Designing Your Provocative Career Path

A few years ago I volunteered at a community Career Center. Many of the clients had been in their positions, or at least with the same company, for 15-20 years or more. Then something changed and they found themselves unemployed or laid off, dazed and confused in a land they hadn’t prepared for. There were office workers who didn’t keep up with automated office technologies, computer programmers who didn’t see the end of the mainframe coming, and laborers who didn’t see their skills becoming obsolete before their eyes. They were devestated, which is an understandable response to job loss, but unable to wrap their minds around the changes their new reality would require. Those who learn to proactively design their careers will have a much easier time adapting when change happens.

Another interesting thing I noticed as I counselled Career Center clients is that it is really difficult for most of us to define our vocations apart from job descriptions. Try it. When someone asks you what you do, is your immediate response to give your current job title? I’m a blah-blah-blah for so-and-so. So what!? What does that tell me about who you are and what you do? In order to have agility amid rapid change, we need to rethink the way we define who we are. That way, if our current position goes away or morphs into something else, we are prepared to adapt.

Most of us won’t land in our dream job by going with the flow. We have to take control of the rudder as we navigate the seas of the marketplace or we’ll end up on a shore we didn’t really want to be on. To have fulfillment & significance, we must create the future we desire using what we learned about ourselves in our Discovery and Dream exercises.

In Design we move from “What” to “How,” putting our career strategy together and identifying what training, formal education, network connections and vocational stepping stones will get us from here to there.  While the Dream phase allows us to have our head in the clouds, the Design phase keeps our feet planted on the ground of reality. Not that we discount our dreams, but we realize dreams don’t become reality overnight and they require a lot of work to make them real.

One activity that’s part of Cooperrider’s AI Design model is writing provocative propositions. As you identify the themes and strengths that make you who you are, write out what is most important to you. What are the key ingredients to your desired future and what process will pull everything together? Paraphrasing Cooperrider’s idea of what provocative propositions look like, they should

                …stretch, challenge and interrupt the status quo

                …be grounded in reality – have possibility

                …be stated in affirmative and bold terms

                …be confirmed by those closest to you

Provocative propositions provide a clear, shared vision for…[your] destiny. (Cooperrider)

As you work on the Design of your career plan, be positive and courageous. You’ve come this far – don’t give up. Yes, it’s hard and possibly overwhelming if you have decided to take a new direction. But embrace a long-term perspective and see the months or years of preparation as brief as you move toward greater satisfaction and purpose in your work. Have fun with it!

Dreaming Your Way To Your Professional Future

Times of transition make great opportunities for us to dream. When I was laid off in mid-2010 I took the time to think about what I wanted the next chapter of my life to look like. I resisted the temptation to apply for every job that came along and instead spent time reflecting and dreaming. As we look at taking an appreciative approach to managing our careers, this stage of dreaming is essential. It’s the place we stop to really consider what we want to see more of in our professional lives.  It’s important that we ask ourselves questions like,

  • If I could do any job, regardless of pay and experience, what would I do?
  • What do I do really well and enjoy so much that it hardly seems like work?
  • What do I want to keep doing, let go of, or do differenlty?
  • How did I define success? What will it look like if I’m successful over the next five years?
  • Review the questions from Part 1 and think beyond your immediate answer.

Cooperrider (et al) says, “the Dream phase is the time to push the creative edges of positive possibilities and to wonder about [your] greatest potential (Appreciative Inquiry Handbook, 114). Imagine your future without limitations and create your own opportunity map. Once you have articulated a dream for the future you want, you can begin the Design phase.

Consider how your industry is changing and how you want to position yourself within your field. Have you lost your edge? Then dream of a new way to hone your skills, or find a niche where you can utilize your knowledge in a meaningful way.

As I allowed myself to dream during my period of unemployment, I took advantage of career transition assistance, completing several assessments and inventories to help me think through my professional story and the direction I wanted to head. I considered pursuing a non-profit direction to tap into my idealist nature, then swung back to “working for the man” to earn a dependable paycheck. In the end, my dream led me to start my own consulting practice where I could do what I do best in the area of performance improvement & organization development, but also spend some of my time doing pro-bono work for non-profits.

What’s your professional dream? What limits are you putting on yourself that you need to work through? Dreaming isn’t practical, but it’s important. In the next installment we’ll talk realistically about how to bring your dreams in line with your circumstances and map out a future that gets you closer to your ideal professional future.

Self-Discovery Critical to Managing Your Career

Part 2 of An Appreciative Approach to Career Management

Getting out of the default mode of career management means we have to do some soul-searching, stopping to really understand who we are and what we want out of life, specifically our work life. Some of us have a really hard time with this, especially if we feel we’ve missed opportunities, are somehow deficient in comparison to others, or believe that we have little control over our career trajectory.  Whether you feel hopeless or hopeful, you will benefit from some structured introspection. And an appreciative approach to managing your career will help you see the high points more clearly, and prepare the way for dreaming up a career path in which you will thrive.

The appreciative cycle of Discovery, Dream, Design & Destiny is easily applied to career management. Cooperrider and Whitney talk about the task of “disclosing positive capacity” through the Discovery phase. When it comes to managing and planning your career, an affirmative, appreciative method means you are looking for those things that make you feel most alive, the times when you’re at your best. There are many ways to do this exercise. You may want to spend some time in a quiet, peaceful place and think about those activities, accomplishments and successes you’ve had in school and work. Don’t allow negative filters cloud this process. This is your time to brag on yourself while also identifying what really makes you happy at work.

