are you “shoulding” on your career?

by | Oct 14, 2015 | Leadership

What is your definition of “career”? Many of my career coaching clients have an idea of a career as a linear progression of experiences, one experience building to the next where one can look back and see a coherent path. And they often feel that their career has fallen short because it doesn’t fit this mould. They look at their CV and say, “It’s just a hotchpotch. It doesn’t look like I’ve had a proper career.”

If you followed through on a long-held aspiration as to what you wanted to “be” when you grew up, or went into a profession like law or accountancy, then you may well have followed a particular path, even if you’re now wishing you hadn’t.

The realities of forging a career
However, the majority of us have felt our way through our working life. We’ve navigated the vagaries of the job market taking into account what we want to do, what we think we should do – and what we think other people think we should do – what we need to do to pay the rent/mortgage and, of course, what people are prepared to hire us to do.

The biggest challenge is not how you present your collection of working experiences on your CV, but how you learn from them to create the next experience in your career.

“There is no such thing as a career path. There is only crazy paving and you have to lay it yourself.” Sir Dominic Cadbury
I love this quote. In my career, I have worked for 8 organisations in 5 industry sectors, I’ve taken 2 career breaks including volunteering abroad, I’ve worked overseas and I’ve engineered several changes in career direction, starting in arts administration then experiencing accountancy, sales and marketing, project management and HR before landing in the field of people development.

I’ve also experienced redundancy and I’ve become a business-owner. I didn’t even know what an executive coach was when I started out let alone think I’d be running a business being one!

Your working identity is not set in stone
Throughout my career journey, I’ve made decisions that help me get nearer and nearer to what I think I want to do through experiencing things, learning from them and adjusting course depending on how they were working out.

As Herminia Ibarra says in her book Working Identity : “Even when we have more precise notions of what’s next, we tend to change our minds as we learn more about what they really entail….we simply cannot plan and program our way into reinvention.”

Align what you do with who you are becoming
Underlying my diverse career journey is a long journey of self-discovery helping me come to terms with who I am and who I’m not. And because I am human and constantly changing, this journey is destined to continue.

Are you the same person you were 10 or 20 years ago? Ibarra challenges the static definition of identity – that we have a true self, a fully-formed personality – in favour of the theory that we embody many possible selves, some of which are more developed than others. If we subscribe to this theory, what world of possibility does this open up for us?

One slab at a time
One dictionary definition of career postulates, “an occupation undertaken for a significant period of a person’s life and with opportunities for progress”. I wonder who wrote this and when because I think it’s outdated. I’m a believer in crazy paving.

Just like a career, crazy paving has a coherence when it’s been laid even if you’re not sure what it’s going to look like as you go along. You can only make a career decision with the information you have in the moment, just like you can only lay one slab of crazy paving at a time. Once you’ve laid the slab, you can decide what the next slab will be and where you’ll put it.

What is the next career experience you want to create for yourself? Remember, one slab at a time.

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Alison Reid is an experienced executive coach who helps senior managers and directors lead with confidence and step-change their influence and impact. She works with them 1-1, empowering them to focus on what matters, communicate with impact and stay calm under pressure so they can lead themselves and others to great results. She's the author of Unleash Your Leadership : How to Worry Less and Achieve More. Download an extract or buy the book.

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