Companies & Industries

The Accidental Career


Lots of people just stumble into a line of work. But the folks who get hired fast today are the ones who chose their particular field

The newest message in my in-box is a lot like the one I read 10 minutes ago—and plenty of others I have read recently. "Dear Liz," it begins, "I'm 48 years old and working as a director of [X] in a midsize company. I don't love the work, but I fell into my function through a series of events in my 20s, and as it turns out I'm good at it. I earn six figures and have been promoted twice. Now, my job is being eliminated, and I need to figure out a career direction, fast, with the complication that apart from what I've been doing, I don't really know which sorts of opportunities to consider. Thanks. —Gary."

Gary, like many of the other people writing me, has had what I call an accidental career. They would all be the first to tell you they never really planned to end up in purchasing, or corporate finance, or HR or marketing. It just sort of happened.

That's nothing to be ashamed of, of course. The education available to young people about possible career paths in Gary's day (and mine) was woefully scanty. It's no wonder that many of us tried one thing and then another, found a niche that was O.K .and paid the bills—and we stayed put.

Having Direction Gives You the Edge

The problem is, the job market has changed. The folks who get hired most quickly today and for the best jobs are the ones who know exactly why they're in quality or circulation or safety or corporate strategy. Not only do they know where they are; they can also tell you where they're going. These highly marketable candidates have direction, and that direction informs them every day about whatever jobs they're holding at the moment.

For instance, if you're the manager of an ad-sales team for a magazine and you have your eye on the publisher job, you're going to pay more attention to editorial than your fellow sales managers. If you're an HR person sidling toward a future organizational development role, you're going to focus on the people-development aspects of HR and leave the compensation and benefits issues to your peers.

Career direction—a sense of how our past roles figure into our current one, and a clear vision for what we'd like to do—is an asset. If you're one of the people whose path so far has been accidental, can you turn on the career-direction switch now? Yes. It's a choice, like deciding to take control of your retirement planning once and for all. In fact, the loss of a job that you were proficient at but didn't love is perhaps the universe's greatest signal to get some career direction. Even if you're under time and financial pressure to get a new job quickly, you can make enough investment in your career direction to make sure that the new job moves you forward rather than in reverse.

Bear in mind, though, that you moving your career out of the accidental zone takes some long thinking and hard work.

Acting Too Fast

One of the biggest job-search mistakes that accidental careerists make is that they jump into action mode without settling on a direction. "I have years of experience in management and marketing, and skills in leadership, budgeting, negotiation, operations, production management and sales" reads a typical letter. The subtext to this message is "I don't know what the heck to do with my career—maybe you, the reader of my cover letter, can figure it out."

That was an iffy approach in boom times. It's a hopeless one now. To get a job, your pitch has to say that you're the best possible candidate for whichever job you're pursuing. And who's the best candidate—a person who does a little of this and a little of that and has a wide range of skills in multiple areas, or the person who's homing in on the job at hand like a red-tailed hawk ready to strike?

Career direction doesn't have to come from personality tests and check-the-box assessments. I'm no fan of these tools. Standardized career-assessment instruments tend to move us away from our own rich life experiences and talents in an attempt to mechanize and make an algorithm of career direction-setting. We can do a better job asking ourselves and our close friends these three questions:

1) What am I good at?

2) What do I love to do?

3) For what sorts of answers and what sorts of help do people around me—in my personal and professional lives—seek me out?

As we're moving from an accidental career trajectory into a planned mode, there's another critical element to keep in mind. What are employers looking for? We can decide on a next career in lion-taming or jewelry design, but if employers aren't looking for those talents and if we're not ready to make the entrepreneurial leap, we need to keep digging to find the place where talent, passion, and demand intersect.

Sharpen Your Career Description

Where to dig? A great starting point is SimplyHired.com, a jobs aggregation site that shows you what's been posted on a wide range of career sites in your target functional area and your city. If the demand for metallurgists is lower than the demand for network engineers (hint: it is), you'll know that your search in one area will be harder and longer than the other.

You can't start a job search without direction. Your direction needn't extend as far as "I know for a fact that I'll be in technical marketing in my next job and until I retire." Who can see ahead that far? You need only to get to "I'm focusing on technical marketing positions in this job search for these three good reasons" in order to plant your stake in the ground. At that point, you'll construct a résumé that nails your qualifications for a technical marketing job, and start researching the employers who seek technical marketers.

Your career direction is the point on the arrow that gives your job search a framework beyond "I have to make a mortgage payment next month." My Buddhist friends tell me that there are no accidents—that you've arrived at this point in your career for a very good reason. Now, it's up to you to find the meaning behind your meanderings and stake your next claim.

Liz Ryan is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive.

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