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Can you future-proof your career?

It is an undeniable fact that the future is unpredictable and the VUCA world we hear so much about is only getting more Volatile, Unpredictable, Complex and Ambiguous. Reading research by Gartner into shifting skills and the pressure to predict the skills necessary to remain relevant for the future, it is clear that whilst we can’t necessarily anticipate the skills we will require next year, let alone in 10 years’ time, there are individual qualities that do seem to equip people for long term success.

This made me think about two new coaching clients I recently had the privilege of working with. Both female as it happens, both working in the food industry (though for very different organisations), and both having got to where they are now by very different routes.

I was inspired by each and started musing on what qualities they share that has made the two of them successful in their careers to date, why I believe they will continue to be successful in the future, and what lessons there were to learn from them.

1. Dynamic career paths

According to Deloitte's Opportunity Marketplace report, traditional career paths are obsolete, even the more recent concept of career lattices cannot keep up with the pace of change. Instead, organisations are looking at dynamic career paths and putting employees into the driving seat.

Thinking of my coaching clients, both are now HR professionals, but it is not the first career for either of them. One had started life in financial services and the other in retail operations, but both had come to HR through a common interest in people and were using transferable skills in very new environments.

Their prior experience of front-line customer service shone through in the way they talked to me about the importance of understanding what the customer needed, not necessarily what they thought they wanted, and designing processes and tools from the outside in, with the end-user experience at the forefront of their mind.

Also, their significant people management experience had been of huge help to them both. So often in HR, young professionals are advising and coaching line managers, but with no personal experience of what it takes to manage an intransigent employee, inspire a future star, or have any one of those multitude of “difficult” conversations. Not only does their prior experiences give my coaching clients credibility with their internal customers (line managers) it also gives them confidence because they have first-hand experience of what works well and what doesn’t. And they were also using those management techniques not to manage direct reports, but to manage their stakeholders – their internal customers and their own managers as well as their managers’ managers.

2. Thirst for learning

Both individuals had been selected by their organisations for the coaching opportunity and both were thirsty for it. They wanted to pick my brains for my HR knowledge and experience, and I was happy to share, but in fact I learned as much from them. We were exploring coaching in a Thinking Environment, and when I asked them to think first for themselves about the issues and questions they had for me, they embraced the challenge and produced their own stunning answers which were so much richer and more relevant than my solutions could be for them.

We cannot know now everything that we will ever need to know, and predictions are that over 30% of skills needed to do a job today won’t be relevant in even 5 years’ time, but that ability and desire to continually learn – what is often referred to as “Learning Agility” – and the flexibility to reinvent themselves into new careers, taking transferable skills from their past and continually learning new skills for the present and future, will ensure they are well equipped to adapt to the ever-changing world of work.

3. Humility

Many senior leaders, once they reach a certain level, seem to think they can stop learning, that they know best, that they know enough. However, the greatest leaders I would argue are actually those who realise that isn’t the case and that the best ideas don’t always come from them. Welcoming diverse personalities and being open to different points of view - listening to what those who report to us have to say, as well as those we report into – are all incredibly important sources of new information and learning.

Unhelpful limiting assumptions often present themselves as issues to tackle in coaching conversations and in this my clients were not unusual. Such self-doubts need to be dealt with however humility is not about doubting ourselves or devaluing our own contribution, but acknowledging that together we are even stronger, even more powerful. And we don’t need to lack confidence or put ourselves down in order to appreciate someone else and build them up.

The Thinking Environment component of Encouragement embraces this as it moves us beyond competition to supporting others to go to the cutting edge of their thinking.

4. Physical and mental fitness

Resilience, having the capacity to bounce back from adversity, the ability to respond and remain effective in challenging circumstances and as the world around us is constantly shifting, is something we all need.

According to a White Paper from leadership development organisation Lane4, even before the pandemic stress accounted for 58% of long term and work-related absence, dissatisfaction, disengagement and staff turnover. People under stress often turn to unhealthy behaviours to help them cope – alcohol, smoking or unhealthy snacks. Regular exercise on the other hand has been found to reduce sensitivity to stress, it helps us to regulate our mood and our physical reaction.

Running and yoga were another two activities my coaching clients had in common. Which is not to say that we all need to dash out to buy Lycra leggings and adopt a downward dog posture, but it highlighted again to me the importance of looking after both our physical and mental health and well-being in building and maintaining resilience. Taking the time, indeed making the time, to invest in a good night’s sleep, a balanced diet, physical exercise, time to relax, and social connection with friends all contribute to sustaining that ability to bounce back.

5. Energy and optimism

One reason I enjoyed our coaching sessions so much was the energy and enthusiasm displayed by each of my clients. Their radiant smiles on Zoom lit up the screen. That isn’t to say they were constantly happy and laughing, that they didn’t tackle difficult subjects and sometimes painful memories, but they had a positive energy and optimism about them that was infectious.

I once left an organisation after being told by the head honcho, “We don’t come to work to have fun”. Why ever not, we spend so much of our time there? And having fun doesn’t have to equate to telling jokes, going go-karting, or holding team meetings down at the pub. But who doesn’t want to work with someone who is passionate about their job, committed to their organisation, has a “can do” attitude, tackles set-backs with good humour, and will greet your ideas with a smile rather than a frown?

6. Personal accountability

And finally, I noticed that both my clients took personal accountability. Not only did they step up at work to take responsibility and get things done, but they also took ownership for their own learning, their own career progression and their own coaching goals. They came to me for coaching support, they used their line managers as sources of feedback, guidance and inspiration, but at the end of the day they put in the hard work and they expected to succeed because of their own commitment and effort.

Regardless of what life and the future world of work throw at them, whatever new skills they are called upon to learn, these six factors I am sure will mean my two coaching clients continue to stay relevant and be successful in whatever paths their careers take them.

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