Future-Proof Your Career

Taking charge of your own professional development is the key to becoming an invaluable employee.
Future-Proof Your Career

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Good investors always keep the big picture in mind. They’re also proactive and ever-alert to changing marketplace trends. They seek the wisdom of sage advisers while maintaining a well-diversified portfolio. Author and educator Barbara Mistick firmly believes that employees should aggressively do the same things — continually invest in themselves in order to “future-proof” their jobs.

What exactly is future-proofing besides a cool-sounding buzzword? A detailed explanation lies within the pages of Stretch: How to Future-Proof Yourself for Tomorrow’s Workplace, a book Mistick wrote along with futurist and author Karie Willyerd. But in a nutshell, it means proactively taking steps to make yourself invaluable to your company or organization. And it’s on you to make the first move, because the odds are that your employer isn’t doing it for you, she notes.

“It’s easy for employees to assume that human resources will take care of training and development for you,” explains Mistick, the president of Wilson College in south-central Pennsylvania. “But the training and development that many organizations provide today centers mostly on compliance — knowing the rules and regulations in their industries. So it’s on you to own your own personal development because you can’t be sure that your manager or your employer is going to do that for you. You need to recognize that and carve out some goals for yourself on an annual basis.”

There’s no doubt employees these days are concerned about their job security. As proof, Mistick points to a survey of 5,400 employees in 27 countries (half executives, half non-executives) conducted by Oxford Economics, a leader in global forecasting and quantitative analysis. The survey revealed 40 percent of respondents are concerned they don’t have the skills today to survive in the workplace of tomorrow. “They’re worried that their positions will change or become obsolete,” she says. “That’s why we decided to write the book.”

There are many reasons why employees don’t future-proof their jobs. The No. 1 reason is lack of time; for many of us, just tending to our normal responsibilities is challenge enough in these days of tight staffing and work overload. “And when you layer family responsibilities on top of that, people tend to feel overwhelmed,” she notes.

Another factor is overconfidence and/or lack of foresight, she adds. As an example, she refers to one person interviewed for the aforementioned study who was a multiple Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist with an enviable track record in the industry. But in the end, that didn’t count for much when the journalist rejected a new boss’s request to start blogging and get involved in other social media. Eventually, he was fired for resisting (though Mistick notes that he later saw the error of his ways, was rehired by the same boss that fired him and eventually learned how to thrive in the new-media world). “Overall, there’s a strong need to constantly look forward,” she asserts.

So how do you go about future-proofing your job? Generally speaking, Mistick points out four areas where you can get started on your own:

Learn a living. Too many employees only earn a living; Mistick believes they must learn a living, especially in today’s workplace, where radical advances in technology are changing the work landscape literally every day. “This is especially pertinent for employees who plan on retiring in, say, the next 10 years,” she says. “They tend to think that learning new skills isn’t worthwhile.” Moreover, constantly doing the same tasks at work contribute to a phenomenon known as “deskilling,” where people lose their ability to think on the fly and react to problems and challenges. As such, it’s important to break the mold every so often by embracing new concepts and ideas.

Be greedy about experiences. This goes along with learning; it can come in many forms, such as independently committing to expanding your knowledge in a field or volunteering for assignments/projects in other departments within an organization. You can also volunteer to serve on the boards of nonprofit organizations, for example. But in those cases, she suggests you avoid serving on committees that play to your strengths. If you work in marketing, for instance, don’t automatically accept a spot on a marketing committee; instead, ask to serve on the finance or strategic planning committees, where you can develop new skills that could eventually expand your career horizons.

“You need to think about work as a developmental tool,” Mistick advises. “We all go to meetings, for instance, but sometimes there are agenda items you might want to drill down into deeper. Think about the skills you can develop from doing that and take something away that can help you in the future.” Or think totally out of the box and explore how the actual meetings could be run more efficiently, she suggests.

Build a diverse network. Whether it’s attending a company function or the local chapter of a professional group, it’s important to branch out and meet new people, rather than always huddling with familiar faces. When you walk into a room, set a goal to meet, say, two new people. In the same vein, get to know employees in other departments and consider which ones might serve as good mentors.

“It’s critical to hang around with smarter people who can’t help but improve you,” Mistick says. “Pick out five people who seem to up your game when they’re around — people who get you to look at things differently and stretch you to think about things a little more deeply — and have coffee with them regularly. Be very deliberate about selecting these ‘five to thrive.’”

Bounce forward. Don’t be discouraged by career setbacks or project failures. The three attributes of employees who succeed despite career detours are grit, resilience and motivation. “Everyone has a story in their career about a false start or a disruption,” she points out. “But it’s what you do with it that makes a difference.”

Above all, you must make self-development a high priority, no matter how crunched you are for time, both at work and at home. “It’s all about recognizing that your professional development is on you,” Mistick concludes. “We all have dreams for our careers, and to make them come true, you have to make yourself a priority and ensure your skills stay current. You must make time to step back and determine what you can do to make yourself feel more confident about the future.”

In the big picture, it just might be the best investment you ever make.


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