If you like structure, you can use instruments like Birkman On Demand (www.birkman.com) or Strong Interest Inventory (https://www.cpp.com/products/strong/index.aspx). It’s good to use a variety of assessments that help you find strengths, vocational interests, personality and other preferences. If you prefer, simply opening up a blank notebook and writing down what you think are your greatest strengths, attributes, interests, etc. Do what works for you. You might explore mind mapping, which has helped many people through career planning. A good example is at http://www.geekpreneur.com/managing-your-career-with-mind-maps.

Getting the most out of the Discovery phase requires dedication to the process. Have fun with it! To stay in an appreciative mindset, I’ve modified the Discovery phase appreciative interview process (Appreciative Inquiry Handbook, 2003) for career management:

  1. Understand the power of appreciative inquiry. Remember to ask yourself questions about when things were working best in your career. Focus on successes. Find your positive core – affirm the smallest successes and triumphs and build a positive image of yourself.
  2. Manage the negatives. Appreciative career management isn’t about burying your head in the sand, but you do want to reframe negative situations from your career history so that you can move forward positively. Use a separate piece of paper to write down things you want to think about fixing and don’t get stuck in regret. Highlight the things you’ve been able to do that you didn’t believe possible beforehand.
  3. Be specific as you write down summaries and stories. Probe deeply and intently – learn from yourself as you reflect on your past. Think about what, exactly, you were doing – what was the work environment like? What were the conditions? What was your role? Who were you working with and for? Consider both behaviors (what you did) and values (what you felt) while you were engaged in different projects and activities.
  4. Identify the “life giving forces.” How did the culture or work environment foster success for you? Think abstractly about what was present in the organization when your had your peak experiences. Then start to pinpoint themes that define the ideal conditions that put you at your best.
  5. Have fun and celebrate who you are! Remember to keep an affirmative spirit to this exercise of Discovery. This is your opportunity to get to know yourself better and you may surprise yourself with what you’ve accomplished!

Appreciative discovery should be a very positive experience as you articulate your history with a focus on your career and education. This is not the time to think of the “woulda, shoulda, coulda” times in your life. Reframe setbacks in light of what you learned and how you have changed. Consider who you really are, not what others want you to be. Bob Buford, in his book Half Time: Moving from Success to Significance, says It is discovering what’s true about yourself, rather than overlaying someone else’s truth on your or injecting someone else’s goals onto your personality. Whether your story is a drama, a comedy, a tragedy or a mystery, it’s your story and discovering who you are when you’re at your best is an indispensable exercise as you manage your career.

An Appreciative Approach to Managing Your Career – Part 1

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The late Peter Drucker, renowned for his practical insight on leadership and work life, said the biggest change of our generation, the factor that impacts who we are and what we do, is not technology, the internet, or e-commerce, but self-management. People today have more choices than any previous generation. Our life expectancy, and thus our working lifespan (the number of years dedicated to working), has increased to the point that the single-career life is unrealistic. We have to consider that we will have at least two careers, which may or may not have much to do with a previous career.  What is critical to note is that no one else is looking out for your career – it’s something you have to manage yourself. Taking an appreciative approach to managing our careers gives us hope, energy and focus as we ask ourselves positive, strengths-based questions.

Many of us have landed where we are by default, an unplanned trajectory that started when we got our first “real” job. From there we’ve floated the course of the river (or climbed the proverbial career ladder) and find ourselves pretty good at something we tolerate but don’t get excited about. We feel stuck because we have good benefits, a comfortable routine, and restist changing course now because it seems overwhelming if not unneccesary. But Drucker and others predict that we will be forced to change jobs either through obsolescence or redundancy. Since changing careers does not seem to be avoidable, we should take an intentional, positive route to prepare ourselves for the next vocational chapter in our lives.

What’s your story? When you think back over your life, the jobs you’ve had, the organizations you’ve been a part of, the volunteer activities you’ve signed up for, and the hobbies & social activities you find most enjoyable, what stories stick out in your mind? Storytelling is powerful, and being able to tell our own story, especially to ourselves, is extremely valuable. That may sound like a funny statement, but it’s true. Sometimes we are editors and minimalizers when it comes to our own stories, especially as it relates to ways we have excelled, advanced, and grown. How often do we allow ourselves to tell the whole story about our successes?  

What questions should you be asking yourself? The fact is, the framing of our questions directly informs the answers we give.  David Cooperrider and Diana Whitney observe in their book Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change:

Human systems grow in the direction of what they persistently ask questions about, and this propensity is strongest and most sustainable when the means and ends of inquiry or positively correllated.

In other words, if we ask positive, strengths-based questions we’re likely to get positive, strengths-based answers.  Generate questions that get to the positive core of who you are, then build on those questions to move toward designing a positive vocational direction for yourself. Some sample questions you might ask are:

  • What is the high point of my career, when I felt most engaged, vibrant, alive?
  • What achievements am I most proud of?
  • What do I do especially well?
  • When do I feel that I’m at my best?
  • What, specifically, am I doing when I feel energized about my work?
  • Imagine yourself ten years from now. What is different? How have you accomplished your dreams?

These questions will get you started in a positive way. We’ll go deeper in the next post to identify the appreciative cycle (discovery, dream, design & destiny) and finally some practical advice on managing your career.