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Are You Future-Proof?

In the last few months I have been asked by four different organizations to address the question: “How do I ‘Future-Proof’ myself?” At the heart of this question, people are searching for how to develop the mental and emotional resilience to deal with the stress and uncertainty of change and disruption. There are many changes and disruptions that can happen to us that have the potential of derailing us – even if temporarily. Things such as getting assigned a new job or boss, going through a reorganization, or getting caught up in a merger or acquisition, to name a few, all bring stress and uncertainty. Even greater stress is caused by the things that disrupt us such as a change in direction brought on by new technology or the rise of a non-traditional competitor; or worse yet, getting “down-sized”. It seems that these things are all happening with greater frequency than they used to, and all of them remind us of our inadequacy at controlling or predicting the future.

The future of successfully navigating your career and therefore your work is all about managing change and disruption, and that requires recognizing the things that trap you into wrong thinking and then moving toward healthier thinking. Sometimes, wrong thinking yields unhealthy mental frames that seem healthy or at worst innocuous at the time – until disruption happens. These mental frames are important because of the way they influence how you view your value to the organization and your role in the organization. These unhealthy mental frames are manifested by the following self-talk: “My performance ratings are higher than others’ ”; “My boss likes me and will take care of me”; “I’ve survived other disruptions, and therefore the past defines the future”; and, “I’m on the ‘High-Potential’ list”. These mental frames seem, on the surface, as good reasons why your future is in “protected” status. Sometimes, your wrong thinking is just naïve when you tell yourself things such as: “It’ll never happen to me”; “If I ignore it, it will go away”; or, “If I just keep my head down, no one will notice me”.

The problem with these frames is that they give us justification for not being proactive with our careers and our personal development. You see, most of the problem of becoming future-proof is “between our ears”. As humans, we have a built-in pain avoidance system and a high need for consonance. To the brain, change registers as pain. Therefore it’s natural for us to avoid anything that may disrupt our “peace”. People who manage well in stress and uncertainty take charge for creating change and being proactive with what they can control – what they think and how they talk to themselves every day. Our high need for consonance can also work against us if we’re not paying attention to our thoughts. That is, if your past experience has been favorable, or your current situation is favorable, then your view of the future is likely optimistic. A disrupted future is at odds with a highly-favorable past or current condition, so to make those two more aligned, you’ll change your view of the future. Perhaps your thinking drifts to rationalizing your behavior – in this case, lack of proactivity – to support a belief you have adopted about the future. You’ll look for corroborating evidence to confirm this belief. For instance, if your boss has had nothing but good things to say about you, then you’re highly influenced to believe that change and disruption is for “everybody else”. Any one of these unhealthy mental frames can make you capable of ignoring the inevitable, even in light of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Thanks to the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, we know that when we have a complex question to answer or complex decision to make, we often answer an easier-to-answer-but-related question, unless we give ourselves the right structure. This is certainly the case when trying to answer the question of how to prepare for the future. The question how to prepare is complex because there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. Without the right structure and thinking about answering this question, it’s likely that you’ll answer this easier-to-answer question, instead: “What are my options?” The problem with answering this question is that it is fear-based and reactionary, and is the best indicator that you’ve fallen prey to one or more of the unhealthy mental frames previously mentioned. This will impede your progress toward gaining healthy mental frames to manage change and disruption. Implied in the question of “options” is that the locus of control is "out there", in the cloud of uncertainty. That cloud contains "they", “management”, “my boss”, "technology", "change", "the company", and so on – pick any noun outside of yourself. You’ll waste a lot of energy trying to bring certainty to that cloud, and ultimately, when you realize you can’t, you’ll feel like the “victim” when presented with choices you don’t like.

What makes the question of how to become future-proof so complex is that it requires answering several other questions first. The first question to ask (and answering) is a very complex question, requiring time, assistance, and proper structure. The question is: “What do I want to be?” In this question, the locus of control is internal to the self, and requires proper assessment of competencies, capabilities, skills, passions, etc. I have found that some people spend more time planning the family vacation than they do their careers. Once answered, however, it begs two more questions: “What will it take to get there?” and “Am I willing to make the sacrifices to get there?” When a person discovers that preparing for the future is more about seizing control and "owning" a destination than "surfing the trends", a whole new set of horizons begin to appear. And there is almost never a straight line between setting the goal and reaching the goal. Our careers can have twists and turns, and the “destination” can even change. However, answering these questions thoughtfully and honestly gives you a map of sorts, for your career and a context for your current job. Define your future for yourself and move toward it! Even if your destination changes, having some notion of a new route is far better than just wandering around in the “wilderness” of jobs and opportunities.

