Tuesday, April 10, 2012

An "Everything-Else" Anecdote

In typical fashion, I thought of a pertinent anecdote the morning after I published my blog post. It's worth passing along, though, so here it is -- a "definitely not me" moment that helped me see what is "definitely me".

Several years ago, I had a job that involved writing articles for a government agency's in-house newsletter. One morning, I sat in on a town-hall type discussion between the Cabinet undersecretary who oversaw that agency and a group of professional women who held civil service jobs with that agency. These women were at the middle management level, and many of them had advanced degrees and many years of work experience. The undersecretary asked if there were any specific practices that these women felt were holding them back in their careers. I don't know if the women had discussed this in advance, but one issue immediately took center stage.

The women complained that they would get training and certifications that had been recommended by their higher-ups, and then return to their same jobs and responsibilities as if nothing had happened. The undersecretary asked if the higher-ups had sent them to these classes specifically in preparation for a promotion, or if there were specific job openings that these women were preparing to apply for. Well, no, the women conceded. Had they been networking with their colleagues in other agencies in order to identify opportunities for advancement? The women looked confused. (This confused me. Was this a new concept for them?)

The undersecretary explained that continuing education and training was a long-term investment. This wasn't like school, where you automatically advance a grade when you complete your assignments. By keeping your skills current and expanding your capabilities, you will be ready when an opportunity does present itself. By taking an active interest in your own personal development, you will make it more likely that your name is the one that comes up when your higher-ups are looking to fill a position. However, if your agency is one where these higher position openings are few and far between, you may need to seek advancement opportunities in other agencies.

What! The look of shock on these women's faces came as a total surprise to me. Had it never occurred to them that they could work in other agencies, or even move into the private sector? Apparently not. Judging by the number of women who expressed disbelief and dismay at the very idea of leaving their beloved agency, this was a very new and unwelcome idea.

I had never experienced this degree of job security -- where the expectation was that you could just show up and check off the boxes, and the conveyor belt would automatically carry you higher, with no further effort on your part. Having gone through temporary positions, layoffs, freelancing, and flat-out unemployment, I have learned that keeping one's skills fresh is a never-ending endeavor. The payoff might not be immediate, but if an opportunity comes up and you're not prepared, then there's no payoff at all. I have learned that sometimes the only way to move up is to move out, and the best way to move out is to know people "out there". If the prepackaged deal chafes and constricts, then you have to design your own package. It hadn't occurred to me that experienced professionals could get that far into their careers and not know that.

"Not-me" experiences are worth remembering, because they help to bring the "definitely me" picture into focus.

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