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I made a career mistake. Now what?

You may have read our last blog on the top 12 common career mistakes to avoid <> and realised that you might have committed a few; or you may have undergone painful restructuring and find ourself out in the cold, struggling to make ends meet. Whatever the situation, you may have realised that you have made a couple of (maybe more!) career mistakes and you are now faced with the, “Now what?” question. If you are at any age younger than 65, you know you still have some years to go until you can finally say that you have run the good run in your career. So, what can you do now if you are facing the dreaded Career “No Man’s Land”?

The Career “No Man’s Land”

As in any battle, the land between one force’s forward battle edge and the opposing force’s forward battle edge is known as the No Man’s Land. That is the piece of land that no force occupies and is a killing zone for any force to cross, to be cut down by the opposing force’s weaponry. There is an impasse, unless of course a force is willing to commit to a large number of casualties to overrun the enemy. I know, you will say that there are many other ways to overrun the enemy instead of a frontal assault, from aerial bombardment to artillery strikes to flanking the enemy. But as we have learnt from the Japanese at Okinawa in World War 2, if you are well dug in, no amount of bombardment can flush you out. So then we have a stalemate, until one force commits an inordinate amount of resources; be it man, machine or munitions, to flush the enemy out. Such is the No Man’s Land. In similar fashion, the Career No Man’s Land represents that impasse in one’s career where only fresh legs, fresh eyes, fresh munitions, and fresh minds can overcome. It is that stage in our career where if we don’t do things drastically differently, we will forever be in suspended animation.

Fortunately, we know how to overcome that. Here is what you can do to overrun the career enemy and gain new ground on your career.

(1) Acknowledge that the landscape has shifted

Strange as it may sound, many people are ignorant that they are stuck in No Man’s Land. They think that since they had been successful in their career in the past, all they have to do is apply that same vigour, that same drive, that same intellect, that same obstinate push, and they can get over the impasse. Unfortunately for many, they do not recognize that the landscape has shifted, that their map is no longer valid, that their weapons are now ineffective. If they continue to do the same things as they had done, they will continue to receive the same outcomes; and that is the very status quo. If they want to get ahead of the game, they need to acknowledge that there has been a seismic shift in their career tectonic plates, and a new terrain has emerged. It is only when they are looking at their career with the new map, understanding where they now are – which might be a lot further from where they were previously – will they be able to plot the path to where they want to be. Indeed, even their objective may have changed, since the enemy may have abandoned the last position and taken up a new one. To therefore move away from your Career No Man’s Land, you have to acknowledge that your career landscape has shifted, and you will need a new map to understand the terrain, the lay of the new land.

(2) Identify the new objective

So now that the landscape has shifted, and with it, possibly the enemy troop deployments. We now need to establish if the objective is still valid; if the enemy is still there. There is no point charging up a hill that holds no strategic value. In like fashion, you will now need to identify if indeed your career goal (if you originally had one) is still valid. If it is, then good; that makes it one less job to do. But chances are, due to the changes in the landscape, you too need to identify a new career goal. Your intent may be a little less ambitious than the last, or it could well be more ambitious. That really depends on your hunger and commitment for change. No one can influence you except yourself. But there is no right or wrong in this situation; all you need to do is to size up the situation, understand where you may have strength and where you may not, and then identify the objective that would best lead you to what you want to achieve. And to be extra clear, shape the success factors, the metrics that you will use to monitor your progress, to know that you are headed towards your career objective or moving away from it.

(3) Understand where you are now

The next step, with their new map in hand and the objective in mind, is to understand where you are now. Taking new bearings from new landmarks, you have to pinpoint where your current location is and what obstacles lie ahead of you as you proceed to your new objective. Would you need to take a new course? Do you need to go back to school? Do you need to dive deep into new knowledge and concepts? Only by understanding where your “enemies” are – and these are the potential competitors to your new objective - you would then be able take evasive or offensive action, plotting your path to success. If you don’t know your current position, then no amount of navigating will get you to where you want to go.

(4) Define the checkpoints to your objective

Whenever we plan to navigate across unfamiliar terrain, we need to identify different checkpoints along the way so that we know we are on the right track. In like fashion, when you want to reach your new career objective, you will need to identify all the checkpoints – the intervening jobs, the progressive training, the enlarging course – that you would have embark on to finally get to your objective. You need to remember that Rome was not built in a day, and neither will your new career. This also means that you will have to adjust your salary, position, prestige and promotion expectations. Remember who will be your competitors (aka career “enemies”!) who stand between you and your objective. If you cannot overcome their strengths, if you cannot neutralize their positions, then they will overrun your objective, and you are back to redefining a new objective! To avoid that, you need take the fight to your career enemies, and beat them at their own game! If they can code, so can you. If they can create predictions about customer behaviour, so can you. If they can uncover new products to meet rapidly changing needs and still make money, so can you! Your checkpoints must identify these capabilities and allow you to build those into your own repertoire.

(5) Work your plan

Now that all the planning has been done, you have to work it. Understand that the route will be undulating, there will be many thorny bushes, and hidden valleys and hills. Don’t be disheartened. You would never have seen these coming until you navigated the path. But have faith in yourself, your training, your equipment. You have gotten there by virtue of your plan, and your plan will get you to where you need to be! It is all too easy to give up when the going gets tough. But the night is darkest just before dawn, and the final mile in a marathon is the hardest. Yet those are NOT the time to give up, having come thus far! Push on for you know your objective is just over the next ridge, just over the next mile, just over the next half hour!

(6) Celebrate your achievement – and keep going!

You have finally accomplished your mission and reached your objective. You have beaten off all the enemies and set up your own command post and fire base. Your defensive positions are all dug in and you are ready to take up defence of the position. You celebrate your victory! Yet, as in all battles, the commander comes over the radio and orders you to go the next objective. You have to leave behind a small protection force, but the rest of your unit will now have to move onto the new objective! No rest for the weary! In like manner, as you soldier on in your career, you will know that there is no time to allow the momentum to abate; you will need to move on to your next objective at the earliest opportune time. Remember, there will be many battles to fight to get to your final objective. While each small battle is something to cheer about, the biggest cheering is when the war is won. So too your career. Making past the first objective is great, but when you get there, you cannot allow your engines to idle; your energies to dissipate. Getting to the top is the easy part, staying at the top is the hard one. And we need to do all we can to ensure that we maintain that position, conquering new, adjacent objectives so that we don’t lose our place. We can rest when we retire, whenever that is!

Sound like a war

All this talk of enemies, No Man’s Land, objective, munitions, makes this sound like a military campaign. To some extent, it is because we need to amass the proper resources to overcome our career enemies. It is very easy to slip into a blame game, where we accuse the government, the previous employers, our family or even our parents(!), for putting us where we are. Many of us may even blame ourselves for being so complacent. The fact of the matter is that there is no one to blame. Change happens, and we need to adopt the growth mindset to change with the times. The landscape has changed, and we must change with it, bringing the fight to the change. We certainly cannot sit back and let the change happen to us, just as we cannot sit back and let the enemy overrun us. We need to take proactive defensive and offensive measures to take charge of the change.

So here’s the summary of steps to take charge: 1. Acknowledge that the career landscape has shifted 2. Identify your new career objective 3. Understand where you are now 4. Define the checkpoints to your career objective

5. Work your plan

6. Celebrate your achievements (career milestones) – and keep going

It’s a journey

Career management a journey, not just a destination. So enjoy the journey as you trod your path. And when you are there, just keep on going!

Happy trails!

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