We Americans have any number of attributes that uniquely define our culture. That’s true in society at large and in the workplace. Normally, these characteristics are healthy and helpful. Sometimes, however, habits that were once benign can suddenly become foolhardy and even harmful. We love our cars, for example, and although many of us have long driven them to work, that easy, comfortable way of doing things now threatens our wallets as well as our environment.
This good-to-bad transformation also applies to our careers. Historically, if you put 100 Americans in a room and asked how many of them set goals for their career and then direct their employment toward the accomplishment of those goals, fewer than ten would raise their hands … if they were answering the question truthfully. The reality has always been and remains to this day that we don’t do careers in the U.S. of A.
You can, of course, put a positive spin on that habit. You could say that we have ignored our careers because we were focused on our employers. Since the 1920s, when President Calvin Coolidge first articulated the notion, most of us have believed that The business of America is business. What was good for General Motors was good for America. And, if we helped make GM or Lehman Brothers or Enron or MCI or any other American employer successful, we would be successful too.
No less important, there are only so many hours in the day. Every minute we spend on ourselves is a minute we take away from our employer, so being a loyal, heads-down, hard-at-work employee is simply a part of the way we earn our paycheck. We put our job ahead of our career because we are sure that our employers care about our well being and, therefore, we can do no less than reciprocate.
Now, I’m all for positive thinking, but that view clearly doesn’t correlate with our present day reality. In the past, you could treat your career as an afterthought because the world of work just wasn’t very dangerous. Stick with that habit today, however, and you’ll likely find yourself stuck in place as the world passes you by. The American workplace is no longer filled with numerous, sturdy career ladders held up by our employers. It has morphed, instead, into a single, huge jungle gym on which there is no prescribed path to success. If you want to survive—let alone prosper—in this vastly more dynamic and demanding environment, you have to do careers. More specifically, you have to do your own career. If you don’t, it will do you.
How do You Do a Career?
The hardest habit to break in doing a career is getting yourself to stop putting your career second. In today’s workplace, you and your career must come first. Why? Because what your employer deserves in return for its paycheck is not a lifetime of loyalty, an 85 hour workweek, or 24/7 connectivity via your Blackberry. While those metrics have, unfortunately, come to be seen as our modern measures of individual performance, they are not what your employer (or any employer) needs or even wants.
What best serves your employer isn’t harder work or more work; it’s your best contribution. And you can’t make your best contribution if your career is weak. To put it another way, you can’t take care of your employer unless you take care of yourself—and your career—first. Unless you devote the time and attention required to make your career strong.
What does a strong career look like?
As I explain in my book, Work Strong: Your Personal Career Fitness System, a strong career is one with seven attributes. It’s a career where:
- you refresh and expand your expertise in your field of work so that you are always able to perform at the state-of-the-art;
- you extend and nurture your network of contacts in your field and industry so you are always top of mind when opportunities come up;
- you add ancillary skills (e.g., a second language, the ability to use a new software program) so that you are able to extend the contribution you make with your primary area of expertise:
- you push out the limits of your comfort zone so you can work in the widest possible range of situations and circumstances;
- you work with those individuals and organizations that will support and advance your career so you are always in an environment where you can succeed;
- you volunteer your talent to community, social service or environmental groups so you can contribute to others’ future as well as your own; and
- you pace yourself with appropriate downtime and vacations so you preserve and reinforce your enthusiasm and commitment to doing your best work on-the-job.
If that sounds like a lot of work, it is—at least in comparison to the effort we expend when we don’t do careers. As onerous as such a commitment may seem, however, it begins to make some sense if you remember the Golden Rule. With a slight modification, it holds all the justification you should need to invest more time and priority in your career. In the treacherous and demanding world of work that is now our present and our future, Do your career as you would like your career to do for you.
Who is Peter Weddle?
Peter Weddle is a recruiter, HR consultant and business CEO turned author and commentator. Described by The Washington Post as “… a man filled with ingenious ideas,” Peter has earned an international reputation, pioneering concepts in human resource leadership and employment. He has authored or edited over two dozen books and been a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, The National Business Employment Weekly and CNN.com. Today, Peter writes two newsletters that are distributed worldwide and oversees WEDDLE’s LLC, a print publisher specializing in the field of human resources. WEDDLE’s annual Guides and Directory to job boards are recognized for their accuracy and helpfulness, leading the American Staffing Association to call Weddle the “Zagat of the online employment industry.”