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Home > Business > Special


How to create a GREAT career

Alison Overholt, FastCompany.com | May 04, 2006

Careers don't just reflect which jobs are available, they represent who we are as people. Fast Company was founded on that notion (among others). The ensuing 10 years have seen everything from the rise of online job boards to the Brand Called You, the birth of blogs to offshoring.

All of these developments have had a significant impact on the way we manage our careers--and the next 10 years promise to be just as dramatic. A number of technological and demographic trends still in their infancy will shape the way you develop and guide your professional life in the decade to come. Here's how to ride those waves.

Spin Out Your Network

Networks are morphing from small, closely knit circles into expanding webs that can reach just about anywhere--and collect virtually all the information you need. "It used to be that a young professional's network consisted of six friends and their dad's uncle," says Elliot Masie, president of the Masie Center and author of a weekly industry newsletter that goes out to 55,000 corporate executives.

Now even an average student who doesn't think much about networking in the traditional sense will already have dozens of "friends" in his or her Facebook network (an online directory for college and high-school students and alumni) before leaving campus.

"We are amazed by the sheer number of grads staying connected to others today," says Christopher Morris, the director of MBA career management at the Wharton School. Because sites such as Facebook are viral, the new friends you acquire give you access to all of their friends. The result? People are entering the workforce with hundreds of contacts--and they're eager and ready to deploy them.

Today's power networkers aren't just hoarding contacts but sharing information in unprecedented amounts at unbelievable speed. "They're far more open about discussing their private lives, from what they did at that party this weekend to salary information about their jobs," says Morris.

"What used to be difficult to get, you can now just ask [for]." Masie sees this warp-speed, ultraconnected culture at work in his own company. "Students who do internships with me use Facebook more than email," he says. Their conversation threads regularly focus on work experiences: What did they learn? Who did they meet? Was it fun? Did it pay well? Where do they want to work next? "One used Facebook to decide not to take a full-time job she was offered," he says. "Her network told her it wasn't a good place to work."

"This is a group with a team, a project, and a collaborator mentality," says Alice Snell, VP of the talent-management research division at Taleo, a San Francisco-based company that produces human-resources software for companies such as Citigroup, Honeywell, and Dell.

If there's a tech problem, their first instinct is to instant-message a geek buddy for advice on how to fix it. If they're on a product-development team, they'll reach out to friends for input, not necessarily caring whether they're observing traditional corporate boundaries. And if they hate their boss, maybe they'll post that on their blog.

The increasing breadth and power of employees' personal networks to disperse information about work experiences will force companies to rethink how they organize teams and departments.

Look for interdisciplinary teams that involve employees from different generations in an effort to take advantage of as many perspectives and sources of input as possible. It's possible that companies will flatten their hierarchies even more than we've already seen in an effort to make junior employees with their brainstorming networks feel more empowered to speak up and contribute ideas at work. It will also affect what sorts of controls they try to exert on communication with peers outside company walls.

Trying to shut down these informal networks obviously won't work, even if companies find them threatening. The only option, predicts Masie, will be a "high level of honesty and transparency" and the incorporation of rewards for those employees who use their networks on the company's behalf.

If you're not 21 and burning up your Facebook account, next-generation networks aren't closed to you. Try out business-oriented Web services such as LinkedIn and Ryze to track and expand your personal network. Or go the old-fashioned route: Pull out a big piece of paper, stick it up on the wall, and map out everyone you know, how you know them, and how they connect to one another. "If it's not visual, it's easy to miss things," Masie says.

"Look at it and realize this is an asset you can legitimately mature." The next step, he adds, is looking for ways to expand beyond your own peer group. "Operate up," Masie says. "Too many people forget to do that." Recognize the value of mentors and identify those above you who can help you learn.

And most important of all, adds Morris, remember that technology is just a "new enabler. These are still relationships. They have to be cultivated."

A long list of names is meaningless unless it represents real relationships, developed by offering your own help and input over time. Then, when the day comes that you need a job lead, a problem-solving tip, or just the inside scoop on the new boss, you'll be in the loop, not banished to the outer circle.

Put Your Best Face Forward

Your network may make companies transparent to you, but you're transparent to employers as well. Anything online, whether easily available or tucked away in a private network, is fair game. "It's a big problem when someone's Facebook profile says that her favorite thing is to get s--tfaced on a Saturday night," says Masie.

"Google is the first stop for finding info [on potential hires], then Facebook," he says. So there may be a number of versions of "you" being projected into the world. Not all of them will necessarily be what you want an employer to see. Can you control that? If not, can you live with it?