Some people enter the workforce with an innate sense of destiny. The rest of us have to figure it out. Sometimes, the best way to do this is to pick an industry you love, and then do every job you can do to become valuable to that industry. Even if your current company doesn’t provide the kind of opportunities you like, your skills and competencies are highly-transportable. Aside from doing every kind of job you can do, keep investing in your skills and competencies: they are your best assets. This is especially true of the softer skills associated with leadership. Skills and competencies such as these are transportable across industries. Also invest in relationships – inside and outside of your present company. You’ll never know when a relationship you’ve invested in will change the trajectory of your career. It’s happened to me more than once. While you are investing in yourself and your relationships, remember to keep a healthy personal balance and also develop a passion outside of your work. The research presents great evidence that doing this not only increases your performance on the job, but also makes you a better problem-solver and gives you better resilience as someone with multiple “roles” in life. This will also keep you from believing that your job defines you, a belief that can lead to dissatisfaction and even burnout, not to mention blinding you to immanent change or disruption.

In addition to making generous investments in yourself, pursue proper thinking and healthy mental frames. You can start by realizing that your current company owes you nothing – no matter how long you’ve been there. Every day, you earn your right to be employed there. As soon as you believe that anything about your job is becoming an expectation or an entitlement, you’re setting yourself up to be disappointed. Further, your boss’s view of you may be nice – and it’s important at compensation time – but it’s irrelevant when it comes to being future-proof. I have seen first-hand, good employees who were highly-rated or even on the “high-potential” list, who were caught in disruption brought on by downsizing because they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Remember that past decisions or past experiences are not good predictors of future decisions or experiences. Do not rely on them and you will have a healthy and sober-minded view of your future.

All of this brings each us to this question: “What behaviors can I employ to help develop these healthy frames and to ensure, as much as possible that I can be future-proof?” The answer is simple but the associated actions aren’t, and often people give up to just settle for the easier-to-answer question: “What are my options?” The first action is to embrace reality and know that at some point you are likely to experience stress and disruption. You can’t run from it. If you can embrace this reality then start preparing as soon as you can, financially. Put away some savings that can help cushion any disruption. Then, be willing to challenge or even change your beliefs about the future. This will ensure that you don’t become a victim of the unconscious biases and unhealthy mental frames that can lull you into inactivity. If you aren’t making investments in yourself and your relationships, then start today! It’s never too late. I started into my doctoral program when I was 58 years old, and finished when I was almost 63. It was a very rough four years, but I was determined to complete it. In the process, I gained a whole new set of skills and competencies, and changed how I viewed my professional brand.

If you realize the track you’re on isn’t going to take you where you want to go, then don’t be afraid to “re-invent” yourself and your professional brand. You can start this evaluation by writing your story (doing so on two pages or less provides some added benefit in helping you sharpen your communication skills). You begin at any point in the past, but write your story and end it with the last paragraph talking about what your life is like when you’re sitting (metaphorically) in your rocking chair on the front porch. Compelling stories have five elements that create your life’s “narrative arc”. Every story arc has a protagonist, which, in your story is you. Good story arcs also have a dilemma or a call to adventure that the protagonist faces. Then there is a hero, which could be you, but more than likely is a parent, coach, teacher, friend, or mentor. Continuing on the story arc is a transformation, which implies that there was a decision on the part of the protagonist, likely facilitated by the hero, to make a necessary change. And finally, every story arc has a resolution. Good television-show writers can earn big bucks for efficient and effective writing to cover the show’s narrative arc for that week, keeping the meta-narrative arc also in play as it unfolds over the course of the season or multiple seasons. Why two pages? Because it’s easy to write ten pages about your story, but not all those details are important to your narrative arc and to the readers’ understanding of your narrative arc. Part of the training to become a good communicator is to learn to write (and speak) efficiently and effectively; with an economy of words. I have seen far too many leaders lose their audience – and therefore fail to make their case – because people missed the point, or stopped listening/reading.

Writing (and even re-writing) your story helps you define a desired future state that will compel you to move forward. It also helps you define or redefine your brand. Everyone has a personal and professional brand – and the two are generally very closely linked. A brand is nothing more than an implied promise or an expectation for an experience when others encounter you. There is both and explicit brand (what you say and think about yourself), and an implicit brand (what others say about you based on their experience). It helps if these two are aligned, but when they aren’t, the only one that really matters is the implicit brand. Finally, writing your story helps you see the small steps and goals in between where you currently are and where you want to be. Doing this helps you know that you are making the progress necessary to be in control of your future. This is when the stress and disruptions of change won’t become derailleurs but rather opportunities for growth along the path toward a future you want.

As mentioned earlier, these behaviors and actions are easy to say but harder to do. One of the ways you can ensure that you continue to make progress toward becoming future-proof and stay on the track you’ve laid out for yourself, is to share your commitment to this with a close friend who will spur you on, encourage you, and even hold you accountable for making progress, no matter how small the steps. Dr. Henry Cloud, in his book, The Power of Others, makes a compelling point that having the right people in our lives can help us accomplish so much more than we ever thought we could. It’s true, and that advice given to me by a close friend long before Dr. Cloud wrote his book, has never failed me.

Only you can make the decision to become future-proof, and take control of your actions to stay on that journey.

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