Five Career Mistakes to Stop Making Now

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Dr. Bill Dyment, Dyment & Associates, Inc., co-author of Fire Your ExcusesPencil Erasing on White Paper

By Dr. Bill Dyment, Co-Author of Fire Your Excuses.

June 6, 1944. As the shadows on Normandy Beach grew longer, wounded allied soldiers shared a cigarette and a joke as they awaited evacuation and treatment.  It is said the morphine they had received on the beach was so effective in dulling their pain that many did not realize they were mortally wounded and had only hours, even minutes left to live.

It is not uncommon to meet skilled “third quarter” career professionals whose current position also has no true future.  Dulled and tired from heavy workloads, fueled by denial, and surrounded by other similarly “wounded comrades in arms,” many are also unaware of their looming fate.  Either they will become an expendable commodity as cheaper, younger employees compete for their position, here and abroad, or they will manage to retain their jobs with the sad knowledge that, for them, upward career mobility and its accompanying salary increases have ended.

Consider Matt, a mid-level manager, who has delivered superlative work for nearly 15 years.  In recent months, he has grown increasingly tired and stressed. He is now expected produce more, much more, with no additional compensation or staff. Further,  there is talk of layoffs and little reason to hope for a significant raise or promotion. At the moment, with a daughter about to enter college, he is simply hanging on. He desperately needs this job but after years of exemplary work and rewarding recognition, these days, he is feeling overworked, devalued and discouraged.

Ellen is one of many we meet who quickly volunteers that “her industry is not what it use to be.”  While she sees no job threat on the near horizon, she is restless, bored and has been passed over whenever she has applied for a more senior position. In the parlance of the Old West, her “horse is dead” and she needs to “stop riding it and look for another.”

Ellen is no longer excited to come to work or about the direction her industry and organization are headed. Yet at this point in her career, she has no idea what she would do if she left. She feels as if it is too early to retire and too late to start over. “How did she get here?” She muses.

Both Matt and Ellen now recognize what is happening but each were caught off-guard by changes within their organization and market sector.  Each believed that, like the bosses who hired them, they alone would be making the decision when either leave to take a better outside offer, or to retire at a level comfortably higher than where they find themselves now.  Instead, market forces have chosen for them.

I will never forget walking into a huge room where, in one half of the space, cubicles that one held highly-skilled workers had been neatly knocked down, row after row, like harvested corn.  Each time I returned, the inexorable march of job elimination had pushed the border of flattened cubicles a little further across the room, rendering the band of survivors ever smaller in number.  In a year, the plant, once booming with thousands of workers, fell silent altogether and its remaining operations moved out of state.

It is rare that once-valued employees are afforded so obvious a signal that their job is in jeopardy as the ever-closer border of dismantled cubicles, yet the creep of obsolescence and commoditization is very real. I have also become convinced that such a fate need not be ours. There are many who have positioned themselves as industry leaders and work into their early 70’s and beyond for the sheer love of the game.  There are remedies that we can each take to ensure our continued success, even in a crowded, international marketplace.  In addition to being skilled and having a sufficient EQ (emotional quotient) today’s mid-career professional must also develop a robust CQ, or “change quotient.” The choice is ours.

Below are five common career mistakes and five executable strategies you can use to avoid early job obsolescence or a career trajectory that fails to reach its intended altitude. These “half-time” interventions are not difficult. However, they do require a thorough, unflinching, diagnosis of our current career health and to take immediate action before we are either too bruised or too tired to act.

Mistake #1: “Sitting This One Out.”

Quick, what was the first year you used a computer in a serious way? If you are currently in the middle of your career, you may have been in your teens or older before you hopped on a keyboard to work on anything other than your video game score. Marc Prensky called those of us who were not born with a mouse in our hands, “digital immigrants.” We may be quite proficient these days in all things electronic but it is important to keep in mind that the digital world is our “second language.” In contrast, Prensky’s “digital natives” are those who can’t remember ever not using computers and the Internet to communicate.

While we are all learning new digital platforms; ways of communicating and doing business, digital “immigrants” are especially susceptible to declaring a new site, platform or media avenue, a fad, not-relevant to our industry, or my favorites, “unprofessional” or even “unethical.” These biases make us vulnerable to being isolated from where the real action is taking place in our industries, often at the new edges of technology.

Two years ago, a clinical colleague in his early 30’s praised Psychology Today’s online therapy directory while we were catching up over coffee. I had heard of it but was skeptical. Experience had cynically taught me that most paid directories only served to enrich the publisher and a few featured star performers while the hundreds of other professionals, who received little or nothing in the bargain, paid the bills. Entry was typically steep, billed yearly, and usually yielded only a lighter wallet. Reluctantly, then, I decided to try the directory for a month. I am glad I did. Today 30% of my clinical referrals come from the site. It wasn’t hard to see what was going on, the site was heavily populated by digital natives, less so by digital immigrants. The paradigm was shifting, the general rules of the game had changed, and I was late to the party.

A Challenge: The next time you dismiss a new app, site, platform, or digital trend, pause for a moment to ask, “Am I biased against this new offering because of my “immigration status?” Use wisdom, but test out the new opportunity. Don’t be afraid to be the first among your colleagues to see if it is right for you and anticipate a learning curve.

Mistake #2: “Silo-ing Your Success.”

Have you ever attended a networking or association meeting and felt as if everyone there was a “robin” looking for the “same worm?” At such events, you may exchange business cards and pleasantries but you get the distinct sense that if there is exciting new work to be found, its would probably be hoarded by the lucky finder, not freely shared.

