Harvard Business Review: How to Build a Career You Won’t Hate - Michelle Gibbings

In this article for Harvard Business Review, Michelle provides a “career guide” which is designed to challenge you to think critically about what you want and where you should focus your career energy.

When 2021 started, it looked brighter than the previous year. We started fresh with new hopes and dreams gleaming on the horizon — but we all know how that turned out. Whether we were looking to get promoted, change jobs, or transition into a new role — some career goals we miraculously achieved, while others were put on hold for the foreseeable future.

This year, we can take the lessons we learned and develop a more strategic, intentional, and flexible approach to our futures using what I call a Career Guide: a well-thought-out plan highlighting what it will take to progress our careers in ways that we find truly meaningful.

This approach has served me (and my clients) well throughout my time in the corporate world and now as an executive coach helping others make the leaps that will advance their careers.

Create Your Own Career Guide

Your guide will include four parts total. Each is meant to challenge you to think critically about what you want and where you should focus your energy. The ultimate goal is to identify and take steps that will help you align your career with your deeper purpose and skills.

Part 1: Write down your current “career traps.”

In my work, I often come across people who are clearly trapped in their jobs. They know something’s not working for them but struggle to pinpoint what that is or why it’s so. I call these situations “career traps,” or patterns of thinking and behaving that we practice because they are familiar to us — even though they can negatively impact our productivity and effectiveness and lead to poor health as well as feelings of isolation.

It often takes a crisis — a pandemic, getting fired, painful boredom, burnout, loss, or a significant illness – for us to stop, reflect, and recognize the career traps that might be tripping us up.

Don’t wait for that to happen. Based on my experience, there are five common traps employees fall into. Be proactive by challenging yourself to consider if these traps are impeding your progress.

  1. Ambition trap: You’re a high performer who is used to success. You worry if you slow down, you’ll stop achieving. Not knowing how to dial it back, your solution is to work harder when the pressure at work rises.
  1. Expectation trap: You continually strive to meet other people’s expectations. Consequently, admitting that you’re struggling and over-worked is ego-shattering. You worry that people will think less of you if you acknowledge you are burned out or unable to cope.
  1. Busyness trap: You enjoy being busy and consider it a part of your identity. For you, work always comes first. As a result, you struggle to say no, slow down, or switch off. You likely regularly sacrifice time with loved ones and your health for your job.
  1. Translation trap: You’ve worked hard to get to where you are, yet the happiness you thought you’d find eludes you. You have all the hallmarks of success, but you feel like you have lost your way because your role doesn’t fulfill or inspire you. Nor does it align with your purpose. At the same time, you worry about changing directions because you believe that your current job is all you know.
  1. Adrenalin trap: You run your life on adrenaline, not taking enough time to care for your mind, body, and spirit. You are run-down and overworked. You say to yourself, “I’ll take a break tomorrow,” but tomorrow never comes. You have forgotten that putting your self-care needs first is a critical act of leadership and crucial for a sustainable career.

Avoiding these traps (and getting out of them) involves making deliberate trade-offs, and deciding on those trade-offs will become easier when you are clear on what matters to you. This brings me to part two: figuring out your purpose. 

Part 2: Define your purpose.

Your purpose is your “why” —  the reason you do what you do. For some of us, it may be to lead a happy and healthy life. For others, it may be to create a life filled with learning and passing on those lessons. Purpose can center around study, experimentation, and trying new things. It can involve serving our communities, taking risks, or venturing into the unknown. Whatever our purpose, research shows that we can find meaning in our work by putting our why at the center of our decision-making.

So, what’s your purpose? Answering this question isn’t easy, and there’s no magic formula. It is an iterative process that involves some soul searching. To start, pay attention to what matters to you and motivates you.

Ask yourself: Why do I do what I do?

When you answer this question consider both your personal and professional life. This holistic approach is essential because you can’t divorce your work from the rest of your existence. A decision you make personally will affect you professionally (and vice versa).

If you feel the answer isn’t apparent, dig deeper and ask yourself:

  • What matters to me?
  • What and who inspires me?
  • When have I been the most motivated?
  • What difference do I want to make through my work?
  • When have I been most proud of who I am as a person?

