How to Create Career Options to Avoid Feeling Trapped
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My mother grew up in China during the Second Sino-Japanese war. They were poor and food was scarce. So the few items they had in their mud brick house were precious.
When a thief climbed in through the window one night, my mother and her brothers started shouting. The thief was cornered and desperate. That’s when their mother – my grandmother – did something surprising.
Instead of trying to protect their remaining items of value, my grandmother ran to the front door, flung it open and told her children to clear a path for the thief to leave. Grateful for this option to escape, the thief ran out into the night without taking anything.
My grandmother knew that people trapped without options are likely to do desperate things and can’t think or be at their best. That’s why she gave him a new option: to flee rather than fight.
The same is true for having options in your career.
Without career options, it’s easy to feel trapped and desperate
And that leads to bringing less than your best to your work and career.
Since you can’t count on having someone give you options like my grandmother did, the question is how can you create them?
Here are three strategies for creating career options for yourself so you never feel trapped
- Be visible
- Apply your skills to a new area
- Develop new skills
Let’s start with being visible.
Being visible is the foundation for creating options
When people know who you are and what you’re capable of, career opportunities are likely to come your way. That’s because they’re more likely to keep you in mind when they have a need, or when someone else asks them for recommendations. And this expands your set of opportunities across the organization, and even across the industry sector.
If you’re only known to people in your direct line of reporting, you’re limiting your options to the group you’re already in. As they say, if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, did it really fall? My answer to that is “it’s irrelevant”. And being irrelevant is never a good thing for your career.
Of course, be excellent at what you do. But also make sure others see what you’re doing and the value you bring.
Who else needs to see the excellent work you’re doing?
This brings us to the second strategy.
Think about how you can apply your existing skills to a new area
There are two ways you can use this strategy to explore new options. First, you could take the skills that you’re known for and apply them to another area.
For example, if you’re the expert in analyzing financial risk for the credit card business, those skills could be applicable to other businesses as well – perhaps areas where there’s more career opportunity.
Or if you’ve been laid off, it may be a good time to look beyond the field you’ve been working in – like marketing for airlines vs. marketing for healthcare organizations.
Second, you may have some skills and strengths that you’re not getting to apply in your current job. And these may be skills you’ll need to show in order to move to the next level. In that case, showing off more of those currently used skills might get you the “wrong” kind of visibility – one that uses only the muscles currently on display.
That’s when you want to look beyond your current tasks or role
See if there are other areas or projects you can take on to showcase the skills and strengths you’re not getting to use.
If you’re good at managing your project team but have no formal management opportunities, maybe you could demonstrate this in an off-the-job situation and make that visible to people in your organization. Or you can do that in the context of your current job by asking for a stretch assignment where you’ll have the chance to show your people management skills.
Where could you apply the skills you already have to create more options?
This leads us to the third strategy.
Developing new skills is a great way to generate more options for your career
Things are changing all the time, and the needs of your organization, clients and industry are part of that change. When you can anticipate those changes, you’ll be in a strong position to build up your capabilities in those new areas. And this will create options for you in the future.
It pays to have the right skills for the next step you aspire to
Of course, you’ll want to do that in a way consistent with your strengths, interests and aspirations. But also look ahead at what skills will be in greater demand in the future. For example, the ability to analyze business data and suggest strategic steps in an environment of uncertainty.
By the way, one set of skills that’s growing in demand is business analysis. If you’re a problem solver, you’ll benefit from checking out this free training on How to Successfully Launch Your Business Analyst Career from my friend Laura Brandenburg.
What’s a new area of skills you’d like to develop for your better future?
But what if you've recently taken on a new role?
Does it still make sense to think about creating new career options when you’re only just settling in to the one you just got? Of course, you need to make sure you’re doing what you need to do to excel in your new role. But it still makes sense to reserve some part of your efforts to creating future opportunities for your career.
Creating opportunities takes time. And the more senior you become, the more you’ll benefit from giving yourself a longer on-ramp. That's because there are fewer senior roles than entry level jobs. Plus, you may not want to say “yes” to every opportunity that comes into view.
Having options means you have choices. And that’s when you have the best chance of staying true to the career you want to have.
Just make sure you avoid the mistake that most people make
And that mistake is not keeping an open mind. Sometimes options are right in front of you but you don’t recognize them. Or you dismiss suggestions without exploring them.
For example, when I was searching for my “next era of meaningful work” after leaving my banking career, an acquaintance suggested that I train as an executive coach. I thanked her but walked away thinking, “no way – I’m an executive who gets coached, not someone who coaches others!” Six months later, I bumped into my acquaintance again.
When she asked how my search was going, I had to admit I’d made little progress. She repeated her suggestion about training as a coach. “You don’t have to become a coach, although I think you’d be great at it. It’s just a useful credential to have. And it’s a platform you can stand on to differentiate yourself. And you might just like it.”
Soon after that, I did sign up for a coaching certification program and it has turned out to be one of the best career moves I’ve ever made.
So stay curious and explore. And keep an open mind!
It’s up to you to manage your career, and one of the best gifts you can give yourself is to create options so you can make choices. Just choose one or more of these strategies and you’ll be creating options for your career in no time:
- Be visible: give people the chance to see you in action, including those beyond your direct reporting line.
- Apply your skills to a new area: whether it’s skills you’re using now or strengths that you’re not getting to use in your current job
- Develop new skills: focus the skills that will be in demand in the future and that will build on your strengths and help you achieve your aspirations.
While you won’t be able to count on having someone like my grandmother showing you the path to a new option, you can take these steps to create them for yourself.
Which of these strategies will you use to create options for your career so you never have to feel trapped?
Leave a comment and let me know.