Career Adaptability

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What you need to do when it’s not working.

Being adaptable in your career requires courage, clarity and the willingness to face and navigate change. We can be blind-sided by a layoff, disappointed by a poor review or stressed by increasingly difficult responsibilities. Standing in the face of difficulty and having the courage to acknowledge it can be tough, but how do you even know when something isn’t working?

Sometimes the handwriting is on the wall; you need to do something different. My first job out of college was as a counselor at a men’s correctional facility. My father had been a superintendent for several of them throughout his career and thought it a good idea I be exposed to this kind of work. In spite of my exposure to this environment growing up (we lived on the grounds of an institution when I was in elementary school), it wasn’t appealing to me.

But it was the near beat-down by an inmate and the escape of two men on my watch that were clear evidence that my lack of skills, training and engagement could spell disaster. It was the first time I encountered a work situation that was clearly, unequivocally not working. Fortunately, my father admitted he was trying to steer me to law school. I went to business school post haste, which pleased him – and me.

I can laugh at the mishaps on that job now, but that lesson early in my work life made me aware of how I need to consciously make my own work and career choices to achieve my definition of success. Here are some clues that your work situation might not be working:

-You’re not achieving your goals. Some of us set ambitious goals, fully intending to meet them. If you’re consistently falling short, take stock. If you haven’t set any firm goals, set some and carefully track your achievement.
-You’re procrastinating. Your subconscious might be screaming at you. I find if I’m putting off certain tasks, I need to reassess my commitment to the project, position or organization. Your real passions energize you.
-You’re getting mixed messages. You might be oblivious to what’s going on around you and be at risk. Keep your ear to the ground to hear what others are saying – good and bad – about you. Elicit feedback from people whom you don’t normally seek it.
-You aren’t happy. Happiness is a state of mind; it’s relative and personal. Only you know if you’re happy when you rest your head at night.

I’m a big believer in ‘things happening for a reason,’ especially the bad, unexpected, unpleasant or unfortunate things. Once you see telltale signs that something isn’t working, the first thing to do is accept it. You can’t brush it under the rug and act like it isn’t happening – denial shrouds inevitable failure. Then, accept responsibility. Sure, your boss, high unemployment, the economy and that malicious subordinate are easy scapegoats, but you created your circumstances and it’s you who will have to change them.

The change doesn’t have to be wholesale; you don’t have to necessarily leave town or quit your job. You do have to begin to create a few choices. Yes, you create them versus waiting for them to simply happen. Start by asking yourself some simple questions to identify some choices and get clarity. What do I want to do? What have I done before? What am I good at? What do I like to do? Do I have what it takes? How do I get there?

Once answered, now it’s time to make a plan; create a map that will guide you to those things that are in alignment with who you are, what you do well and what you value. From there, take action – identify people in your network who can help you make change, and develop a thoughtful exit strategy, if you determine you need to leave where you are.

One parting thought. I don’t do shame, blame, guilt or regret. I find these sentiments to be useless and distracting from forward progress. I urge you to be about critical assessment, starting with yourself. Skip the pity party and any self-flagellation. Mourn the loss; you might have lost money, stature or face. Lick that wound and move on. Fewer people than you think have noticed and, come to think of it, your success and peace of mind matter more than what others think anyway.

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About Ginny Clarke

Ginny Clarke is a partner at Toronto-based Amrop Knightsbridge, located in Chicago. Prior to this role Ginny served as president/CEO of Talent Optimization Partners, LLC, a talent and career management consulting firm serving corporate clients. She's also the author of Career Mapping: Charting Your Course in the New World of Work, and