For career movement, keep work skills portable

Working Life

March 03, 1996|By Deborah L. Jacobs | Deborah L. Jacobs,CHRONICLE FEATURES

Workers at Aetna Life and Casualty Co. used to call their employer "Mother Aetna." But with the insurer cutting thousands of jobs in the past several years, the old nickname no longer seems to fit. Aetna employees are now realizing they can't count on a company to take care of them.

Neither can most of the rest of us. Instead, we need to think about making our careers portable. That way, the next time your company restructures, your department downsizes or your boss departs abruptly, your future won't hang in the balance. Here are some steps you can take now to help keep your career moving:

1. Treat every co-worker like a future client. If you bet on who'll be in and who'll be out in every power play, chances are you'll eventually be wrong. Personal relationships outlast organizational ones, so cultivate them: share credit for joint efforts, get to know colleagues at all levels, keep people owing you favors.

One former advertising executive, who is now self-employed, built a substantial client base from people he used to work with. His old company was in such turmoil that most of his former co-workers either lost their jobs or quit first. They turned out to be far more helpful to him once they left the organization than when they were stuck on a sinking ship.

2. Be nice to people who've been fired. (Lots of folks treat them as if they had a contagious disease.) You'll stand out as the kind soul who came in to chat, sent along a job lead, or made a few phone calls to drum up interviews. What's more, lame ducks can be great sources of information.

3. Understand the company's needs and find ways to meet them. This applies whether you're working as a consultant, temping, or just trying to do the best possible job where you are now. If you're not clear about goals, ask. Priorities can shift suddenly.

4. Don't rely on promises. Too many people think they can relax because someone has promised them the next paycheck, raise or promotion. Don't count on it. However powerful the person making the promise seems one day, he or she might be gone the next.

5. Stay up to the minute. Take advantage of every chance to develop new skills or improve old ones. Many companies offer in-house training (for example, in how to use new software) or will reimburse you for college courses. Even if it's hard to make time in your schedule, seize these opportunities and seek out others. You'll gain expertise and contacts.

Also, keep up with news of your industry by joining a trade group, reading professional journals, and talking with everyone you meet in the field. Find out what talents are in greatest demand; exchange ideas with people in jobs you might like; dig for details about what exactly they do; and ask which experiences or courses best prepared them for the post.

6. Know your value in the marketplace. In today's volatile workplace, your job hunt should never stop. Stay tuned for openings at places where you might fit in.

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