Membership in professional associations is important for many reasons, and some new business does flow from these connections. But a better career-building idea may well be strategically networking in face-to-face and online groups where you are the “only one of your kind.” At the very least, split your networking time between places where your colleagues are and where they aren’t. Like me, you may also find that the “borderlands” of your profession are where the biggest opportunities await you.

Start by moving beyond your specific field and reach out to others in your general vocational field. For example, as a psychologist who speaks to corporations some 150-200 times per year, I have found an eager audience among other health professions—nurses, doctors, and others who are also promoting wellness. They are close enough to my profession to share my focus on health and balance but distinct enough to value my unique perspective, consulting experience, and training. Hence, hospitals have become my most welcoming corporate clients which has led to a wide range of projects from training and development, to the mediation of departmental conflicts.

Mistake #3: “Commuting to Work on the Wrong Bus.”

Who we choose to surround ourselves with will have an incredible impact on our career. It was Jim Rohn who famously said that we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with.

To get a quick read on influence of your closest colleagues, ask yourself these questions: 

Who do you see weekly…

1. Who is far smarter than you?

2. Whose choices and character you greatly admire and wish to emulate?

3. Who is growing at a faster pace?

4. Who will fearlessly but kindly point out your blind spots, excuses and weaknesses?

5. Who lives in a much bigger world and is willing to show you the sights?

The important take away is that crafting a designer “career development team” doesn’t happen by accident. Time, age and distractions can slow move us to the margins where little is happening and to environments where we are fighting hard not to become like everyone around us. Careful cultivate and weed your most influential circle!  You will become like them.

Last year, for example, my colleague, Trent Adams and I began a mastermind group of six business owners who meet for 90 minutes every Wednesday morning before our workday begins.  It has transformed our businesses.

I will sometimes ask my audiences, “How many of you feel as if your biggest life moments are behind you?” While it is true that some of life’s most significant milestones–school, marriage and kids happen in the first half of life, it is striking, but not unusual, to hear professionals still in their 40’s speak in terms that clearly indicate that, career-wise, they are already “winding it down.”  Unless, this is your goal as well, surround yourself with people that aren’t quietly counting down the days to retirement.  

Mistake #4: “Commoditizing Yourself”

Dr. Alan Weiss, top business coach and consultant, states that in order to grow exponentially in your career you will need to find the intersection of:

  1. Your passion (interests)
  2. Your skills
  3. The needs of the marketplace

Picking “two out of three” just will not work.  If you are highly skilled and passionate about your career but the market has moved on, you have some decisions to make. Either you will need to resign yourself to a meaningful but undervalued career or migrate to an area of your field that is still vibrant and growing.  Similarly, if you are skilled and doing work the market values but it holds no personal passion, you will soon find yourself bored and eventually inefficient.

The capricious interests of the marketplace can be cruel, just ask once powerful companies such as Blockbuster. The key is to anticipate those sea-shifting trends that have the potential to shipwreck your career.  To paraphrase a well-read book, when the cheese has left the building,  don’t be the last one out or you may starve.

Do you see any trends in your field that will soon erode or continue to chip away at your value in the marketplace and reduce your time-honed skills to a commodity?  If so, no matter how successful you have been in the past, it may be time for some serious, even painful, realignment. You won’t be alone. Millions have done so successfully before you.  Don’t be caught looking.  Find role models who have reinvented themselves, who are ideally your age or older, and learn from them. Continually, ask yourself and poll others: Where is our industry growing and fading?  Then, be among the first to proactively shift your focus.

Mistake #5: “Blending Into The Background.  

Today even historically untouchable positions are being assessed for redundancy and elimination.  When it is time for a promotion or layoff, those who stand out positively are usually the first to move up and the last to go, respectively. In fact, the research is quite clear:  The most optimistic person in the room has the most influence and power, regardless of formal title. Is this you?  If not, why not? 

There are a number of ways to distinguish yourself as an expert in your field, department or organization.  Writing and speaking are obvious means but there are many others.  Leading new initiatives at work, gathering others together, starting online groups, and interviewing industry leaders are all ways to make a impact and to leave an impression.

Did you know the average American reads four to six books a year? That’s hardly a high bar to clear.  Would you like to be seen as a leader in your field or organization? Do one or more of the following:

  1. Be the one who reads the most and shares generously from what you’ve learned.
  2. Invite others to gather for fun and to brainstorm new ideas.
  3. Start an on-site or virtual Mastermind group.
  4. Actually connect with your LinkedIn connections!

5, Write a (yearly) industry trend report summarizing what you have discovered by research, polling your peers, and interviewing leaders. If you can write a term paper, you can write a summary of where you see your field heading in the coming months.

These simple but strategic actions will grow your career in ways you can’t imagine.

The basic principle is this:  By keeping up with your own duties but contributing just a bit more to your industry, organization and world, you will stand out.  Brian Tracy said it this way: If you become one tenth of one percent more productive each day, five days per week, you will increase your overall productivity by 1004% in one decade. That’s amazing indeed!

Final Thoughts:

As General Eric Shinseki, Former U.S. Army Chief of Staff said, “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.” The challenge in recognizing these five mistakes before they do serious damage to your career is that they usually happen slowly. Anticipate and review them yearly and you will consistently be professionally one step ahead.  Be on the lookout for your own denial, resistance and cynicism.  Don’t be afraid to do some things that will be disruptive.  They will shake you out of your complacency.   You can do this!

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