Most of us hope, deep down, that someone else will take control of our career: our boss, human resources, or a recruitment consultant.
However, since few employers today look after our future, "The only person who can really be in charge of your career is you," says John Lees, career transition expert, specialist on working lives and author of Take Control of Your Career.
Lees's words assume more importance at a time when several external factors, such as a turbulent economy and the fear of a layoff, are shaping the careers of many of us. We spoke to famous career experts the world over to find out what one can to do take control of one's career during such times.
Evaluate yourself and your job
Says Lees: "Long-term career planning seems like hard work, and in a rapidly changing market may be tough going. An alternative way of thinking, 'career awareness', focuses on what you can do in the next 12 months."
Planning for this begins with asking yourself, 'How can I fix the job I'm in?' and moving on to 'How can I find a better job?' Find out what are the concerns at the highest level. Spot the trends and buzzwords. Research your organisation as if it's a customer you're trying to win. Be clear about the way you can help your organisation achieve its objectives. Focus on the things that matter and make sure you are seen doing so. Begin by asking to be involved in major projects or attached to key teams.
Invest time understanding your skills and communicating your strengths. Spend at least one day every three months cataloguing what you have learned and achieved. "This will also help you to give a clear message to the marketplace if you eventually decide that you need to move on to a new job," says Lees.
Carol Christen, career consultant and co-author of What Color Is Your Parachute? For Teens, says: "Freshers should have three or four job targets. In the current economy, having just one job target can lead to long-term unemployment. For mid-level employees, whose career trajectory has stalled, it means knowing what other jobs you could do and would enjoy. If you have a job, make sure you watch out for clues about where your company and your work are going."
Says career coach David Couper: "One of the first signs of layoffs is cutting back on the small stuff -- pizza for the team, free coffee, even pens. [Another] sign is closed-door meetings."
He adds: "If you don't have a job, think out of the box. Take a job for less money, but only if it will lead to something better. Do temporary consulting even i you want a permanent job. [Go for] relocation even if you want to stay where you are." Christen says successful job seekers and career changers use seven categories of information about what they want in a job: transferable skills, work content skills, personal and professional goals, where they want to live and work, working conditions, the people they want to work with and for, the rock-bottom salary they need and the level of responsibility they seek.
Build a powerful brand
Says Tessa Hood, image consultant and personal branding expert: "It's a fact that people 'buy' other people in much the same way as we buy a product or service. It is important to be clear about your USP -- who you are, what your offer is and your promise of value to an organisation."
Personal branding is the process by which we market our unique abilities to others. Tom Peters, management guru and author of several books, including In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America's Best Run Companies, says: "The key to any personal branding campaign is 'word-of-mouth' marketing. Your network of friends, colleagues, clients, and customers is the most important marketing vehicle you've got. What they say about you and your contributions is what the market will ultimately gauge as the value of your brand."
Dan Schawbel, author of Me 2.0: Build a Powerful Brand to Achieve Career Success, stresses on building a strong online brand. The key is to reserve your domain name (yourname.com) and your name on the 'big 3' social networks --Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.
If you're looking to brand yourself as an expert in your industry, construct a blog around your name. The blog serves as your 'brand headquarters' and your social networks are your marketing vehicles. Use the same picture, the same personal brand statement (states what you do and who you serve) and the same biodata across your blogs and social networks.
Find a mentor
"Mentorship, mentorship, mentorship," says Brian Kurth, career transition expert and author of Test-Drive Your Dream Job, when asked to name the few things one could do to take charge of one's career during difficult times. Says Kurth: "You need a mentor who can help you excel in your current job or make a career transition [at all stages of life]. All you need to do is to have a plan of action, ask the right questions and build a mutually satisfying relationship."
A mentor has to be someone who loves what he does and is willing to share the passion with you. He should have a track record of at least five years in your field and have some credentials for his achievements -- he could be published, recognised in the press or be accepted as an authority in his subject. It could be someone in your organisation, even your boss. Online social networks have made the job of finding mentors easy.
Advises career and education expert Marty Nemko: "Don't focus on finding just one mentor...you might be more successful assembling a stable of a few mentors, each of whom you can call on for snippets of help."
Achieve work-life balance
Taking control of your career is all about discovering a life beyond it.
"Our egos have become so tied to our jobs that sometimes the rest of our life and those in it don't get much attention, " says Christen. She suggests revving up your relationships, finding purpose that has nothing to do with your work, laughing, appreciating what you have, and connecting with people who are important to you. In your free time, do activities that are opposite to what you do for work.
For example, if your work is primarily with people, do something with your hands. If it involves detailed procedures, do something unstructured or creative. Where do you want your life to be in five years? Now is a good time to start creating that life.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh