By Jeff Altman, The Big Game Hunter
One day, I woke up, looked in the mirror and saw something I’d never seen before. There were things on my face that were in slightly different places. There was a little bit of grey in my beard and a closet full of clothing that had seen better days. At least my nonexistent hairline wasn’t sprouting!
As time went by, I came to realize these “rites of passage” were relatively inconsequential by comparison to the “hard knocks” some of my friends and I were taking that were decimating our careers. In this two-part series, I will share the top 10 lessons my friends and I have learned the hard way:
1. Be cautious of reporting to someone from a younger demographic.
This can be a signal that your advancement opportunities have disappeared. Jerry, a Boomer, accepted an assignment reporting to someone from Gen X and never regained his leadership status within his organization. He heard many good reasons for why this happened:
“You are much more capable than the assignments that we have available.”
“We have something coming up with the new budget in January, so this is just to tide you over until then.”
“Would you consider relocating to another part of the country? We don’t have the right kind of opportunities for you here.”
That last one was a favorite of mine, given that Jerry had two teenagers in high school who would have poisoned his coffee had he agreed to a move.
In my experience — and in Jerry’s — there is a signal that a firm gives when they have someone report to someone from a younger demographic and it’s designed to send a message that you and your leadership or your abilities aren’t valued anymore. If that happens to you, it’s time to move on — not hang on.
2. Don’t provide your employer with “lazy loyalty.”
Freely giving away loyalty to your employer rarely leads to a good outcome. The person who gets ahead isn’t always the smartest or hardest worker. Those are great qualities to have but they are no guarantee for career success. People get ahead by being alert to opportunities that generally arrive from outside of their organization.
Juanita turned down calls from recruiters for years, not noticing that her colleague was getting most of the face time with their boss and opportunities for special projects that provided her with greater institutional visibility and impact. As a result, Juanita became “old reliable,” not fast-track. When cuts were being made to the headcount, Juanita didn’t make it past the second round. “Lazy loyalty” is unthinking fealty to your current employer even though their commitment to you does not exist.
3. Be conscious of actions, not words.
Sunil received great reviews from his boss and was told he was doing a good job and had a future with the company. Sunil took the praise and interpreted it as something more than what it really was — a throwaway pat on the back.
A manager may be telling you how important you are to the organization and what a wonderful job you do, but these can be placebos, designed to stroke your ego. Managers can exaggerate and flatter because it costs them nothing. What you can do is ask follow-up questions — even when you receive praise — so you have a more comprehensive understanding and are less likely to be blindsided down the road. Ask for feedback in writing so you have documentation to refer back to if there’s ever a discrepancy. More importantly, reflect on whether your employer’s praise matches the opportunities you’re given.
4. Don’t abdicate responsibility for your career.
Hakim’s inner voice had become quiet years before he stopped going to school to learn. He stopped thinking about his own career, where he wanted to get to, the deficiencies in his background and what he needed to do to overcome them.
You are the CEO of your career, with your wife, husband, partner and/or children as the board of directors. If you step aside and allow your company to be in charge of your life like many Boomers have, you may have to learn the hard way that “being nice,” being a “team player” and “going along” is an abdication of your power and can be viewed as permission to pass you over. In my experience, your employer won’t look out for you when things get tough. You need to be looking out for yourself.
So, ask yourself, if you were the CEO of your organization, would you give you that promotion? If you wouldn’t, what are the skills and/or experiences that you need to overcome? Start pushing yourself, your environment and your boss to eliminate that gap.
5. Don’t forget about your network and how you can cultivate it.
Almost every day, I field calls from out-of-work Boomers wanting to know how to reactivate their network. “I was busy and stopped staying in touch,” Mike told me. “Why should they try to help me now?” Cultivate the “staying-in-touch gene” to avoid making things harder on yourself when, ultimately, that layoff occurs, that reorganization puts you into an unsatisfactory role or some other professional disaster happens.
Depending upon the statistics you look at, somewhere between 70% and 85% of people find work as a result of networking. If you let your network become dormant, it will take time to re-activate it. A quick call, text or email every six months will help the relationship stay alive, particularly when you’re not looking for work and not asking for anything.
