For mid-career professionals, navigating a career move is risky. In a pandemic it can be dangerous. The way we’ve been taught to pursue our next career move — whether we’re currently employed or between jobs — is to push ourselves into the process. We work with recruiters, headhunters, hiring managers and resume consultants to put our best foot forward hoping we’ll be chosen. We push ourselves into job applications, inboxes and positions that we think might be a good fit for us. We give up control of the process. The fate of our job search is in the hands of others determining whether we’re a good fit, outperform the competition and can “hit the ground running” ultimately reducing the costs of our onboarding should we be lucky enough to get hired.
For self-employed consultants the pressure is similar. As the end of one engagement looms you spin up your sales efforts reaching out to former clients, cold calling new ones, and privately messaging colleagues asking if they’ve heard of anything that fits your skill set. Here, too, it’s a sales process you initiate and push forward looking for the next client.
Career growth doesn’t have to be a game of “push and pray.” Instead we can reclaim control over our professional development turning the system 180 degrees on its head from a push system to one where you are continuously pulling on the system, attracting opportunities to you until the right next one arrives. Building a continuous stream of inbound opportunities takes work and sometimes that work can be risky. But like any risky proposition there are mitigation strategies. In my most recent book, Forever Employable, I take what I’ve learned from more than 20 years of product development practice and detail how to formulate a career growth strategy for mid-career professionals and consultants that reclaims control over the process, builds your thought leadership and uses that reputation to attract opportunities to you.
To make this transition successfully there are two shifts in mindset you need to make:
- Think of what you do as a product
- Test and learn your way to product market fit
Let’s take a look at each one of these.
You are the product
Everything you know how to do, your experience, your expertise, your reputation — is a product. You make that product every time you go to work. You generate output. That output can take the form of digital products and services if you work in product development. It can look like project plans and budgets if you’re in project management or finance. It can be vacation policy or a new training program if you work in Human Resources. Your product is consumed by someone. That could be a colleague on your team, your boss, your company’s staff, your client or an external vendor. Those are your customers. Each time you make your “product” you are, in theory, helping one of those customers do their job more effectively. You measure the success of your effort not in terms of production — “Did I send the onboarding plan to the CHRO on time?” — but in terms of the impact it has on the behavior of your customers, “Did we reduce the time to onboard new employees in half?” Your goal is to create measurable outcomes that tell you that you chose the right idea and executed it well.
The value of your expertise is not limited to your employer. In fact, in a world where everyone has a platform and a professional presence on networks like LinkedIn, you have an opportunity to provide your product to people outside of your organization and beyond your current clients in a variety of ways. And it’s this external sharing of your expertise that begins to shift the directionality of your career growth system from push to pull. People start recognizing you and, more importantly, your expertise as you build a reputation. They begin to understand how you can help them. Consistently and regularly sharing your expertise in public forms eventually builds an audience. That audience, built over time and with generous sharing of your experience, will consist of your peers, clients and other professionals in related disciplines. You are making yourself and your abilities known to them. And when the need arises for those abilities, they start reaching out asking for your help. Each time you share your knowledge you’re pulling on the system, attracting opportunities towards you. Eventually, as your presence in the public discourse grows, that stream of inbound opportunities becomes continuous.
Experimenting your way to product market fit
This shift to having a professional reputation and network is the foundation for building a steady stream of inbound career opportunities. It’s not an explicit job hunt but it is a deliberate effort to figure out how to best position your product — i.e., your expertise — in an ever-changing market. Unilateral career-related maneuvers are always risky. What if your boss or client finds out? What if your skills don’t match current market needs?
Like any product development effort we reduce risk through experimentation. We want to test the market, continuously, to learn how our product currently matches market demands, where we’re lacking experience and how to best position ourselves so that there’s a clear fit between what we’re looking for and what we have to offer in our next career move.
Here, again, we can use the tools of product development to help us. Every experiment starts with a set of assumptions. We assume our experience is valuable to a specific target audience. We assume we can deliver it to them in ways they prefer consuming. We assume they will let us know, one way or another, if we’ve made them better at what they do. And, perhaps most importantly, we assume that this generous, persistent stream of expertise will ensure a steady inbound stream of new opportunities.
