Career Coach: How to stay the course amid constant turbulence

April 28, 2013

Is your career facing a head wind? Do you feel that your progression is slowed down by the current economic conditions? Do you find yourself investing more effort yet drifting from your goals?

If so, you are not alone.

We are living and working in an era of turbulence and we must learn how to stay our course and keep our careers on track. We cannot simply blame the conditions in the environment and abandon our course just because it is tough out there. It is precisely in tough times when we should reconnect with our vision, revisit our goals and relentlessly pursue our career aspirations.

I was writing portions of this article on my way to Washington from a business trip, when the captain informed the passengers that we were going to encounter some bumps and turbulence in the next 30 minutes of the flight. The seat belt sign was turned on. The captain told us he would search for more stable conditions at a higher altitude.

Ten minutes after his announcement, the pilot apologized again and asked all the flight attendants to take their seats. He was now anticipating severe turbulence and, once again, he would be trying another altitude.

You’ve probably been in flights where pilots fly above or around storms. A flight to New York will not land in Florida simply because there is no storm there. The pilot will continue to take the plane toward the intended destination, but will seek a smoother course.

We need to apply this lesson to our own careers and lives. Without a clear and explicit articulation of our desired destination, the turbulence of the moment could end up taking our “flight” somewhere else. The late W. Edwards Deming, world-renowned quality expert, admonished us to create “constancy of purpose” or “aim” as part of any individual or organizational pursuit of continual improvement.

This concept of aim is often neglected, yet it is foundational to career progression. What do you want your future to look like? Where to you want to go? What is your picture of success? We cannot program our GPS to a destination that does not exist. Articulating our aim is critical because it gives us a sense of direction and it helps guide our decisions in turbulent times.

Find a quiet place and complete the following statements and questions. Your answers should contain sufficient detail and a clear direction of what you want to become and what you want to pursue. The answers will help you refine your flight plan and will guide you in reaffirming your aim. Write down your answers and revisit them in a few days. Developing your aim is a process of reflection and discovery.

3 I wish I could …

3 I have always dreamt of …

3 Someday I would like to …

3 I am most energized when …

3 If given an opportunity, I
would …

3 What activities do you enjoy the most?

3 What gives you a deep sense of satisfaction? Accomplishment?

3 What is your “gift”? How are you using it?

3 What work or activity do you find most rewarding?

3 What contributions or achievements do you find most desirable?

3 What issues or causes are you most moved by?

3 Which world problem or challenge would you like to see solved?

3 How would you like to serve others if time were abundant?

The right answers are never out there in terms of positions, status, titles, prestige and wealth. When we think that the answer about our aim lies in those external factors and we go after them, we may distance ourselves from the object of our search.

You will know when you have connected with your aim because you will be moved by it and so will those whom you touch. Purpose and intent are measured in positive outcomes. It is the consequence of what we do that gives meaning to what we do.

We are accountable for our aim, our values and beliefs. These define our core existence. It galvanizes our resolve. Constancy of purpose allows us to stay true to our calling and helps us rise above the challenges of the moment.

Turbulent times may make it difficult for you to remain on course, but just as pilots do, seek higher altitudes. Rise above the challenge and seek new heights.

J. Gerald Suarez is professor of the practice in systems thinking and design and a fellow of the Center for Leadership, Innovation and Change at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. He also works with professionals as an executive coach.

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