fueled ongoing success in their career and prepared future leaders to greet tomorrow’s challenges. As I explain in my recent book “Fast >> Forward: How to Turbo-Charge Business, Sales, and Career Growth,” feedback indicates that the new formula for career success is simple:
As a simple example, one successful marketing executive we polled guards against career upheaval by taking smart risks. To accelerate growth, and become more adaptable, he routinely reviews his professional strengths and weaknesses, then takes on a progression of carefully chosen job roles that address any shortcomings and provide compounding education and experience that serve as launchpads to future opportunities. He specifically seeks job positions that require him to exercise new professional skills and present him with more challenging roles and responsibilities, which allow him to grow in ability, gain new talents and demonstrate competence in unfamiliar areas over time. This makes him more flexible and attractive to future employers, and capable of self-sustaining should he ever need to operate independently. To circumvent the onset of potential career disruptions, he routinely disrupts himself, gaining the knowledge, training and elastic skills needed to successfully adapt long before the future arrives.
Assessing survey participants’ success strategies, it quickly becomes apparent that three new career moves that are equally elastic as the skills they can convey — the sidestep, backstep, and all-important slingshot — can further 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 career growth), or take a backstep by moving down the ladder 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 and hands-on experience, or work 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.
Case in point: An executive I interviewed recently left Google to join a small, unproven start-up offering him more challenging opportunities in a more demanding role and business environment. Just over 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 important to contemporary career success as becoming more resilient is cultivating the ability to sustainably improvise. Feedback from the executives I polled indicates that the process of scaling current career heights is, in fact, more like free climbing up a sheer cliff face. To ascend it, you’ll constantly have to carve out your own handholds (i.e. create your own hands-on learning or job opportunities) and cling to convenient outcrops for leverage as you climb (make the most of whatever limited resources are available to drive forward momentum). Likewise, you must continually assess the odds of success for each prospective career move along the way, and make the strategic choices that convey the most long-term, sustainable benefits (e.g. skills or insights you can use for a lifetime).
When career hazards bar forward progress, you cannot simply expect to find a rung conveniently placed nearby, nor is it always advisable to grab the closest one at-hand. Instead, sometimes you must circle around or even double back on your chosen route to reach your ultimate career objective. As sidesteps, backsteps and slingshot maneuvers reveal, sometimes, this means having to assume a less-advanced job title in a different department to learn new skills, or switch roles or organizations, to boost opportunities for advancement. To maneuver around unexpected stumbling blocks or dead-ends, all you can do is keep weighing the odds, considering potential payoffs, and picking the most promising new trail to follow.
What’s more, the only safety harness available is one that must be self-created. But if you look to the future, plan ahead and consistently make intelligent bets that help you acquire the elastic skills, connections and resources that pave pathways to further opportunity, you can create the professional equivalent of a bungee cord that can save you if you ever slip, and — as you begin to bounce back — also help vault you to unexpected heights.
Wherever you sit on the career spectrum, exercising resilience and improvisation can not only accelerate career growth, but help sustain it, even in the face of continued setbacks.
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. Winners don’t simply seek jobs that pay the bills. Rather, they select specific occupational roles that can help them parlay competency in existing disciplines into new areas, and expand their toolbox of professional talents and capabilities.
Finding career success isn’t about instant gratification, it’s about constantly building bridges to future opportunities. In the same way that organizations must perpetually change and innovate to keep pace with changing circumstances and markets, so too must working professionals. To deal with impending career changes — expected or otherwise — it’s essential to improvise and think ahead. 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, and consistently applying these solutions to positive effect. If you’re adequately prepared to greet impending changes, the rest is all about being ready, willing and able to change as situations dictate. I&FMM