Next, we assemble our assumptions into hypotheses — testable, falsifiable statements that position our content offering not as a “done deal” but rather our best guess as to what our customers, in this case our peers in our industry might need. A content hypothesis might look like this:
I believe I can provide [this set of skills, expertise and experience in a specific format]
To [this target audience]
In order to achieve [this outcome].
I will know I am right when I see [these quantifiable changes in behavior in my target audience]
I believe I can provide world-class recruiting leadership to Fortune 500 companies in financial services to help them attract and retain top tech talent in order to stay competitive.
I will know I am right when I see at least 3 inbound contacts from hiring managers or executive search firms about such positions in the next 12 months.
The problem with this hypothesis is that it’s big. It’s too big to test right away. You need to create awareness of your expertise first. You need to create demand for your product. To do that you could write a smaller hypothesis designed to help you experiment your way to the best approach for reaching your target audience.
I believe I can provide short (2-3 minutes) videos on how to onboard a new employee published on LinkedIn to early and mid-career human resources business partners in order to help them save their company time and money.
I will know I am right when I see each video get at least 1000 views, shared at least 10 times and I get 1 inbound request per month to speak about this topic.
What you’ve done now is identified how you might start to find an audience for your expertise. If your hypothesis is valid you will begin to build your reputation and lay the foundation for attracting opportunities towards you.
The next step is to test the hypothesis. Your first instinct might be to jump right in and start making videos. While this will certainly give you data about your hypothesis it also comes with the risk of wasting time and effort on an idea that doesn’t bring you closer to product market fit. Instead, ask yourself these two questions:
- What’s the most important thing I need to learn about my hypothesis right now?
- What’s the least amount of work I need to do to learn it?
The first question is about risk. You’re identifying the biggest risk in your hypothesis. In the case of our example it could be that your target audience doesn’t consume videos at all or that there’s a better way to reach them than LinkedIn.
The answer to your second question is your experiment. What’s the easiest, fastest (read: lowest risk) way for you to find out if videos are the right way to reach your audience. One way would be to run a poll on the platform asking your network how they normally consume this type of information. Another way would be to put your phone on a tripod (or lean it against some books), push record and talk about one small slice of onboarding new employees for 2 minutes. Without a lot of fancy editing you can publish it and wait for feedback to come in. Each experiment you run generates data — both qualitative and quantitative. Your job is to synthesize the data and decide whether you’re going to kill your hypothesis, pivot it to a different tactic or persevere with it intact.
Each experiment is a toe in the water. It’s an opportunity for you to reach out to your professional community and provide value. Their reactions will tell you if you’ve actually done that and how much. As you start to find your specific focus and target audience, your reputation grows. Inbound requests begin to come in for you to be a guest on a podcast or share your thoughts as part of an online panel. You’re not explicitly job hunting or looking for that next client but you are ensuring that if anyone needs your particular set of skills, they know who to reach out to.
Translating content creation into job opportunities takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight because building a reputation takes time. You may have done that inside your organization or with your current client, but now it’s time to do that with your professional community. This technique future-proofs your career against market volatility. Your objective is to find and nurture an enthusiastic audience. Your next employer or client may not be in that audience but someone in that audience likely already knows them.
Experimentation is an ongoing process. Where one fails, another will succeed. Sometimes it takes several experiments to decipher exactly how to reach your audience effectively. And given the rapid pace of change in how we consume content these days you’ll need to evolve with these trends. The idea of thinking of your career as a product that you can then test and learn into a continuous product market fit ensures that regardless of what happens to your company, industry or in the world, you are generating new opportunities for yourself. This ensures a higher level of control over your career growth than the traditional path we’ve been taught for generations.
By the way, this is exactly the kind of work we do together in the Becoming Forever Employable workshop. Work directly with me as your coach and a small cohort of motivated professionals learning how to build reputation, community and an inbound flow of new opportunities. Check it out.