During the 2008 financial crisis, a former banking colleague called to say he was setting up his own financial advisory business. Could I recommend potential candidates?

When I asked about qualifications, he said, “I want people who can operate with a compass, not a map. It’s the single most important quality.”

Because in a challenging and uncertain environment, there is no roadmap

If you need every step spelled out, you’ll struggle. That’s why he wanted people who could find their way equipped with the equivalent of a compass and in essence create their own maps.

Just as in the 2008 crisis, these uncertain times favor those who can take ownership of setting themselves up for success. So how can you create your own way forward despite the uncertainties?

To help you do just that, here are three actions you can take to set yourself up for the future. Especially when there is no roadmap.

Here’s what we’re going to cover:

  1. How to spend your time
  2. How to position yourself
  3. How to adapt your approach

Let’s start with the first point.

How are you spending your time these days?

Time is the one thing you can’t get back or make more of, so you owe it to yourself to spend it on activities that will set you up for success whatever the future brings.

Maybe you’re in firefighting mode, just trying to keep your head above water. Or busy with urgent tasks that aren’t really going to contribute in a meaningful way in the future. Or perhaps you’re spinning your wheels worrying rather than being productive.

We’re all going to have to deal with emergencies that pop up, like troubleshooting when systems break down or needing to care for loved ones who are unwell. And it’s natural to feel worried in these times. But that’s even more reason to make sure you’re protecting some of your time for self-care and constructive, forward-looking thoughts and activities.

Like anticipating what the landscape might look like in 12 months’ time and what will be needed to succeed in it. And what you and your team can do now to prepare. It’s the balance between making sure your boat doesn’t capsize but then also having an eye on whether you’re drifting off course in the meantime.

The way you spend your time sets you up for having the skills, experiences and confidence that will serve you well in the future, but it’s only part of the equation.

Which leads us to the second point …

How are you positioning yourself with others?

Positioning is about how you present yourself to the world, especially your current and potential stakeholders and any others who matter for your future success. This means reaching out to others, being clear about what you want them to know about you, your team and your organization. And presenting that in the best most effective light.

To what extent does the language you use and the strengths you emphasize need adjusting in order for your stakeholders – internal and external – to see you in the right way for what you aspire to in the future?

For example, if you’re looking to transition from being an individual contributor to a people manager, you’ll want to highlight your leadership and management experiences. On the other hand, if you want to remain an individual contributor and become seen as the expert in your field, you’ll be better off highlighting your technical expertise and ability to innovate.

And if you’re in an external client-facing role, you’ll not only need to position yourself, but also think about how you want to position your company in light of the changes going on in the world.

When the world is full of uncertainty, the key is to think about how to present yourself, your team and your company in a way that will work in the future, whatever it might bring. That means forming a view on what could be the case in the future and presenting yourself as being able to adapt to that.

This brings us to the third point, which is your approach.

What’s your normal approach and how well will it serve you now?

Most of us like stability and structure in our lives. It makes us feel more secure. That’s why we have daily routines and form habits. It’s like having certain things coded into your brain (aka your software system). 

For much of my career, my normal approach or “coding” included:

  • “Keep working on a problem until you solve it, no matter how long it takes”
  • “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth getting it perfect”
  • “If you want something done right, do it yourself”

That served me well as a junior analyst, but as I got more senior, it made me a micromanaging boss with perfectionist tendencies who struggled to delegate. Not exactly a recipe for success. Ultimately, I came dangerously close to burning myself out, which was the wake-up call I needed to change my approach.

The current environment is also serving as a wake-up call for all of us. The way you’re used to doing things might not serve you well going forward now that the world has changed and keeps changing. This is an ideal time to look at how you want to adapt your approach so you can have an easier time and be more successful despite what’s going on around you.

In times of uncertainty and change, the most important shift you can make is to embrace improvising. Like the American television character MacGyver who uses whatever’s at hand to get himself out of the challenges that he faces in every episode.

But what if you’re so busy that you can’t focus on the future?

We’ve all been in that “too busy” situation, especially in times of change and when resources are scarce. But that’s exactly when you’ll benefit most from stepping back, reevaluating what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it.

When the future is uncertain and changing, the things that you’ve historically been busy doing might not be the things that will serve you well going forward. The key is to ask yourself whether the things that are keeping you busy now will move you toward the future you want.

Just don’t make the mistake of leaving it to others to direct you

Waiting for your managers, your partner or some higher authority to tell you what to do is a mistake for two reasons.

First, you run the risk of following someone else’s definition of success. One that might not be fulfilling for you and might even lead you to a dead end in your career. Like my former colleague who acted on the feedback to “keep doing what you’re doing” but then found himself with limited options 10 years later, wishing he had invested in new skills and experiences earlier in his career.

Second, if you’re waiting for someone else to tell you what to do, you won’t be seen as a leader. And that’s a showstopper if you want to keep advancing in your career. In these times, we need everyone to take leadership by contributing their best thinking and ideas whether that’s for your own career, your business unit or your community.

It’s time to take charge of your future, even if it’s uncertain

You can get started by taking these three actions:

  • Look at your time – are you spending it on activities and projects that will stand you in good stead no matter what the future brings?
  • Assess your positioning – how do you need to present yourself, your team and your organization to stakeholders to set yourself up for success going forward?
  • Choose your approach – how will you adapt your approach to change and uncertainty to set yourself up for success no matter what happens? How would embracing improvisation help you going forward?

So when there’s no roadmap for the future, use these action steps as the compass to help you create your own map. 

Which of these steps is most important for you to take to set yourself up for success in the new normal?

Leave me a comment and let me know.