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Five Ways to Have the Career You Really Want

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by Nancy E. Johnson  

As a little girl with a huge Afro, spectacles and a Nancy Drew book in hand at all times, I pondered the question most kids do: What do I want to be when I grow up? My answers changed every year from detective to heart surgeon to kindergarten teacher. The funny thing is that many of my friends and colleagues in their 30s, 40s and 50s are still trying to figure out what they want to be when they grow up.

My own career journey took me from debris fields in 100 mph winds covering hurricanes as a television news reporter to the boardrooms of Shanghai as a PR pro communicating a company’s Asia-Pacific plan. I’ve changed careers a few times. That’s why my alma mater, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, asked me to speak to the 2013 Executive MBA graduates about the best strategies for successfully navigating your career.

#1 Be strategic about your career. Think ahead about where you want to be in three to five years or even ten years. While you’re on your current job, take on stretch assignments that will give you the skills you need for your next move. Volunteer on committees and teams in other departments where you can learn new parts of the business that align with your career aspirations. Also, before you quit your current gig, make sure you’ve left your mark and made the organization better than it was when you got there.

#2 Reach 500+ on LinkedIn. I remember when I hit the 400 mark for connections. My competitive juices started bubbling.  I schmoozed at a few more networking events and soon surpassed the 500+ number.  Yes, the more people you’re connected to on LinkedIn means more companies you have access to as well as more second and third degree connections. That’s important. However, the new number to focus on is 20. I learned this from Vince Morgus, CFO at LuLu Holdings and a fellow alum on the panel with me. He made a great point that you need 20 people in your network that you can comfortably call at any time to ask for career leads, advice or recommendations. This is your inner circle – your personal board of directors and these are relationships you must develop and nurture regularly. These are not people you call when you want a job and they have to ask, “Nancy who?”

#3 Reinvent yourself. Most people don’t stay on the same job at the same company doing the same thing for 30 years anymore. As your career goals change, be nimble. When I studied journalism at Northwestern University, I just knew I’d be sitting in Dan Rather’s chair one day anchoring network news. But as my career evolved, I realized that it was the storytelling I loved, so I aspired to be the next Charles Kuralt. After winning awards for stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, I knew I wanted to tell features full-time. But the news business was changing and every reporter needed to be general assignment. So, I left news behind and pursued public relations and corporate communications. First, I did PR on the client side and now I’m exploring the agency world. Never be afraid to take risks and move your career in new directions.

#4 Tell your story. Each of us has a story to tell.  Be sure yours is simple, creative and compelling. If you’re in line at the grocery store, on an elevator or sitting across the desk from a hiring manager, you should be prepared to talk about who you are and the value you bring. Practice it. The more you tell that story, the more natural it will feel. Also, a hiring manager won’t necessarily understand why a financial analyst can kick butt managing a branding campaign. That’s a big career switch. Doesn’t mean it can’t be done. But it’s up to you to connect the dots and weave a narrative that makes the case for why this career transition will be a smooth one. You also have to believe in the power of your story. This is the consistent story you tell in interviews, on LinkedIn, on Facebook, at cocktail parties, everywhere. Own it. Tell it. Tell it again.

#5 Follow your passion. Only you know what kind of work energizes you and makes you come alive. That’s your career sweet spot.  If you can find a way to make a living doing what you’re passionate about, you’ll love Mondays as much as Fridays.  Storytelling is my passion. I told stories as a reporter and I still tell stories in public relations. And when I’m not working, I’m telling stories as a budding novelist.  Often, we get caught up in the prestige of our job titles on LinkedIn or on our business cards. The one thing that’s more important than what others think of what you do is what you think of what you do. Listen to your inner voice. That may sound like soft advice in the world of spreadsheets and data.  But when you spend 40 to 60 hours every week working, you want to do work that brings you more than a paycheck. Your work should ignite a fire inside you – a passion that will sustain you through the life of your career.