Reinvent Your Career to Stay in the Competition

Students and working professionals have to reinvent themselves at every stage of their student lives and careers. Especially in the context of the ongoing recession where hiring is slow and the competition for jobs is intense, all of us have to continually keep upgrading our skills and becoming more competitive. The simple rules for businesses and individuals in society is that one has to be more competitive than the other if one has to win the race. Therefore, the cardinal rule here is that one must do whatever it takes to stay ahead of the rest of the pack. This can mean that one has to acquire new skills, learn new languages, and try out different soft skills and practical experience gaining endeavors among other things.

For instance, for working professionals who want to be competitive, learning new languages (especially foreign languages) would be an added advantage, as they would then be considered for lucrative overseas assignments. Similarly, working professionals can also enroll in soft skills upgrading courses and acquire computer and technological skills so that they are at an advantage when compared to others when management decides on whom to pick for promotions and other opportunities.

Further, when economic conditions are bleak and jobs are scarce, the competition for limited resources increases and this is where individuals with additional skills are in demand. The best example of this would be those graduates who are enrolling in part time courses that teach new skills and new courses to add to the resume. Even when the economy is booming, it is often the case that professionals with added edge over their peers are hired for jobs. For instance, during the tech boom of the 2000s, many professionals from manufacturing and other sectors were absorbed into the IT industry as they had sectoral and vertical experience which when combined with IT skills made them the perfect fit for the companies. For students, it makes sense to take electives and optional courses in areas other than their core competencies as this would help them become a well-rounded individual who would be preferred over others who have remained stuck to a narrow focus. In other words, those professionals and students who bring to the table additional skills and additional expertise are often at an edge over their peers.

In academics, many teachers and professors often change with the times and reinvent themselves. For instance, there are many economics and management professors who in the time of the tech boom reinvented themselves as professors of managerial economics and economics of information systems so that they can get more funding for their work and further their careers in academia. The reason for citing this example is that this is an apt description of how one can reinvent oneself by combining the present and the existing skills and merging it to suit the changing trends. The key aspect of this example is that economics is common to all management subjects and hence, the basic core competence in economics has been combined to the changing trends of IT and strategy. Similarly, many middle level managers often enroll in long distance and part time management courses so that they would have management degrees to buttress their resumes and become more competitive than their peers. Further, many students often participate in soft skills training programs so that they are at an advantage over others whose language, interpersonal, and communication skills are better.

Q. The first question on your list, “Wait, what?”, seems especially relevant to a job search. Is it?

A. Definitely because it’s the first step to clarification and understanding. People looking for a job, especially young people, want to seem confident, so they don’t ask for enough details about what a job will actually be like—and then, once they start [the job], they’re surprised.

Don’t hesitate to ask about things like how much independence you’ll have, the reporting relationships, the hours you’ll be expected to put in, and exactly what you’ll be doing.

It’s so easy to make assumptions that put you in a job that’s wrong for you, where you aren’t at your best, and that’s always a mistake.

Q. How does asking, “I wonder if…?” affect a job hunt?

A. Often, the scope of someone’s job search is too narrow because it doesn’t take into account all of the skills and talents people bring with them. So looking at lots of different possibilities and asking yourself, “I wonder if I could do that,” can be really useful.

It’s also important to keep asking. People in midcareer tend to be less curious and more inclined to stick with the status quo. Coming into this job as dean of graduate school [after 15 years of teaching at the University of Virginia School of Law], I was a total outsider, and I asked, “I wonder if…” so often that I’m sure I annoyed lots of people. But in most organizations, the question isn’t asked enough.

Q.  Your book makes “Couldn’t we at least…?” seem like perhaps your favorite question. Why is that?

A. It is! I ask it all the time—at work and at home. With any new project, you usually can’t see how it will turn out in the end. But if you wait until you have the perfect plan, something new can stall out before it’s even begun. So “Couldn’t we at least…?” is how you begin to make progress.

“Couldn’t we at least…?” is also a great question for getting past conflicts. It’s a way to find common ground, as in, “Couldn’t we at least agree…?” It’s a good way to get unstuck.

Q.  Why is “How can I help?” important at work?

A. First, it’s a sincere offer. Most people say, “Let me know if I can help,” which comes across almost as a signal not to ask! Second, it’s asking for specifics, which obliges the other person to focus on what they actually need. Sometimes, someone just needs to vent, which can be helpful in its own way.

Q.  Let’s talk about “What truly matters?” from a career standpoint. How does this question help?

A. It’s particularly useful in a job search because it’s about your priorities. Where do you want to live? How long of a commute can you tolerate? How much money do you really want to make, or need to make? How much does work-life balance matter to you? 

Be honest with yourself, and have the courage not to accept a job offer that doesn’t correspond with your honest answers. The reason so many people are unhappy in their work is that they didn’t look hard enough at what really matters to them before they took their current jobs.

This question also helps in work situations, like meetings. If you go into a meeting thinking about what is really important and how to accomplish that, you’ll get a lot more out of it. Or you may realize you don’t need to have the meeting at all.

Finally, as in life so in career and hence, one must change with the times continually so that one is always ahead of the pack. This means that one has to anticipate the changing circumstances and trends and prepare oneself accordingly so that they are at an advantage of others who have not done so. Remember that chance favors the prepared mind and hence, it is always good to anticipate and prepare for the future.

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