Setting Career Priorities When Everything Is Uncertain

By Nihar Chhaya
February 16, 2022

The high level of uncertainty around us right now may increase even more in the new year and beyond. And with such instability, you may find it challenging to excel in your career now and plan for your future.

 

When you head into any new year, it’s natural to think about where your career stands and where it’s going.

Companies traditionally notify employees of compensation changes and bonuses for last year’s performance in these first few months. They also announce promotions and reorganizations in line with succession planning and company strategy. As a result, this time can cause some colleagues to celebrate while inducing career angst for others.

But this year, it may be even more challenging to understand your career priorities and do anything about them, given the continuing uncertainty surrounding our work lives.

Since the pandemic, companies are still trying to figure out many factors that affect their employees’ careers, from deciding on the right remote work policies or their use of contingent workers over full-time employees to stemming the tide of the Great Resignation. A recent study showed that not only is employee turnover still on the rise, but people are also more willing than before to quit their company even without another job lined up. And whether you are the one leaving or remaining, your career stability is undoubtedly affected.

You may worry that your career will become directionless with all this volatility. But here are four tips that can help you not only weather the uncertainty around you but even find a way to leverage it for your future benefit.

Take advantage of uncertain times to sharpen your long-term career plans.

When things feel steady and predictable, there is no urgency to do any genuine introspection about your future. And career certainty may feel good at the moment but can also keep you from operating at your highest potential.

Instability can be an impetus to strengthen your career dexterity for the long run. Consider how most people wait to rethink their future until after a crisis, like being laid off or wanting to quit your company due to a toxic workplace.

At that point, it’s challenging to gain the necessary self-insight before making decisions out of desperation. Instead, invest in your career development while you still have a sense of control and choice so you can stay clear headed and act in your best interest.

A client of mine, a VP at a Fortune 100 company, found her plans to advance were disrupted when several of her staunchest advocates left to take on new roles elsewhere. She also was being courted by other companies, but the idea of having to be back on the market intensely frustrated her. Initially, she decided to show up, do her job and not worry about her future. But soon, keeping the instability “out of sight and out of mind” became impossible.

So we decided to use the precarious events as a time for introspection and self-assessment, something she hadn’t done in years. In addition to using some formal career discovery tools, we looked at her situation from a different lens: her future self as an SVP. What would she tell her current self today about feeling helpless and avoidant?

My client started to notice that she could make an effort to develop more relationships with key stakeholders. She also decided she didn’t need to look at external opportunities as a burden but rather a validation that she has a lot to offer at any company. Perhaps there was no harm in pursuing leads and no obligation to do anything with them.

By taking a step back during a time of unwelcome instability, this executive came up with a strategy that moved her forward intentionally, rather than letting circumstances out of her control disempower her.

Uncover who you need to be, not just what you need to do.

Recent research shows that two-thirds of employees felt the pandemic caused them to reflect on their purpose in life and that 70% of employees see their purpose defined by their work. The result is a sea change in how today’s job seekers are leading their careers with more intention and how companies need to respond in their selection and advancement decisions.

Think about how career advancement has always been about building your resume, with more activities and quantifiable results in each experience. This focus is still important, but it’s relentlessly centered on what you’ve done, not who you are.

To be successful in today’s changing work environment, particularly as a leader who inspires performance, you need to know who you need to “be,” not just a list of what you can do.

I worked with a former director at a Fortune 500 company who left his company at the height of the pandemic. After doing extensive self-discovery work uncovering his values and where his aptitude could be of higher service in the world, he felt an undeniable urge to become an entrepreneur and not just on the side.

Rather than simply making more to-do lists, he thought about who he needed to be to succeed as an entrepreneur and how he wanted others to feel in his presence. My client knew that his values were a steady anchor amidst the uncertainty that he could rely on, simply because when he honored them, his mood was up, and when he didn’t, he felt drained.

Just by tapping into who my client needed to “be” rather than what he needed to do each day, he was able to sustain motivation and resilience in the face of daily changes.

Focus on process, not outcomes, and your passion will find you.

In addition to the stability your deepest values bring, you can create certainty by focusing on processes rather than the shakiness of outcomes. Not only will this give you a sense of control, but it also increases the likelihood of successful results in something that can then generate more passion in you to keep contributing.

For instance, establish a few career behaviors that generally have a positive influence on your leadership impact and advancement potential. Examples may include: contributing or asking something insightful in every team meeting; taking on a stretch opportunity beyond your role every quarter; meeting a key stakeholder for coffee every week; introducing yourself to two new contacts every week; offering a strategic and revenue-impacting idea to leadership every month; and acknowledging a coworker for something helpful they did, every day.

Then make it your goal to demonstrate these behaviors on schedule, whether you feel like it that day or not. The idea is to focus on the “leading indicators” of career success, which are those actions over which you have full command to experiment with, rather than the “lagging indicators” which are unpredictable and apparent only after you’ve achieved the goal, such as a promotion or a new job.

The advantage of concentrating on the process of your work and career is that it helps shape your identity as a valued contributor no matter what happens. And as your self-perception improves, your intrinsic motivation increases, leading you to offer more of your talents to those that need them.

As mentioned at the outset, some years you’ll be the one celebrating the promotion, and other times you’ll be the one frustrated about having to report to a new boss. Many high achievers get disillusioned with their career during these ups and downs. They impulsively make decisions hoping for better outcomes, at times checking out completely, believing there must be something else out there more aligned with their passions.

But as studies have shown, following your passion is not only overrated, it can limit your career capital, which is knowledge, network, and mastery of skills that will make you attractive to employers. So in these uncertain times, it’s better to commit to a steady set of career behaviors and focus on consistency and refinement as you get closer to your desired outcomes. You will either achieve the initial career goals you had, or at least develop the self-efficacy and resilience to guide your career toward a new offering of value.

Develop learning agility to keep ahead of future change.

Assessing your values, working from intention, and investing in the process of doing great work are all vital for a successful career amidst change. But these factors primarily rely on who you already are.

One more factor is critical for your long-term success because it relates to how you evolve, namely how you learn. It’s called learning agility, and developing it will help you not only stay relevant in your career but outperform in an ever-changing world.

People who measure high in learning agility manage their career with a readiness to adapt, stay curious, are reflective, minimize defensiveness, and unlearn deeply held mental models to make room for more purposeful ones.

And research shows that high learning agility is significantly correlated with highly positive career objectives, from compensation to promotion frequency, proximity to the CEO, and perceptions of leadership competence.

Start to develop your learning agility with a simple reflection practice. End each day with a 10-minute journaling exercise where you ask yourself three questions: Did I experience and show genuine curiosity today? Was I defensive today, holding tightly to my perspectives? Did I learn anything new today or challenge my past beliefs?

In time, looking at the patterns of your reflection journal will naturally open your eyes to opportunities to shift your mental models and behavior for future growth.

The high level of uncertainty around us right now may increase even more in the new year and beyond. And with such instability, you may find it challenging to excel in your career now and plan for your future. But by following these strategies, you can better empower yourself to lead a longstanding career that is both successful and personally fulfilling.

 

 

Copyright 2022 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.

 

 

 

Join AAPL today

 

 


 

Topics:

Physicians Are Uneasy as Colorado Collects Providers’ Diversity Data
How Johnson & Johnson Made Hard Decisions During Covid