Write down your responses and look for themes or common threads. If you are more of a visual thinker, you might even try creating Pinterest boards for each question. The objective is to capture your thoughts, feelings, moods, and impressions. Your ideas don’t need to be perfectly formed, so long as they have meaning. Over time, ideas will percolate, bubble up, and the obvious answers will spill over. When that happens, you will know you have hit on something. It will feel right.

Once you know your purpose (which, by the way, can shift and change over time), you can be more intentional about dropping the habits that don’t serve you (your career traps) and doing things that bring you closer to it. When picking a job or career path or saying yes to a new project, for example, you can ask yourself, “Does this align with what really matters to me? Does it get me one step closer to living a life aligned with my purpose?”

If the answer to those questions is yes, you know you are ready to move forward.

Part 3: Document your unique skills and create your selling statement.

Say you want to get a job that will stretch you and it aligns with your purpose of always learning. To get that job, you will need to demonstrate to your prospective employer what makes you a good candidate, and more so, better than others who may be vying for that job.

Take some time to identify unique skills or your Unique Selling Point (USP) — the things that, combined, make you better than your competition and would make any hiring manager pick you.

To find your USP, try this exercise:

  • Divide a sheet of paper into two columns (or use Google Sheets or a Word file).
  • List the skills and competencies you know you have in one column. Include role-specific technical and functional skills (i.e. programming, design, or accounting), as well as non-role-specific competencies (i.e. problem-solving, relationship building, or creativity).
  • For each item on your list, ask, “What value and benefit does this offer an employer?” and add your responses in the next column. For example, your digital skills may help an organization elevate its digital presence, or your strong relationship building techniques may support a business looking to improve its customer engagement.
  • Look at your experience and expertise and highlight your greatest strengths — the specific skills you do best and make you an especially valuable candidate.

Once you have gathered all your data, use your analysis to start drafting what I call your “selling statement,” or a short explanation of who you are, what you stand for, and the value you can bring to any team, culture, or organization. Play with the words and sentences until you find a combination that accurately captures your essence.

Here are some short examples:

Example 1: I am an energetic sales professional committed to building strong and successful customer relationships. With a demonstrated record of identifying and nurturing potential leads and converting those into successful customer relationships, I create sustainable, high-quality revenue streams.

Example 2: I’m committed to making a difference by helping people learn and grow in their roles through my work. I’m skilled at creating a shared sense of purpose among my team members so we can deliver outcomes in a rapidly changing and complex operating environment. I do this by bringing the talents of each individual person to the forefront. 

Your selling statement has multiple uses. You can use it as an elevator pitch for prospective employers and also add it to your resume or LinkedIn profile. Remember, though, crafting your statement isn’t a one-and-done exercise. As you grow your skillsets and experience, you can and should revisit and rewrite it. Plus, what’s valued by employers changes with time, so you want to ensure your USP is current, meaningful, and targeted.

Part 4: Seize opportunities to expand yourself.

Lastly, make the most of every opportunity that comes your way. This doesn’t mean you need to say yes to every opportunity. It means you need to be strategic and consider how the opportunity aligns with your purpose, goals, current skills, and the skills you need to build to get to where you want to go.

As part of this, always be on the lookout for possibilities to expand your current role and involve yourself in tasks you find stimulating. For example, you could volunteer to get involved in projects you are curious about or seek work that enables you to acquire new skills. Take the initiative and talk to your boss or other leaders to discover what’s possible. As well as making your work more interesting, you’ll be delivering more value than expected, and most importantly, broaden your network.

Successful careers don’t happen by accident or happen without help from others. You need good people — and great people —around you to inspire, challenge and support you along the way. Your network plays a crucial role in this. Having a broad and deep network helps expand your mindset about what’s possible, more readily learn about how your industry and profession are changing, and identify where new opportunities are arising.

Now’s the time to do the work. With your career guide drafted, your purpose at hand and your attention focused, you will be ready to make this year your best year yet.


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