Like seasons, careers change. And even though a bad economy with massive job layoffs makes today’s job market seem like a job hunter’s winter of discontent, there are always approaches job seekers can use to plan and prepare for their career.
There are phases and stages to our work lives. And at each stage, there are concrete steps we can take to manage our careers. The model of organizational development that suggests that organizations go through distinct phases – Introduction, Growth, Maturity and Ending – is similar to the phases of a career. When we are in the introductory phase, we are just beginning to learn what it is to be an employee. At this stage, employees should ask themselves, does this job fit my values, my lifestyle and prepare me for other jobs?
The Introduction phase
Employees in the early stages of their career, especially those in nonprofits, are looking for a job with meaning and mission. When seeking a job, a prospective employee should ask lots of questions of fellow colleagues about the way it feels to work in an organization and how supervisors treat employees, as well as how the mission is lived on a daily basis. If, while on the job, an employee detects a disconnect between the stated mission and reality, the employee should assess what there is to learn on the job that will help him or her and then decide whether to make a transition. Joining a young professionals association can help with networking, and it is good to get out and meet others in the nonprofit industry. In this stage, some will move into family situations. If this is the case, an employee should ask about workplace policies that support work/life balance. An employee can, at this stage, look for cross-training opportunities. In nonprofits, a complex job description is common. Looking to add to your experience by offering to help staff a fund raising event or serve on a committee will add appeal to your work, as well as to your next employer.
The Growth phase
The next stage – Growth – occurs as we develop into our careers and our professions. It is often in this stage where promotions happen, or we move into jobs with more responsibility and decision making. At this point, there are three opportunities to maximize your career: sharing knowledge, developing leadership skills and reflecting on your job situation.
At this stage in our career, we are usually very current with our work and are experienced enough to have information that could benefit others. Offering to speak at professional conferences, as well as to train new employees, can increase our job satisfaction.
Often employees in this stage will get their first supervisory job. This is the best experience for learning how to be a leader. Take management classes, ask for feedback and find others who are willing to talk about what good supervisors do. All of these things prepare us for jobs with increasing responsibility.
Finally, at this stage, time to reflect and ask if this is the right career, job or organization for you is critical. Especially in nonprofits, it is important to assess an employee’s job alignment with the mission and work of the organization. Developing an informal network of peers is helpful in guiding your reflections.
The Maturity phase
As we enter into the Maturity phase of our careers, one of the most important tasks we can take on is mentoring. Finding a newer employee or younger colleague who benefits from the wisdom of this career stage helps sustain the organization and helps keep our skills fresh. At this stage of our careers, we may be managers and leader s who have the time to offer ourselves to other community organizations. One of the pitfalls of this stage is the risk of job burnout. To help manage burnout, many find a formal or informal coach who can help set goals or point out new areas of growth. Job advancement at this stage is often lateral, and it is best to assess if a new job will renew our sense of purpose.
These three stages are not necessarily linear. We can enter a job at the growth or maturity stage. We may decide that we want to take on a new profession and start again in the Introduction stage. Whatever stage we are in, it is important to keep resumes updated and networks fresh. Don’t wait until you realize that you are ready for a career change to update your resume and reconnect with your network. Newer social networking tools such as LinkedIn are great for staying close to colleagues.
Many of us will spend decades in our careers before we end our paid work. Recognizing that there are different possibilities in each job stage will keep us current and ready for the next challenge.
By Deborah Dale Brackney, vice president of the Mountain States Employers Council (MSEC), Inc., a resource for employers in employment law, human resources consulting, training and surveys (www.msec.org).