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Right Career Decisions When Nothing Seems Right

In ancient China, an ill-wisher would say: “May you live in interesting times.” Today is nothing but interesting, and tomorrow is wildly ambiguous. Many have experienced serious career shocks caused by political, economic, and social changes.

People want certainty. It’s evolutionary. Ambiguity is a major source of stress for many. Under stress, we fight, flight or freeze. For example, when the career market shifts, some actively resist changes, some move to a different country, and some stay in place unable to make any decision. But we always want to know.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been receiving messages every day… colleagues, friends, students, or just strangers asking for career advice. Everyone has one question: “What do I do?” But if the question is the same, the situation is always different. Through those conversations, I have developed a simple supply and demand model that helps them think through their unique situation and discuss courses of action.

Sometimes, the result was a concrete plan. Sometimes, it just brought clarity. Which is a lot. When everything around is changing, we seek meaning, understanding, and support.

This Is (Not) New

Supply and demand of work are affected by the context. Careers don’t happen in a vacuum. We’ve seen many examples of how it plays out in the past decades: 9/11, Sars, Lehman Brothers, Covid-19… Events of even lesser magnitude can create career shocks. Undeniably, the world is in flux again.

But it’s not new.

Big negative shifts in the market and society have happened before… many times. We have gotten through those and – hopefully – we’ve learned from them. What does history teach us about careers? When huge external events happen, both talent demand and talent supply are impacted. The supply/demand curves move in response to external forces. Where will you end up on the curve? Correctly anticipating that shift helps you prepare and respond appropriately.

Optimizing Your Career Agency

The success of your career depends on your ability to make the desired career actions. It may be holding on to a job, or changing employers, or taking a break… Let's call it career agency. You are in charge, and you make decisions. A host of internal and external factors may constrain those decisions, but it is you who determines how your career journey develops. You are the writer of your career story, and you choose to author the chapters, instead of letting others control your professional narrative. That's career agency.

You exercise your career agency all the time.

Staying with a toxic boss is your choice. It may be the best choice you have now, but it is you who is making it. And you want to be making informed decisions. So, it's critical to understand the factors impacting your career agency to identify the best course of action.

As you look at the labor market, consider the value you can offer (supply) and what the market wants (demand). Your ability to make desired career moves is a function of these two factors: your marketability and available opportunities. Plotting them on a 2x2 graph results in four scenarios:

The quadrant you want to be in is "Freedom of Choice": you are a highly desirable candidate and there are plentiful opportunities. Being a highly qualified epidemiologist at the onset of a pandemic is a career trampoline. Cybersecurity experts thrive when the probability of hacker attacks is high. Sales and marketing folks are in great demand when consumers have lots of cash to spare. When the "Freedom of Choice" is yours, take risks, bargain harder… enjoy this latitude in pursuing a career on your terms.

The quadrant to avoid is "Career Winter'': your skills are not highly valued, and the labor market is constrained. Often, in this situation it's best to remember that beggars can't be choosers. Short-term, hold onto your job if you have one. If not, don't be too fussy with the options: lucrative offers are unlikely any time soon. Longer-term, try to understand how to move out of this quadrant. You may need to disrupt yourself and choose a different profession. When Covid-19 hit, some pilots found themselves in stock-trading. Unbelievably, pilots and traders rely on similar skills to scan the environment and spot options.

If you find yourself in the "Demand Shortage" corner, it's not you, it's them. Your professional value is high, there are just fewer opportunities on the market. A shortage of opportunities may slow down your growth and curb some previously available paths. In this case, first, explore options to develop in place. Can you create opportunities for your intentional development in the job you are in? It can be taking on a project, volunteering to lead a community of practice at your organization or finding a mentor. Second, network to discover opportunities. Often, the availability issue is resolved by collecting information. You are simply unaware of the many options that exist. So, talk to your professional contacts and invest in relationships with headhunters. Besides, the availability of opportunities is market specific. Moving to a different country where you are not allowed to conduct professional activities (for example, if you are a doctor or a lawyer) will limit your opportunities. Moving to a market where your skills are in greater demand (or willing to work remotely) will unlock new options. Or the right opportunities don't exist yet and you need to create them. This scenario is typical for most seasoned professionals as they rise in the hierarchy. Finally, if your case of "Demand Shortage" is caused by an economic slowdown, why not take a break, and go back to school?

When your marketability is low, but the opportunities are plentiful, you are "Missing the Mark(et)". The play on words highlights the dual nature of this situation: it may be that your skills are out-of-date, or your candidacy does not appeal to employers. The former can be solved by training, the latter – by branding. In deciding which skills to learn or upgrade, see where your career is headed and what will be in demand. If the issue is around how your profile comes across, you may want to invest in personal branding. Make sure that your professional value is presented in a way that is appealing to your target employers, makes you stand out from the competition, and is widely recognizable in your field. If you are unwilling to do either, good old-fashioned cronyism ("old boys' club", nepotism… pick your favorite term) would be particularly helpful in this situation. At least for a short while.

Now… please, answer these two questions:

  • Which quadrant are you in?

  • What's your plan?

Keep Sharpening Your Career Edge

This 2x2 is helpful to diagnose your current career situation. But you can also use it to plan ahead. What is likely to happen? How will the supply/demand curves move? And what does it mean for you?

Also note that planning for an uncertain future, it's easy to miss.

A better strategy when you don’t know what to do is to rely on what has always worked, what has always been true. And what will remain to be true no matter what.

We extensively studied academic research on career management to develop a model of career practices that is comprehensive, universal, and pragmatic. We call it the Career Edge.

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