Let’s Talk About It: Embracing Career Ownership in Disruptive Times

Apr 6, 2020

When crisis strikes, leaders are supposed to focus on the immediate mission and their team. This is what common wisdom and an abundance of online resources tell us.

Yet when I speak one-on-one with leaders in the quiet moments of these disruptive times, this type of guidance isn’t what they most crave. Tools, templates, checklists, and tips are useful and appreciated. But the deep underlying insecurity I hear repeatedly is rooted deep in career ownership.

“Lisa, do I even want to do this, anymore?”

Regardless of what we had set out to discuss, some form of this question inevitably comes out in these conversations. For some, the way they had defined their value, contribution, and success is now at risk as businesses are shuttered for an undetermined amount of time. For others, they’re busier than ever—slaying every dragon that rises, ever vigilant and supportive of their teams, their mission, and their communities. Many were already considering a different future before the crisis struck, and now feel they’ve missed the window when change was still possible.

Career ownership is a significant theme of my third book, The Talent Revolution: Longevity and Future of Work. I highlight how the tools, approaches, and techniques for individuals to continually evaluate their own skills, interests, and potential in the context of local and global labour market trends is woefully underdeveloped in Canada. This means that when questions like “do I even want to do this, anymore?” won’t quiet themselves, many feel unsure how to begin to find the answer.

Options feel limited. It seems self-indulgent. The timing feels off. I know three things for sure:

  1. That question won’t go away by itself;
  2. There are exceptional methods to address it that improve well-being—personal, social, and economic; and,
  3. Left unexpressed or inadequately explored, it leads to actions and decision-making that are driven by scarcity, martyrdom, and stress.

Right now crisis and coping are the immediate priorities. At some point, however, we’re going to enter a strange “middle” period of carrying on. One way or another, the next few months will see people find a new normal—business as unusual—as we hunker down and wait for this virus to pass.

I worry about this period just as much as I worry about the intensity of need and response that we’re seeing today. Eventually, everyone needs to have some amount of choice and control—this is often called agency—in what happens to them and their work. Career development offers this agency.

Career development is not just for students. It’s a lifelong pursuit and, at the moment, requires a level of career competence that our mid-career employees, leaders, executives, and business owners simply don’t have.

To the small business owners wondering if they really want to return their families to that stressful period of starting up and building something new all over again—I say, let’s talk about it.

To the company executives who are so proud of their teams, yet still wonder if it isn’t time for someone else to take the lead once the immediate crisis is handled—I say, let’s talk about it.

To the executive directors who are now operating without a safety net and know their work is more important than ever, but had the feeling they were ready for a change before this all hit—I say, let’s talk about it.

To the post-secondary leaders who are worried about letting down the people and institutions entrusted to them, even though everyone around them has complete confidence in their leadership—I say, let’s talk about it.

There is no project plan, crisis communications protocol, or financial bailout that will satisfy leaders who are uncertain of their value, commitment, or future. And no company, sector, or community can navigate this type of long-term, sustained recovery period without strong, committed, and healthy leaders.

The only way to quiet that voice of uncertainty is by addressing it head on. To everyone who is questioning their role at work and what the future holds for them: take control. Those who focus on their own career ownership will emerge from this crisis with a deeper connection to their work, their teams, and their community.

No path forward can be successful without the skilled exploration of this fundamental question:

“Do you even want to do this, anymore?”

Let’s talk about it.