Before the coronavirus pandemic hit the world, a LinkedIn survey of a few thousand US workers in May 2018 revealed that "career sleepwalking" had become widespread, especially amongst younger Gen Xers and older Millennials, those 35—44 years old. In the survey, 47% of professionals admitted they did not have a good sense of where their career was going, and some said they felt as if they were on a treadmill going nowhere. As a career coach with an international clientele, I know that a similar situation prevails in other parts of the world, too.
And then, the pandemic struck early in 2020, with company closures, decimation of some industries, redundancies, hiring freezes, and pay freezes. As the various government support measures across the world phase out in the coming months, we may see another round of job cuts.
Experts predict the job market recovery is going to be uneven, with some sectors recovering faster than others. Some may never make it back to pre-pandemic levels. The gig economy and freelance roles are also expected to surge.
None of these macro-factors is within our control. But we do have the ability to proactively assess the evolving situation and prepare to position ourselves as well as we can — for a future new job or role, a promotion or pay rise, or other opportunities as they become available. Even creating some opportunities is within the realm of possibility.
It is critical that you be ready to invest time and resources and take ownership of your own career development.
A survey commissioned by CIMA in 2020 found a lack of digital skills, health and safety, and people-management and leadership skills were the top three areas that concerned employers at small and midsize enterprises in the UK. The results suggested that the coronavirus pandemic highlighted gaps that existed before.
How to take charge
To help you get ready, here are my top ten practical and tested strategies for proactively managing your career:
1. Improve your self-awareness continually
Before you prepare for the future, it's important that you understand what traits and behaviours got you to where you are now.
- Internal self-awareness: Use the several free assessments available to recognise your strengths, blind spots, areas for development, core values, fears, and insecurities. Examples include the Big Five Personality Test, strengths tests (available at high5test.com or www.viacharacter.org), and a personal values assessment.
- External self-awareness, ie, your personal brand: Find out how others perceive you — your reputation or image. Manage your reputation, or you will be managed by it.
- Unearth and resolve your blind spots: Career achievers routinely seek feedback, learn, and adjust. Initiate the feedback if you have to — for example, after a meeting where you presented, talk about a couple of things that you think went well and then ask for advice on one thing to improve.
2. Think about your career vision, and cascade that down into near-term goals
Define career success for yourself. Think about who and what you want to be. To do this, dream a little.
Then follow Step 1 on self-awareness (internal self-awareness), but also think about where your industry is going, what changes may come, and what future opportunities will look like for you. What skills will become more valuable in time? One method is to visualise where you want to be in three years and pre-write your résumé or CV, imagining the job description and responsibilities. Think, "between now and then, what roles would I have held that prepared me to get this job?"
The CGMA Competency Framework can help flesh out the vision.
Once you have your vision, how do you get there? Set both long- and short-term goals:
Goals focused on professional advancement:
- Short-term example: Help finance business partners fund projects that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by x%.
- Long-term example: Become a CFO of a public company.
Goals focused on educational advancement:
- Short-term example: Complete a certificate course in data analytics before July 2021.
- Long-term example: Complete all stages of the CIMA examination by 2023.
Goals focused on personal development:
- Short-term example: Becoming more proactive within my company.
- Long-term example: Improving my networking skills, both internally and externally.
3. Build a development plan: How would you like to grow?
Once you determine what you want, you can assess what your gaps are. What do you need to learn or improve, and how will you do it?
- List what skills to acquire, behaviours to change, certifications or qualifications to get, work exposure to seek (eg, international work experience, a people-management role).
- Seek input from your bosses and mentors about what skills they want to see you develop.
- Take action. For example, if you are a financial planning and analysis (FP&A) manager and want to learn more about data visualisation, join a course, arrange informational interviews with expert colleagues, or seek assignments with exposure to that area.
4. Build helpful habits
Human beings are creatures of habit. You're either the victim of your bad habits or the product of your good habits.
- Build habits that make you stronger, healthier, smarter, and more centred and that help you implement your plan.
- Prioritise and shift away from nonessential practices. Of course, you need to identify them first.
- Track your time and energy, and make it count.
5. Pursue lifelong learning
Learning itself is a skill, and developing it is a critical driver of long-term career success. The key to staying relevant in a fast-changing world is to become an "intentional learner".
- Set aside time each week to identify what investments (time and money) you want to make in your development.
- Consume content (podcasts, books, webinars, online classes from Alison, Coursera, LinkedIn Learning, Udemy, etc.) that will help you learn specific skills and fulfil continuing education and development requirements.
- Adding these credentials to your LinkedIn profile and résumé or CV will also demonstrate to current and future employers how motivated and charged up you are.
If you wish to grow, you need to be willing to disrupt yourself. Ask yourself, "How often do I do something outside of my comfort zone?" Being slightly uncomfortable can push us to achieve goals we never thought we could.
6. Nurture relationships, network proactively, and invest in a sponsor relationship, which is more involved than mentorship
Sponsors must be willing to spend political capital, while mentors typically stop at giving advice.
So many corporate executives have devoted so much of themselves to their jobs that they do not know anyone outside their own company. Some of my clients feel embarrassed to reach out to their connections, as they had been contacting them only for job searches previously.
