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ViewPoint: Navigating Careers in the Never Normal
October 13, 2020
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This article by Julie Winkle Giulioni was published in SmartBrief.

Shortly after the global pandemic changed the face of the workplace, writers and leaders began contemplating the new normal — how the world would be once things settled down. Months in, as reality took hold, the language shifted from “new” to “next” – as “normal” became a moving target.

After more than six months, millions of lost jobs and countless pivots in service of evolving conditions and customer needs, we must again adjust how we talk about what’s to come. We might need to let go of what we used to know and acknowledge that the kind of stability and predictability we enjoyed in the past won’t return.

We’re not going back

By all accounts, we’re not going back to normal or new or next. And a range of factors — many established long before COVID-19 — are contributing to today’s never-normal-again environment.

  • Organizations were already under productivity and profit pressure. They were already leveraging assets and optimizing resources, doing exponentially more with less.
  • Competition was coming from new and varied sources. (Who would have imagined Amazon getting into the real estate business?) As a result, organizations were becoming more attuned, alert and anxious about protecting market share and expanding their pieces of the pie.
  • Disruption was the name of the game in early 2020. Now the combination of a global pandemic, economic downturn and racial inequity has left individuals and organizations feeling insecure and on unstable ground.
  • Workforce dynamics are in flux as working from home becomes the standard rather than the exception, which shifts power dynamics and democratizes opportunity. Whether one works as a vice president at corporate headquarters or as a supervisor out of a garage in Topeka, Kan., everyone occupies the same size tile and has the same volume voice in the new online workspace.

With so many forces and factors conspiring to reshape the business landscape, we should not expect a return to normal. To the contrary, we should expect a kaleidoscope of change coming at an unprecedented pace.

Savvy leaders and employees who recognize this new reality also recognize the implications, as well as the powerful opportunities for growth and career development within our never-normal environment. 

Never normal means more informal

The opportunities for growth are plentiful, but only for leaders and employees who embrace new approaches to learning and development. We can no longer rely upon old, formal, programmatic formulas. What’s needed are more organic, self-driven and informal means to mine the richness that the workplace has to offer.

Four shifts can introduce infinitely more opportunities for growth.

  1. Continuous learning must give way to creative learning through an ever-growing circle of resources. It’s been said that information is power. But given the nearly unlimited volume of data at our fingertips and speed with which things change, we can’t always wait for insights to be formally documented and chronicled, even if we could find it all. We need to go to the source: the people around us. That’s why the freshest and most necessary learning now happens in real time, in informal person-to-person interactions. As a result, tapping an always-growing network of resources is a powerful development and success strategy. 
  2. Agility equals ability. Seeing what’s next and pivoting gracefully will not only protect careers, it also will grow them in new, interesting and meaningful ways. Invest effort into becoming more flexible and nimbler in your thinking and actions. It’s one of today’s most highly valued competencies and will likely remain so.
  3. DIY development no longer only means “do it yourself.” In recent years, it’s become increasingly evident that employees must own their careers, taking the lead as they work with their leaders to craft plans to support their goals. While that philosophy remains valid, DIY today also stands for “develop individual yardsticks.” The days of the predictable progression up the corporate ladder are long gone. Continuing to hold those expectations as the measure of career success will only lead to disappointment and disengagement.As a result, everyone at every level of the organization must redefine success in ways that align with today’s realities. We must stop focusing on what we want to be. Instead of obsessing over promotions and position, we must begin defining career success in terms of the kind of work we want to do, the problems we want to solve and the challenges we want to embrace. This, then, becomes a unique and personal yardstick for success.
  4. Ad hoc feedback is the new individual development plan. The speed at which the workplace is changing and the uncertainty that accompanies it has rendered the idea of annual anything useless. Think about your development plans instituted last year. Much has likely been rendered null and void. The infrequent, formal conversations of the past simply don’t operate at the speed of business today. But, do you know what does? The day-in and day-out feedback we get from colleagues, customers, suppliers, contractors and others with whom we regularly interact. This informal feedback offers the insight, redirection and focus required for relevant growth and career success, especially during times of uncertainty and change.

There’s little that we can predict about the months and years ahead. Still, one thing is for sure. It won’t be the normal that we’d all come to know and love. Holding on to a new or next version of that will likely only leave us disappointed and unprepared.

Letting go of these expectations and embracing reality may not be easy. But it’s definitely the first step toward preparing for the growth and development required of a never-normal future.

Julie Winkle Giulioni works with organizations worldwide to improve performance through leadership and learning.  Named one of Inc. Magazine’s top 100 leadership speakers, Giulioni is the co-author of the Amazon and Washington Post bestseller “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Organizations Need and Employees Want,” You can learn more about her speaking, training and blog at JulieWinkleGiulioni.com.