Staying ahead of the career curve

With the rate of change in today's business world accelerating, the executive who adapts before they have to will be best placed to turn change into a source of advantage, writes Dianne Jacobs.

In today’s business climate the consequences of change are accelerating. There is no doubt that the coming year will bring its difficulties. Restructures, turbulent markets, performance and capital pressures are just a few complexities. Not to mention, variable returns on career investments.

To cope, some draw on high levels of self-efficacy, nous, resilience and an innate comfort with ambiguity. For others, remaining agile, competent and relevant, triggers anxiety. They feel they are on a rock in the middle of a river looking nervously at the whitewater rapid.

Then there are those who are passively swept along by waves of activity. Working ‘in’ a career and not ‘on’ it, has limitations. It may mean a series of positions that essentially repeat the same experience. It can result in underdeveloped skills for a coveted future role or diminished value and power.

What should an executive do to be better prepared?

Change before you have to, is sound advice. Yet, the greater risk would be acting with outdated logic. The human side of change is complicated. Beliefs that help one succeed can be barriers to bring about needed change.

Of course intelligent people know how to solve a problem, but it is the most astute who know how not to get into the problem in the first place. They are smarter about the career curve, recognising when to go upstream to develop a new strategy or further options. If not paranoid, they are highly alert. These traits give them the insight to recognise a pending inflection point, initiating the necessary actions to avoid derailment, or worse, a career crisis.

Coaching conversations with these executives reinforces using change as a time to construct their future, developing tactics to expand the space in which they operate (context, positioning and energy) and extend their personal and professional reach (influence and connections.)

Think about those successful executives who do take charge of their career. They willingly try more different things to exploit returns. They trust, but verify. Being great advocates of accountability they take control, calculating any risk and actively managing it.

Divergent thinking stretches assumptions about how their career will evolve. Pushing boundaries, parallel paths are created to intelligently experiment with possibilities, test new directions and find segues to suit capabilities. Strategies are fundamentally about choice, difference and advantage. Flexibility is as much about deciding what not to do, as it is about deciding what will be done.

Having come to terms with the fact that some skills, while effective, have a use-by date, they look for ways to renew, up-skill and re-position. They have a strategic eye toward emerging business models. More than just repackaging their background, they look for multipliers. Recombining competencies gives increased options to move between functions, divisions or industries to secure their career if needed. This modus operandi means results are more likely.

Protecting their franchise is paramount. Reputation, within their organisation and among external communities, is vital. Highly connected with intricate networks and coveted levels of social capital, they frame and shape others’ views of who they are and what they can accomplish.

Strategically, being business-critical relies not only on the right performance, but also garnering a special position with those who count, inclusion in key decisions and having the clout to negotiate prized career moves.

The half-life of executive capability is short. Executives must be adaptive to catch the right waves. Without the ability to leverage change into a source of advantage, individual and technical skills are all but temporal.

Dianne Jacobs is founding principal of The Talent Advisors, a boutique talent capital consulting and executive coaching firm. She is a former equity partner at Goldman Sachs JBWere.