The employable woman: Avoiding the valley of the drones
Rachelle J. Canter, Ph.D.

One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons shows one yuppie confiding to another, "I'm employed by them but I'm working for me." These words are more than funny, they're prophetic.   Fortune's  cover story on the 50 most successful women in American business pointed out that these women realize that "business isn't the place where they work, the business is themselves."

Once upon a time, in a faraway land, there was an employment contract that guaranteed permanent employment in exchange for loyalty and hard work.  Those halcyon days are long gone.  Even those rare individuals who have spent their careers with a single employer, have no lifetime guarantee.  As many people know, you can do all the right things and still end up with a job you hate or without a job at all.

The rules of the career game have changed.  The new employment contract assumes joint responsibility for maximizing employability:  you are responsible for career management and your employer is responsible for providing tools and resources to do so.  The smart careerist recognizes that the winning strategy in the new employment contract is to maximize employability or marketability.

The organization's part of the bargain these days, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal, includes providing several things:  (1) meaningful work (including moves or assignments to develop new skills), (2) opportunities to learn new skills, not just technical skills, but leadership and other skills important for success in any organization;  (3) career management skills;  and (4) honest feedback about performance and developmental needs, and (5) no-fault exits.  

While these things are rightfully within an organization's responsibility and power, most law firms, and even many corporations, are not providing them.   The way to ensure you get them is to take the initiative and ask for them or do them yourself.

A Do It Yourself Guide to Employability

Let me spell out an employability strategy:  (1) create a career plan, (2) upgrade your skills, (3) update your resume, (4) network, (5) ask for feedback, and (6) keep it up.

(1)       Create a long-term career plan.

Successful career management begins with a plan.  Any important assignment, case, or project requires a plan to organize and guide your efforts.  Managing your career is one of the most important, and most challenging, projects of your life, but few of us have a career plan.  A career plan can supply knowledge of personal skills and strengths which are essential to navigating career transitions, whether the objective is the first professional job out of school, making partner or officer, changing jobs, or improving performance.

If the prospect of preparing a career plan is daunting, the plan does not require a sophisticated form or content.  Fundamentally, it requires an assessment of your current and your desired situation and a plan to get from where you are to where you want to be.  This means assessing your current skills, identifying your ideal job, and comparing your current skills to those required for your ideal job.  The career plan then helps you develop the skills and accomplishments necessary to move toward your goal.

(2)       Upgrade your skills.

David Maister points out that professional development is an ongoing necessity.  Use your career plan to identify the skills and accomplishments you need to grow in the direction of your long-term career goals and also to increase your marketability.  Seek assignments to build needed skills and visibility. 

Taking charge of your professional development requires using your career plan as a basis for articulating developmental priorities and organizing and evaluating development activities.   Your plan should target specific skills, timeframes for learning them, and quantitative measures of how well you are doing.  To be effective, the plan should also include regular feedback. joint agreement on accountability, and follow-up.  If this task seems daunting, in light of your available time and skills, consider professional assistance in helping you design and implement your plan. 

(3)       Update your resume.

"Be prepared" is a good motto with the workplace in constant transition.  For those of us who live in earthquake country, a disaster kit of flashlight, batteries, and bottled water is critical.  Does your career deserve any less?  Each of us needs a contingency plan if the bottom should suddenly fall out of our organization or career. 

But do you have one?  Can you give a potential employer or networking lead a concise and compelling summary of your skills, experience, and accomplishments?  More important, do you have an up-to-date resume?  This is the most critical transition tool to have ready.  An accomplishment-based resume that emphasizes quantifiable contributions, rather than job descriptions, is the single best way to show someone what you can do.  It is an essential part of the portfolio of transition tools you need to market yourself. 

A resume is also a remarkably powerful tool to use within your organization.  One of my clients sent me a front-page article on her that appeared in a legal newspaper.  It was a very strong piece, full of her accomplishments presented in the form of quantified, bottom-line results.  It was a strong statement about her record, important to her future in her current position and a wonderful piece of publicity for potential employers.

She is a perfect example of how the resume development process can help someone with an outstanding record  who is not inclined to trumpet her accomplishments.  By nature a modest person, as well as a superb performer, she credited her ability to respond so quickly and substantively to the reporter to our work defining and quantifying her accomplishments and eliminating bureaucratic jargon.   The resume preparation process helped her understand and convey her worth.

In my experience, too many women executives and attorneys downplay their accomplishments and expertise.  A strong resume can counteract this tendency to undersell.  As with this client, a resume can provide a concise statement of your contributions and results -- useful data for compensation negotiations, promotion or succession planning decisions, partnership reviews, articles, and informal purposes such as negotiating to handle a particular assignment. 

(4)       Keep up your network.

Speaking of a contingency plan and critical transition tools, don't forget to keep up your network.  On average, 70-80% of jobs come through an indivudual's network.  Network now, while you have a job.  Networking serves many purposes, from job exploration to business development.  And remember that effective networking is not a one-way street.  Help others in network -- go out of your way for them.  You may not need something from your network today, but you can certainly contribute something.  

Don't forget that headhunters are part of your network and that they deserve the same reciprocity.  For example, you may not be looking or interested in opportunities but you may know good candidates for their searches or contacts who may be excellent sources of candidates for them.  Share your network.

Increase your visibility.  There is no such thing as security with a particular employer.  However, the greater your visibility, the greater your employability, and hence your security in being able to find other employment.

(5)       Ask for feedback.

The Glass Ceiling research on women executives found that a major cause of career derailment is failure to receive feedback and coaching on performance.  It's important to ask for critical and constructive feedback because few people volunteer it.   Consider asking for feedback from multiple sources.  You can do this in various ways, such as a standard debriefing session with colleagues and clients after the completion of each assignment or use of 360 performance feedback tools to solicit specific, quantified feedback on detailed aspects of your performance from superiors, peers, and subordinates, and possibly even clients.

(6)       Keep it up.

Employability is a process, not a state.  There is no achieving employability once and for all.  Employability requires ongoing effort, using the strategies outlined above.  A career plan, ongoing development activities to meet career goals and increase marketability, a strong resume, effective networking, and frequent, detailed performance feedback are tools that can help you increase your employability and avoid the dreaded valley of the drones. 

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