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.

A good story

Do you have a friend or family member who is great at telling stories or recounting events? My wife, Jenifer, is an amazing storyteller. It’s one of the things that attracted me to her in the first place. She can take the most mundane encounter and make it into a dramatic tale with an unexpected plot twist and even a moral to the story. I’m envious of her and others who can engage people in what they have to say. They make everyday life interesting and see things that others don’t see.

Stories are powerful and leaders are becoming increasingly aware of how they can shape a company culture. As the workplace becomes more complex we need stories to ground us and connect us to one another. Global organizations span multiple cultures, yet need to have a central theme that bonds them across geographical boundaries.

Zappos has done a great job in leveraging social media to tell their story. Type in “zappos” at YouTube and you’ll get over 5,000 hits! Some of the videos are posted by Zappos leaders and employees, but others are submitted by loyal customers. Same thing goes for TOMS shoes – there are more than 2,000 videos that tell the story about how TOMS shoes was founded, how they give away a pair of shoes for every pair sold, and how they’re changing the way we look at corporate social responsibility.

I’m still practicing my storytelling skills and have made this an intentional focus because I believe the way we tell stories to one another shapes our views and attitudes. I enjoyed listening to Jeanne Baer at ASTD-Lincoln yesterday. She shared 7 reasons why stories work as a tool and 8 different types of stories we can use, depending on our goals and situation. I’m looking forward to hearing Rita Paskowitz share her approach to storytelling at the Omaha Organization Development Network meeting next Wednesday.