Over time, hiring managers will be less interested in the salacious stuff that a Google search might reveal. "So you were president of your frat," says Morris. "As more information gets out there about everyone, it diffuses the importance of each individual piece of information. It will be okay."

But that doesn't mean you won't have to manage your professional image. Lara Kammrath, a psychology postdoc at Columbia University who is making the rounds in the academic job market, recently had to deal with one of those moments when the Web's power rears up and surprises you.

She arrived for an interview at a school in Ohio on a Friday, and the dean asked her how her job talk in New York the previous Monday had gone. She was shocked. Turns out that her "candidate talk" had been posted on the calendar of events at the New York school's site, and it turned up in a Google search. Kammrath couldn't help feeling panicked.

"I wondered if they were waiting to see if I mentioned it," she says. "A lot of the politics of these jobs is whether they think you'll say yes. They might go with a less preferred candidate with a higher chance of return if they thought my interviewing at another school was a sign that I wasn't placing them first on my list." She got the offer (and turned it down), but the experience was nerve-wracking.

It's no wonder, then, that there are now services to groom the online you. "Reputation management" outfits such as ZoomInfo, a Waltham, Massachusetts-based company, aim to aggregate information about people from the Web into profiles with a professional focus. The company's technology crawls the Web in search of names to match with particular kinds of information: location, position, education, experiences, and credentials.

The good news is that it's not interested in anything but who you are as a professional. And ZoomInfo's customers are large companies (more than 20% of the Fortune 500) that subscribe precisely so they don't have to wade through the muck when they need to look someone up. Even Google uses ZoomInfo when it's looking for a particular kind of person to fill a job opening.

"We've got 70 million people identified," says ZoomInfo founder and CEO Jonathan Stern. "We're able to create power searches to find people with specific certifications, who have worked at specific places, or have specific affiliations." Stern calls it "comparison shopping" for the kinds of people companies would like to hire. And you have input into what appears on your "label" when those hiring managers go shopping.

"We want to give people more control over what is found when people look them up," Stern says. Simply go to ZoomInfo.com, search for yourself, then review what turns up. There may be several profiles for one name, indicating that the engine thinks these may all be different people. If you register with the site, which is free, you can make changes to the profile, adding accurate information about your education and work experience, and your contact information if you want companies to find you directly.

You can also review all the Web links that have been aggregated under your name and verify that "this is me" or that it isn't. Then write a paragraph or two about who you are and what goals you have. It's not a perfect solution, but it's a small way to shape the impression you give clients and bosses if they search for you online.

Embrace the Liberal Arts (Again)

Solid communication skills, analytical thinking, and being a quick study are the new keys to success. Ironically, these are staples of the classic liberal-arts education. This is in marked contrast to the ever-more-specialized approach that some of today's college degrees take. That UMass Amherst degree in building materials and wood technology? Hard to believe it's going to last you a lifetime.

Even a degree with a bit more mass appeal, such as communications, shows how quickly things change. If you graduated even three years ago, such emerging niche media as blogs, podcasts, and satellite radio are all new to you. Each requires a different approach, and you have to develop specialized tactics to get your message across. Whatever specifics you learned in school are hopelessly out of date.

"As world economies come up and the environment gets ever more competitive, the U.S. educational infrastructure is struggling to keep up," says Gautam Godhwani, CEO of online job aggregator SimplyHired.com. Many of today's exciting jobs (Java developer, brand-experience designer) didn't really exist 10 years ago. And the exciting professions of tomorrow have yet to be imagined. As a result, what we need from our education has changed. "What you want to learn is how to learn," says Taleo's Snell. And that's where the liberal-arts education becomes valuable again.

Labor trends point to the increasing importance of adaptability. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average worker currently holds 10 different jobs before hitting age 40. Job tenures now hover around four years. Forrester Research's Claire Schooley predicts these numbers will only get more extreme, anticipating that today's youngest workers will hold 12 to 15 jobs in their lifetimes.

One way to approach lifelong learning is to think about what's threatening your job or your company. "Everyone can articulate what they're threatened by," says Rob McGovern, author of Bring Your 'A' Game. "Years ago, when I worked at HP, a few people went to Microsoft. We worried about what Microsoft was doing. If you're at Microsoft today, you're worrying about Google. Go find out about the thing that threatens you. Understand it. You might pick the wrong company, but what you will learn will always be valuable." The bottom line? If your degree gets you in the door, it's your experiential résumé that will take you to the executive suite.

Harness Your Inner (Mini) Mogul

Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson aren't the only ones who should be juggling multihyphenate careers. We may not all manage clothing lines and signature fragrances along with our pop-singing starlet gigs, but we will all need to start thinking of ourselves as one-person empires.

