To The Graduating Class of 2014

Dear Class of 2014:    Like it or not, you are venturing into new territory as you begin your career journeys.  America no longer has the dominance it once had and given the pace of change across every dimension that influences American industry, no one quite knows for sure what the new rules for career success will be long term.   But with several years of teaching and coaching individuals and teams struggling to compete and thrive, I want to share what I have observed about the the differences between those who have thrived and those who have been overwhelmed in this environment.  And I want to focus on what, for me, is most essential to understand — how to avoid being a victim and instead, leverage your personal power to achieve your goals in the real world of personalities, insecurities, territoriality, and lets not forget — unprecedented opportunity!

Let’s start with what I am most clear about.  This is definitely not your parents workplace.  Back in the day,  a very high premium was put on loyalty, longevity, hard work, and respect for traditions and the authority that preserved and protected undermining the sacred traditions. These values were reflected in an employer-employee social contract that met the mutual interests of an organization motivated to solidify its dominance in the marketplace and of employees who valued security and community as much as opportunity.

In this model, the employee could expect to be taken care of by the all-powerful organization.  You didn’t have to worry about managing your own career and development – someone above you was accountable for your career success.  In turn, the organization reaped the benefits of a cohesive and satisfied employee population with a strong internal pool of candidates from which to choose the next generation of leaders – men and later men and women – who could build on the company’s victories without really changing it much. This culture, which put the cohesiveness and success of family, community and organization before the needs of the individual, grew naturally as an adaptive function critical to the needs of the time.  Keep in mind that the majority of American workers were immigrants and/or sons and daughters of immigrants whose survival depended on “community.”

The internet has globalized and democratized every industry, making the world much more competitive and stripping away the advantages and comfort that established dominant American organizations used to enjoy.  This changes the social contract dramatically.  From the employer’s perspective the organization cannot survive unless they are constantly shuffling the employee talent deck.  Jobs will be outsourced to the lowest cost employees.  Recruiters are constantly looking to hire the best people at middle, senior and leadership levels and replace those who no longer add value.  You have to be responsible for your own career development. Loyalty and affiliation to and with power is no longer a source of power in the new world.  The relationship is between each of you and the marketplace of jobs and organizations — not between you and your current employer.

As I see it, your career power is a function of the following:

  1. Making a contribution so significant and unique as to make it hard to replace you. During these difficult times, the only thing that really matters is whether you can make a contribution to the bottom line, short and long term – a contribution that that really makes a difference and one that makes you very much in demand.  Given the rapid pace of change, this also means being able to constantly adapt and sharpen your skill-set to meet the changing demands.     Paradoxically, the difficult job market can easily intimidate you into making safe choices and settling for jobs that pay the bills.  While that’s fine as a temporary compromise, don’t confuse these stops on the road with the destination you seek.  The current business climate rewards those who are willing to stretch the limits of their capabilities and innovate — themselves.
  2. The ability to exercise choice. You must steer your own ship and do so with an acute understanding of who you are and where you are going.  You are operating in a free and open talent market where you and your manager both share responsibility for your development.  Hopefully all the pieces will come together and you will move up the ladder in the right jobs at the right level for the right rewards.  But if you have no other options and have not seen to it that you are prepared to look for other opportunities, you will be giving up control and power that puts unnecessary pressure on you and your manager that things must work out in this company.
  3. You are only as good as the virtual team you create around yourself. The natural history of our species makes clear that our ability to survive and prosper is realized only as a diverse collective.  In that history, the individual has no standing on his or her own.  We survive and thrive or die off as a species.  Although our culture aggrandizes the contributions of individual celebrities and heroes, your power in the workplace comes from being connected to the people around you. The importance of working effectively as part of a diverse “we” cannot be overstated.   The approach to success taught in Handbook for Early Career Success follows the laws of human nature.  It assumes that we are happiest, smartest and strongest when we feel connected to the people around us.  We fight harder for others than ourselves, we take more risks when we believe others have our back, we have more energy when we share trust, appreciation and understanding with those around us.  And we never run out of ideas and solutions when we can tap into a collective intelligence based on open sharing of ideas and perspectives and the willingness to think out of the box made possible by a solid interpersonal connection.

Thriving in today’s workplace is all about navigating the marketplace to find the best fit for however long that lasts. It’s about mutual respect and self-determination.  Your attachment to a company is situational.  But your ability to identify and connect to like-minded, helpful people across companies and industries should be nurtured, treasured and strengthened.  That’s your “pit crew” and you become part of their pit crew.  And pit crews bond for life.

For additional tools and tips on managing the negative influences you are likely to face, I invite you to read Unit 20 “Staying Grounded” in Connect For Success: The Ultimate Guide To Workplace Relationships

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