Whether we admit it or not, many of us have a tendency to give people labels and put them in boxes, and this is especially true at work. The colleague with the messy desk (scatty and creative), the one who speaks over others in meetings (superiority complex) or the one who is quiet and hardly talks (shy and nervous) – we subconsciously like to categorise people, as it helps us to feel more comfortable in our relationships with them, even if we’ve got it wrong, or only touched on one aspect of their personality. ‘She’s the organised, sensible one’; ‘he’s the funny one’; ‘she’s the bossy one’.
When you want to progress in your career, perhaps move into a different role or make a drastic career change, labels can be challenging. I had a job where I was editing and rewriting other people’s words, organising colleagues and making sure we met deadlines (or ‘good-natured nagging’, as some people on the team described it). But I really wanted to be more creative.
Stop talking, start doing
I’d always loved to write; I wrote fiction and poetry at university and even won a writing competition and had my story read on Radio 4 but, when I graduated, although I loved working with words and language, I didn’t have the confidence to believe that I could earn a living by writing. Yet correcting other people’s mistakes and making their writing read better? That I could do, and I didn’t need to bare my soul to do it (I was a classic risk-averse case).
Then, there comes a point in your career when you feel you’ve done all you can with your job; that you can do it with your eyes closed and you need a new challenge. As careers coach, Judith Leary-Joyce says, at this point one of three things happens. You talk about what you’d really like to do, but it stays a dream as you won’t take the risk to make it a reality; you complain about the job to anyone who’ll listen, and use this righteous indignation to keep you stuck; or you really want to make a change, and you utilise this ambition to help you move forward.
But how do you convince yourself that you can be creative, say, when you are living with the label of ‘the organised, boring one’? How do you get those around you, and your boss, to view you in a different light?
‘It’s important to understand what your strengths are,’ says Leary-Joyce. ‘This is a tough challenge for many women, as we have a tendency to play down what we’re good at, but career change calls for real honesty about what you do well and not so well.
‘Make a true assessment of your skills and talents, particularly those you enjoy, and those you’re not good at. Ask people who know you well, both work colleagues and family and friends, since they may see talents that you take for granted. Then think how your abilities will fit with the new career, for example, if you want to manage people, being patient and a good listener is vital. If you’re going for a technical role, an ability to see patterns and work out tough challenges is key.’
Tailor your achievements
Leary-Joyce advises building a picture of the achievements in your career so far, and aligning them to what you want to do in the future. ‘If you’ve coped well with challenges, that’s proof you’re capable of change and willing to stick it out when the going gets tough. Find ways to show you enjoy learning and want to take on a new area of work.’
For me, I could see my editor was extremely busy, so I volunteered to take on one of her tasks – editing the weekly newsletter. This meant I could choose the content and write new stories for it, too – which would give me the chance to prove to both myself and my editor that I could be creative and put together something worth reading each week.
If the career change is totally different, however, Leary-Joyce advises looking for ways to try out the work – are there friends you could shadow at work for a day? Could you do an internship during your holidays or chat to people who do the job already to find out what the day-to-day is like?
I applied for the role and, when I was offered an interview, I made sure that I prepared well. I had a good story to tell about why the job attracted me and lots of examples of when I dealt with similar tasks, which proved my determination. I was also honest about aspects of the job that I may find challenging and offered possible solutions, such as coaching sessions for both myself and my editor, so we could discuss issues openly and make a positive start. I could tell that she was pleasantly surprised by my attitude, and I was lucky enough to have a boss who was open-minded and could look beyond my label; to see my potential and how I could bring positive things to the team, given the opportunity.
Having done the job for just over a year now, I’m enjoying it more and more; the satisfaction from making creative decisions, writing and deputising for my boss is as much as I hoped for. I’m not sure what my label is now – I’ll have to ask my editor – but I’m pretty sure it includes ‘happy’ and ‘fulfilled’.
To find out more about Judith Leary-Joyce, see greatcompaniesconsulting.com