6. Recognize that there is no safety in your career, nor job security.
When Boomers started their careers, we were taught to believe that we could climb the ladder to professional success, one rung at a time. As a result, many Boomers became extremely dedicated professionally, learning to invest countless hours into their work with the expectation of career advancement only to learn through the heartbreak of “The Great Recession” and now, during the era of the pandemic, that job security is a myth and that companies will ultimately look out for their own interests and not those of their employees.
Playing it safe when managing their careers resulted in becoming risk-averse professionally, taking few workplace risks and generally believing that homogenous work and behavior were the right way to conduct yourself. Nothing could have been further from the truth. In my experience, the workplace of Lean, Six Sigma, transformation and other methodologies of industrial operation brought to corporations created a repeatable process and disposable employees.
7. Don’t forget to stretch yourself.
I’m someone who has spent a lot of time in the pursuit of perfection. It takes constant effort to remind myself that perfection is impossible; excellence is possible. As Grammarly just reminded me, “To err is human. To edit is divine.”
That may be tongue-in-cheek software but it’s true: everyone makes mistakes. Not making mistakes means you’re not pushing the envelope to new possibilities. You always need to be pushing the envelope. Every time the envelope is pushed, we stretch ourselves and learn more about ourselves and our abilities than if we stay within rigid limits.
As in yoga, small stretches over time can help increase your flexibility a lot. Learn to stretch and concentrate on the stretch while doing it.
8. Know that you won’t be doing the same work 10 years from now, let alone do it in the same way.
Looking back 10 years ago, smartphones were just starting to become integral to our work. Ten years from now, you will be working in different ways than you are today — that’s just a fact of life — but we act as though there’s a finite amount of evolution that occurs even though change is seemingly infinite.
For the most part, Boomers have inherently been skeptics of anything new, instead preferring standardization. You, Gen X, still have time to be thinking ahead and be on the cutting edge of trends. Your Millennial and Gen Z employees can teach you a lot about trends if you take the time to stay connected with them and not just talk to your generational peers.
Most of you have at least another 10 years in the workforce. You don’t want to wind up like the Boomers kicking and screaming as they are pushed out the door. One of the ways to avoid that is by being slightly ahead of every curve, keeping yourself trained, experienced and fluent with new trends and capabilities in your field. That is something few Boomers did as they aged.
9. Don’t allow yourself to become “invisible.”
It seems funny but becoming indispensable in a role can result in someone being taken for granted. There are many ways to promote yourself professionally within an organization and outside of it. You can write from LinkedIn, Medium and countless other platforms. You can be interviewed for podcasts or someone’s YouTube channel. You can become active in a professional association or group.
Being a member is like being a lurker — you are watching and not participating. Too many older workers take the easy approach and never develop their “celebrity status.” They never reveal their thoughts and ideas outside of a small circle of individuals. They hide. They hide because they are afraid that they have nothing to say when, in fact, they know much more than they think they do.
Sound familiar? Now is the time to challenge yourself, step up and be seen for who you really are, because the more invisible you allow yourself to be, the more you are perceived as a cog. Cogs turn to rust. Cogs are replaced. Many Boomers allowed themselves to become cogs. Don’t make the same mistake.
10. Don’t get comfortable with never meeting new people and never learning anything new.
There is a famous book titled, Eat, Pray, Love. Most of you could probably write the book, Commute, Work, Eat. In pandemic times, it might be called Work, Work, Eat. In other words, every day is repetitive. No one new enters your life because you never put yourself in the position of meeting anyone new to have a conversation with.
New people and new circumstances are part of your growth and evolution. Especially as you look ahead where the nature of work will continue to evolve, the importance of your professional and personal relationships will dictate the ease with which you age in the workplace and whether you have quality work in the workplace or outside of it if you choose. There are ways to place yourself in new situations where you can learn and meet others. Don’t waste time. Start experimenting and see what works for you.
Recently, a subscriber to my YouTube channel commented, “What the Boomers did — don’t do it!” As evidenced here, Boomers often made mistakes when managing their careers. There is no reason for you to duplicate those mistakes.
Ⓒ The Big Game Hunter, Inc., Asheville, NC 2020
ABOUT JEFF ALTMAN, THE BIG GAME HUNTER
Jeff Altman, The Big Game Hunter is a career and leadership coach who worked as a recruiter for more than 40 years. He is the host of “No BS Job Search Advice Radio,” the #1 podcast in iTunes for job search with more than 1900 episodes, and is a member of The Forbes Coaches Council.
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