January 31st, 2012 | 6:00 am

Keeping One Step Ahead: Proactive Career Management

filed under Managing Change

Future success in my sightsBy Robin Madell (San Francisco)

You can’t always anticipate the specific work-related challenges you will face. But you can anticipate that you will likely experience challenges. By accepting this fact, you can better navigate those career challenges that many women experience. “The best way to rebound from a career setback is to have prepared for it ahead of time,” says Mary Lee Gannon, president of StartingOverNow.com.

Preparing yourself for potential challenges can help you avoid getting stuck or derailed. While the nature of work life is that it’s unpredictable, your approach to managing it should be more strategic than haphazard. Here are a few strategies for proactive career management that can help you keep one step ahead of the game.

Plan Ahead

A basic proactive strategy is to do some research in advance that will prepare you to make a jump if you need one. Career coach Stacy Swearengen, who specializes in portable career planning, has frequently faced the obstacle of relocation, having had to abandon three professional opportunities to keep her family together. In each instance, she had worked her way up to a higher salary, only to give it up and start from scratch when her family moved again. “Perpetual relocation is a very difficult thing for any woman hoping to climb the career ladder,” says Swearengen. “Every relocation is like taking a step back.”

To try to mitigate damage to her career trajectory, Swearengen started researching companies with nationwide offices after her first relocation, knowing that the odds of transferring her job would be higher with a national company. She focused her search on companies that would embrace her unique situation and view her continued relocations as an asset rather than a detraction. Swearengen says that although it may seem labor-intensive to do such data digging before actually needing it, it can save time down the road when the same obstacles repeat themselves. “It essentially helped keep me on the right track, instead of continuing to get off and have to scramble to get right back on,” says Swearengen.

Another smart form of advance planning is to think ahead about what you might need should you change jobs in the future. Gannon emphasizes the importance of gathering referral letters in advance—particularly from the upper reaches of the organization. “Collect letters from everyone you have worked for or with who is placed well, has a good title, and knows people,” says Gannon. “Don’t wait until you are leaving to collect these letters.” She recommends jumpstarting the process by providing all references with a list of quantifiable milestones you achieved while working together. She also suggests requesting referral letters from colleagues when they are preparing to move on.

Focus on Flexibility

Some women find themselves at professional crossroads when they encounter a pressing need to focus on family, yet their chosen career track prevents them from meeting that need. In such cases, women may feel forced to choose a path that results in a significant professional setback by stepping out of the workforce entirely, perhaps with the intention of reentering after some time away.

Stephanie Harbour, president of Mom Corps NYC, notes that an overall lack of diverse options to structure jobs and careers can leave some high-level professionals high and dry. Beyond the individual level, having too few nontraditional career options—such as high-level part-time work, telecommuting, or project-based positions—encourages an exodus from the workforce of talented women who later struggle to reenter at the same compensation or experience level. Harbour adds that this setback typically occurs for women right around childbearing age, between ages 27 to 35—ironically, one of the most critical periods for advancement in a professional career.

To proactively combat this challenge, Harbour says women must educate themselves on flexible workplace policies and nontraditional career choices. Studies show that there is room for improvement in women’s approach to exploring flex options before making major career decisions. In the Center for Work-Life Policy’s 2010 report Off-Ramps and On-Ramps Revisited [PDF], while 69 percent of women said they would not have taken a career break if there were flex options available with their company, 54 percent of women reported leaving their career without even discussing flex options with their employer in advance.

“The traditional 9AM-5PM, in office, permanent position is increasingly a career structure of the past,” says Harbour. “By negotiating for a flexible position or finding a way to stay engaged in one’s professional career, women can retain and grow their skills and networks and keep the door open for the career track they desire,” says Harbour.

Don’t Play It Safe

In some cases, a decision to stick with what seems like the safe and secure option instead of taking a calculated risk can backfire. While we often assume that remaining an employee of a corporate parent is the smart and stable choice when it comes to avoiding future career challenges, some women feel that being your own boss or moving to a smaller company gives you more leverage to manage your career without being ceiling-capped or held back by corporate politics.

“As a small business owner there is much less of the glass ceilings—as a woman you can truly create your own destiny,” says Nikki Sells, vice president of client services at IFX International, Inc. “The corporate world is different. It is very easy for women to get pigeonholed in a job.”

Attorney Amy Oppenheimer, founder and president of the Association of Workplace Investigators, explains that she experienced a major career setback when she decided to give up her own business in exchange for the “safe choice” of working for an employer, for the sake of security and childrearing. “After having my own law office, I took a job as an administrative law judge and worked in that capacity for many years before going back out on my own,” says Oppenheimer. “I did this because, like many women, I am risk averse and because a secure job that did not require overtime was good for my family.”

Oppenheimer says what helped her to get back on track despite her setback was based on proactive planning: she opted to keep a hand in other interests, so that she could transition back and restart her own business when she left traditional employment. She also took an early retirement from her former employer so that she would have plenty of productive years left to do what she really wanted to do. “Always continue to keep relationships going, knowledge fresh, and interests alive,” says Oppenheimer. “I kept my other interests alive so that I had options when I left. As a result, my business is thriving.”

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