Keeping Options Open is Key to Career Path

Keeping Options Open is Key to Career Path

by John Rossheim

"Most  workers don't know where their careers are going," says Andrea Kay, a career consultant. "A career path used to be determined by your manager; now it's something you design for yourself."

Like the waning concept of lifetime employment with a single company, the notion of a career path often seems like a mirage to Canada's workers. Companies dissolve due to mergers or management miscues. Occupations are hollowed out by automation or offshoring. Entire industries retrench, restructure and shed a large fraction of their workers -- seemingly forever.

In such an environment, how can an individual worker believe in his own plans to move from his current position to a management role, then to a larger company, and then to a position at an industry leader? Perhaps the savvy professional's first move is to acknowledge that creating and following a career path has morphed from a bracing hike on a well-blazed trail to a marathon in the wilderness without a compass.

Creating a Career Path Is About Self-Determination

But taking control of your own career path doesn't mean denying that uncertainties persist; it means planning escape routes from potential dead ends. "Since most of us don't know how our careers will play out, decisions about taking a particular job are more effective if you think of them in terms of the options they create," says David DeLong, author of Lost Knowledge: Confronting the Threat of an Aging Workforce.

To keep relevant options open, you've got to remain marketable all the time, not just plan to update your resume after you land that elusive, high-visibility assignment. "It's wise to accept that your company might just not be there," Kay says.

Triangulating Toward a Fulfilling Vocation

In addition to labour market uncertainties, at some point most Canadians face uncertainty about what they want in their careers. David Zweifler's path to the satisfying position he now holds is typical in its lack of linearity.

"Triangulation is the best way to characterize my career moves," says Zweifler, an assistant vice president at G.S. Schwartz & Co., a public relations and investor relations firm. "I moved into areas that seemed interesting, building on knowledge that I already had."

After earning his bachelor's degree in psychology in 1993, Zweifler worked as a newspaper writer and editor, and then as an investment banker -- gigs that took him to Indonesia, New York, and Hong Kong. In 2002, he began to bring this diverse experience together back to Canada, entering public relations and moving toward a client base that would highly value his investment-banking experience.

"It's a process of learning as much as you can in each situation and taking something away from that that will bring you closer to your goal," says Zweifler. "I was becoming a better and better professional for the job that I wanted, even though I didn't know what that was."

Education and Retraining Can Be Key to Mid-Career Corrections

"Mid-career education and retraining have become a central part of career paths," says DeLong. "I got a master's at age 32, which led directly to my next two jobs, and then returned to school for a doctorate at 39, which has given me a whole new set of employment options." DeLong is principal of his management consulting firm.

Rob Bennett has yet another approach to keeping career options open in an uncertain labour economy: Accumulate money early to tide you over when you want a change or are forced into one. "Those who gain a reasonable level of financial freedom early in life are free to explore all sorts of job opportunities not open to those who have not saved effectively," says Bennett, author of Passion Saving: The Path to Plentiful Free Time and Soul-Satisfying Work.