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Winning in a different economy

Gabe Heilig

Founder, Action Resumes—Pentagon

The purpose of these articles
The economy is changing from one based on pre-defined jobs and organizational charts to one in which jobs are seen as brief assignments tied to specific problems and projects, or are structured as repetitive, low-paying, service tasks—tasks that the corporate mega-computers haven’t yet been programmed to replace.

A career strategy that’s based on Getting A Job makes us vulnerable, because it puts all our income eggs in one basket—the one we like to think of as “our” jobs. But jobs come, and jobs go; contracts start, and contracts end. What happens then? How do we begin to even the odds in an economy run by largely inaccessible entities that don’t seem to see us as individuals, but as part of a collective, de-personalized “workforce”?

That’s what these articles will address. My aim is to present an approach to constructing a professional life that feels like yours , even in an economy that doesn’t really feel like ours. Because we don’t own “our” jobs. We like to talk about “my desk,” “my office,” “my job,” but none of it is actually ours . We commit these acts of linguistic self-delusion all the time without thinking about it—or rather, because we think about them through a set of paradigms that are so close to us, we don’t realize their power and reach in shaping how we think. We fall victim to the natural tendency to call “ours” almost anything that exists in our personal space. But, no—“my” job isn’t actually mine.

In fact, using the paradigm of Getting A Job as a strategy for your personal economy is highly questionable in what Christine LaGarde, Head of the IMF, calls a Post-Jobs Economy. Having a job (which we don’t actually “have”) is like trying to rent the future with our smarts, time and labor—yet we can be dumped out of “my” job and “my” desk any time those anonymous folks who pay “our” salaries decide to do it. In effect, we’re renting the future without a lease. Not such a great place to put oneself.

Yet, even though we don’t own “our” jobs, we can own our careers . The approach I’ll describe in these articles was effective for me, but I never sat down and designed it. I stumbled into it through trial and error. Over time, as I reflected on what I had been doing, I began doing it more deliberately. When that seemed to work, I found ways to use it with my coaching clients.

This approach works, but it’s not a pill. It takes practice in different ways of thinking and making decisions. It’s not automatic and it’s not guaranteed. It’s an approach, not a “sure-fire method.” It involves understanding employment from a different perspective and interacting differently with the employment economy, to open new options and opportunities in it—rather than relying on the tired and increasingly ineffective strategy for Getting A Job.

Talent and its enemies
Let’s begin at the beginning—with you.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned coaching thousands of people about career decisions and transition strategies, it’s this: Most people are bigger than the jobs they do . We know more than our jobs need us to know; we have more skills than our jobs need us to use; and we want to do more than our jobs often allow us to do. Other than those occasional, memorable moments when we encounter an unexpected problem and solve it out of pure creative problem solving, often jobs don’t require us to be at our best. Instead, they soon become the same old-same old. Many contributions we’re capable of making never get made—and our talent for making them never gets unrecognized.

From what clients tell me, employers know very little about the people they’ve hired. And this happens not as an aberration, but as a logical result of how employers hire people. They focus on whether people can do the jobs they’re hired to do. Any other skills they bring to work are regarded as irrelevant and not worth being concerned about. In short, employers conduct the hiring process from the outside in.

They hire to fill jobs —not to find talent .

Employers literally do not know who is working for them. Other than the small fraction of a person’s skill sets that gets used in a specific job, employers tend to be oblivious to other talents their employees possess. And their employees get it—and they don’t like it.

The latest Gallup survey of worker attitudes revealed that 71% of American workers do not feel engaged in their jobs . It’s hard to build a productive enterprise when 71% of its employees don’t feel engaged in what they’re doing all day long. Dissatisfaction with the hiring process is unmistakable. Harvard Business Review published 3 cover stories in its Summer 2015 issue. Each made the same point: “Let’s Blow Up HR!” The HR hiring process focuses on weeding people out, not finding talent and bringing it in.

The response to current HR issues has been to throw technology at them. But there’s a problem. Big Data and Data Analytics are fine tools for parsing and structuring masses of data—but there’s no algorithm for talent. Talent is not a de-personalized pile of data. Talent is a living force we each bring into the world. Talent is part of Nature—genetic in its origins, individual in its expressions. No amount of data, no matter how intelligently it’s been analyzed, can create something new. Only talent can do that. Subjecting talent to Big Data and Data Analytics misses the point. Talent is what created them in the first place.

Organizations like to talk about how “We respect our people,” but they place their bets on efficiency and control. Those feel like safer bets, even if they keep returning the same results. Talent can rub managers the wrong way. Managers can get frightened of too much Talent, thinking it wants their jobs when it comes to them with good ideas, or thinking it’s planning to compete with them for promotions they’ve been waiting to apply for. Thus, to many mid-level managers, Talent looks like a threat, not a gift.

Talent also gathers enemies because it can be coached, but it can’t be controlled. Talent usually isn’t interested in the rules, and probably doesn’t follow them. It will break the rules to create something the rules never anticipated. The rules can’t make this leap of imagination, because the rules are bound by—well—rules.

But Talent can make this leap. And it does.

As Picasso said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

That’s the game Talent wants to play.

Is that you?

Gabe Heilig coaches and writes resumes for his clients. He has assisted ~5,300 people in creating their professional lives. He can be reached at gabe@ideadesign-dc.com