Building relationships is a great insurance for your employment and career, but the onus is on you to continually pay premiums through regular connection — even when you don't "need" it. Effective networking is not about you; it is about the value you add to others, and it does not end when you find a new job.
- Dig the well before you're thirsty — whether job searching or not, think of whom you can reach out to each week, without a "need".
- Be a giver and be authentic in your sharing.
- Cross-pollinate ideas from one network to the other network. The ideas need not be your own, and you should appropriately assign credit for ideas even as you share them.
7. Track your achievements regularly; show how you are delivering value to the organisation
Many of us, amidst busy schedules, neglect to keep track of our success stories as they happen and may end up inadequately representing ourselves.
- Set aside a half-hour every month to record major achievements — KPIs exceeded, challenging situations resolved, call of duty exceeded, awards won, major CSR contribution, etc.
- Update the story as the full impact of an achievement unfolds later.
- Use the SOAR format for capturing career achievements:
- Situation: What were you trying to achieve? Why?
- Obstacle: What challenges did you face?
- Action: What did you do to overcome the challenges and achieve what was needed?
- Result: What was the outcome — in numbers where possible.
An updated SOAR table is raw material for your CV and will help you stay prepared for performance reviews, job interviews, and other career opportunities.
8. Keep your personal marketing collateral ready and updated
It is a crowded job market out there. Whether you are actively job scouting or not, keep working on your visibility and personal marketing to stand out, by demonstrating a winning combination of marketable skills and an impactful personal image.
- Keep your résumé or CV current, craft a clear positioning statement to headline the CV, and answer "tell me about yourself" questions. When describing your work duties, include data or metrics that show what you have accomplished.
- An updated and optimised LinkedIn profile works as your personal round-the-clock chief marketing officer and a job hunter.
- Maintain your online presence and reputation. Google your name regularly and go through the ﬁrst few pages of content or images; should you ﬁnd something you're not proud of, contact the site's webmaster (often found under "Registrant Email" or "Administrative Contact") and ask to have it removed.
9. Combine performance, image, and exposure (PIE) for upward career mobility
Performing to the best of your ability is necessary at every level of your career. However, it is not enough. In a 1996 study, Harvey Coleman concluded that performance is only a box-ticker for upward career mobility; image and exposure are the ones that make the real difference. Even though you don't have control of how others view you, you do have control over your proactive actions that can shape others' perceptions, a key strategy for standing out, gaining credit for your work, and ultimately career advancement. Improve your visibility to ensure senior management knows what you have contributed and how valuable you are.
Four ways to self-promote authentically and humbly include:
- Update your boss regularly about your key accomplishments — the actions you've taken and the impact you've had (not just a list of projects you are working on).
- Make your presence felt in virtual meetings. Ensure your face is well lit, prepare well, participate in the chat, and ask questions. Offer to make presentations from time to time and hit those out of the park.
- When it comes to promotion or review time, you will need sponsors and a fan club who'll speak for you when you are not in the room. Identify a few decision-makers, establish rapport, and seek their insights on their domains. Generally, people like being asked to share their expertise and will respond positively.
- Sometimes it is difficult to get noticed by senior leaders through your direct work, so you might raise your hand and try volunteering for initiatives such as corporate social responsibility work, company events, etc. These situations provide an often overlooked opportunity to rub elbows with senior people, who will see you in action and ideally take notice of your contributions.
10. Practise self-care
This is about finding your own unique work/life balance and building up your resilience. The most selfless thing you can do is to be selfish in taking care of yourself. When you take care of yourself mentally, physically, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually and are more mindful, there's more of you to give.
The good news is that resilience can be developed; it involves thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours that can be learned. The next time you feel your heart beating faster, say to yourself: This is my body rising to the challenge. Put a smile on your face. Even as you stretch out of your comfort zone into the stretch zone, make sure you are not in the "stress zone". Deep breathing practice, exercising the power of taking a pause, and expressing gratitude have been great allies for many of the people I coach, and for me.
Taking control of your future
Using these ten strategies, put your hands firmly on the controls of your career, and carve out some time on a regular basis to plan as well as review your continued development. When you are proactive about your career, you're able to be more intentional, make better career decisions, manage disappointments and curve balls, and most importantly, stay well prepared for opportunities. Go ahead and set yourself up for success.
Digital Mindset Pack: Data Analytics Focus
Powered by AICPA & CIMA research, the Digital Mindset Pack is a solution for accountants and finance professionals grappling with emerging digital skills and the mindset needed for the digital future.
CGMA Competency Framework
The CGMA Competency Framework (2019 edition) is designed to help management accountants, finance professionals, and their employers understand the knowledge requirements and assess the skills needed for both current and desired roles. The framework is underpinned by the need for objectivity, integrity, and ethical behaviour, and includes a continuous commitment to acquire new skills and knowledge. Visit future.aicpa.org.
Raju Venkataraman, FCMA, CGMA, is a negotiation skills trainer and credentialed leadership and career coach (PCC) based in Singapore, serving clients worldwide. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Sabine Vollmer, an FM magazine senior editor, at Sabine.Vollmer@aicpa-cima.com.