As we stay in the workforce longer, it's going to take more to keep us interested, which may mean keeping fingers in several different career pies. Jeremy Bieger, a 29-year-old senior manager of interactive marketing for American Express, has a pretty cool job. Got an AmEx corporate card?

When you go online to access any of its services, Bieger is the one designing your experience. He's a rising star, having already been promoted since joining the company in 2004, and has won an internal innovators award for creating a Mac "widget" that could help customers manage balances from their many accounts all over the Web.

Bieger created that widget for fun, in his spare time. And last fall, he coproduced a friend's music album and also collaborated and performed in a performance-art show--involving original music compositions, dances, and video art--in Brooklyn's trendy Williamsburg neighborhood. Bieger's not some frenetic, obsessive overachiever with no time for a personal life. He's happily married and quite soft-spoken.

A double major in economics and music composition at Oberlin in the late 1990s, Bieger simply sees these activities as different parts of who he is. "It all has to do with creating something," he says. "I see a lot of people who work a lot of late nights and burn out. I don't feel that way. I see myself as a collaborator and an ideas guy. It's all about going from the idea to the creation of some living, breathing thing." Whether that's a piece of music, a video, or an interactive Web site, for Bieger it's part of creating an elegant performance and staying energized.

So like him, consider what's at the root of what you do now. Are you an ideas person? Then think of different platforms where your ideas can help create a new product. Are you someone who's great at management? Try to get a seat on a board of directors or an advisory board to broaden your experience and develop a high-level perspective.

"Top performers are always thinking, What comes next?" says McGovern. We need to feed the different parts of our personality, because one job may not provide all of the satisfaction we need to derive from work. Some of those 15 jobs you'll hold over the next decade may be at the same time. This mini-mogul approach is also a hedge against burnout and the rapidly morphing economic landscape.

Post Your Résumé . . . Forever

Although everyone may already be willing to take a new job if a great new gig smacks them in the face, the changing nature of technology means that we'll all be in the job market, all the time, even if we're happily employed.

The first wave of online job boards made the want ads searchable, but they also let dilettantes flood hiring managers, making it unlikely for any given CV to float to the top. It also made it all too easy--and embarrassing--to apply for a job online only to find that you were applying for something at your own company. Busted.

The next generation of online job services gives more control to the employer than the job seeker. Employers are tired of sifting through junk from a pool limited to the unemployed and disaffected. Those aren't the best candidates.

"We're all about the employed person," says McGovern, who founded job-matching service Mkt10 to meet this shift. "Companies want the top performers who are already doing well." That also means the gloves have come off. "Ten years ago, people didn't admit they were trying to hire the already employed," says ZoomInfo's Stern. "Now it's the other company's problem to figure out how to keep their own employees."

The new services force candidates to state their skills and interests honestly rather than just apply for a job with a large starting salary. The technology lets employers find qualified matches. Fortunately, it also gives job seekers more privacy. Services like Mkt10 reveal only a candidate's skills and profile. The potential candidate gives up her personal info only if she's interested in a company's offer to meet.

Missele Vegas, the HR director at VitalSpring Technologies, a health-care-benefits software company in McLean, Virginia, has been beta-testing Mkt10 to find candidates for the past seven months. She has used Monster since 1996 to fill positions but says that service too often left her with résumé spam and mismatched candidates. Vegas is currently using Mkt10 to look for everything from a CFO to an SAP program director.

"They find people for me with 100% matches in the key elements I'm looking for--secret clearances for government work, technical skills for other positions," Vegas says. "It cuts down a lot of my pre-work." Positions that once took three or four months to fill now take 30 days.

Tushar Desai has benefited from the new approach, too. He completed a profile on Mkt10 that led to an account-executive position with VitalSpring this past fall. "The form was more detailed than 'What's your skill set?' " he says. "There were qualitative questions: Where did I want to be? What were my long-term goals?"

Desai appreciated that depth, as well as the constant updates from the system about where he was matching and how far along his materials were. Having experienced a job match in place of a search, Desai is unlikely to go back to the old way of posting his résumé on Monster the next time he's thinking about a job change.

And that's exactly what these services want to accomplish. By helping us think about who we are, what we want from work, and what experiences we need to get there, they hope to create a pool of elite, available employees all ready for their next big thing on a moment's notice. "In the future, [employers] aren't going to advertise job openings anymore," says Warren Bare, CEO and founder of Jobkabob, another job-matching service.

"They'll find you." It's a scary prospect for anyone who has ever been out of work. But for the agile, well-presented, ever-learning, constantly networking top performer, it sounds . . . perfect.

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