SINGAPORE: “I’ve applied for more than a hundred jobs, and I’ve received mostly rejections. What are companies looking for?”
This was the one of several similar emails that landed in my inbox after my last commentary on Career Mobility being the new Career Stability.
While I can’t tell you what every single company is looking for, I can tell you how the very best companies assess candidates.
Think of your career as a story with three parts – Past, Present and Future.
The Past tranche refers to your past performance, experiences, the skills you have already honed and developed and the value you have created.
The Present tranche is your current readiness in your existing role, or the perceived fit between you and the job that you want. This considers factors such as what your competencies are, the cultural fit and your personality.
The Future tranche represents your potential. These are traits that predict your ability to grow as a leader and how fast you develop. These are related to your ability to learn and adapt, and are strongly correlated to social emotional intelligence qualities such as curiosity, resilience, empathy and self-awareness.
HOW TO CHOOSE A WORLD-CLASS TENNIS PLAYER
Imagine you’ve been given the task of trying to select a world-class tennis player.
First you look at the past – how many matches has the person won, for instance, and what their achievements have they chalked up?
Then you look at the present. Imagine in this instance, the person you’re considering has never played tennis before, yet she or he may be able to run really fast and has great hand-eye coordination. Those are indicators of the person’s readiness.
And then you also want to consider if this person has potential to grow. How curious and open is this potential player and how fast do they pick up new techniques for instance?
I first learned this career trajectory model from my friend Elaine Yew, a veteran of the talent development world and senior executive recruitment and development firm Egon Zehnder.
When I asked Elaine for her views on career mobility, she said:
The biggest enemy of career mobility is comfort … Comfort leads us to false security and we stop seeking growth, both in skills and mindset agility.
I see all the time, even amongst very successful senior business people, that the ones who struggle with career advancement, are the ones whose worlds have become narrow – they engage mainly with people from their industry or expertise area, and their thinking about how their skills or experience might be transferable can be surprisingly superficial.
This is exactly why career mobility is so important. In a future of rapid change and uncertainty, the old success formula of deep specialisation and sticking to your strengths and comfort zone doesn’t hold true anymore.
Even fields that require specialised hard skills such as architecture, engineering and medicine are seeing a shift towards broadening out skillbases.
For instance, we are seeing a trend of medical schools around the world looking to offer new skills to broaden out doctor skillsets, such as data science which will allow them to understand Big Data, and empathic communication – a uniquely human skill that robots cannot replicate.
Over the past few years, the American Medical Association has awarded millions of dollars worth of grants to medical schools to develop innovative curricula for the future.
Dean of the National University of Singapore’s Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine Associate Prof Yeoh Khay-Guan said in the Singapore Medical Journal recently:
Soft skills will be more important than knowledge. In the electronic era, you can ‘pull’ knowledge and information, but soft skills such as bedside manner, how you communicate with patients and reassure them, how you answer their questions and your attitude towards them, must be intrinsic in the doctor.
It is clear that developing your career mobility is essential regardless of what sector you’re in and whether you’re a general manager or a technical expert.
So how can you develop your career mobility? Let’s look at those three tranches again.
First, carefully cultivate your “garden of experiences”. Plant new seeds of exploration all the time. Don’t place all your bets on harvesting one crop.
This doesn’t mean that you have to leave your current job, but you can volunteer for stretch assignments within your department, initiate new projects or even shadow someone in a related department to develop new perspectives.
Going overseas can also be a valuable experience and it signals to employers that you have built cultural intelligence and resilience. Your new experiences will grow you and add diversity and breadth to your Past and Present portfolio of what you’ve achieved.
Second, intentionally develop your social capital and network. The people who I see struggle with career mobility often are the ones who neglect their connections. Instead of sending hundreds of applications to HR bots and job portals, it is far more effective to tap your network of connections for career intelligence and introductions.
Develop genuine relationships with people in the industries that you are interested in working in, whether it’s joining business interest groups on social media or attending relevant events and following up with the people who you’ve met.
Kingsley Aikins, CEO of The Networking Institute, calls your network a personal asset which is portable and moves with you regardless of the company you work for. He told me that he also spends his weekends entering the people he has met into a personal database and classifying them into categories – the most powerful relationship category being “People you can call at 3pm on a Sunday afternoon”.
I personally do not have the discipline for weekend social network database maintenance, but I do regularly consider which old friends and contacts I haven’t seen and reach out, even if it’s just a simple text message.
People who are great networkers understand the power of creating value for others without needing something in return. They build and maintain relationships constantly, rather than just seeking out contacts when they need a favour.
Third, always be at your development edge by learning new skills and developing healthy mindsets. These could be adjacent hard skills related to your core function or leadership skills that will allow you to advance your career.
The skills that will be particularly useful for the workplace of the future are what I call Deep Human Superskills, which are the social emotional competencies that separate us from the robots, like using empathy to connect with others on a deeper level, a keen sense of self-awareness and complex communication abilities such as conflict resolution.
READ: Here’s what Singapore’s human capital index in a world of disruption should look like, a commentary
It is also important to cultivate mindsets that support learning, such as being open-minded, having a mindset of ownership for your development, and of course developing a growth mindset, which Stanford's Professor Carol Dweck’s research has shown as being pivotal for development, success and resilience.
Constantly evolving your skills and beliefs will also develop your ability to learn faster and better. Learning to learn and unlearn is perhaps one of the biggest factors in your career potential – the Future piece that we talked about.
Focusing on Career Mobility is not an easy or comfortable mindset shift for some, but it is important. Individuals must be supported in their efforts.
If we are to develop a truly career mobile society, companies and HR personnel also need to reexamine their attitudes and practices.
In general, companies tend to apply too many unhelpful or outdated filters which narrow the talent pool too quickly – whether it is education, schools or experience requirements.
I myself have also been guilty of posting jobs which reuse old job description templates which make arbitrary demands such as five years of specific experience in a particular field, which removed many suitable and competent candidates.
In fact, some of my best hires have had their CVs forwarded to me directly from mutual contacts after their applications ended up on the reject pile due to them not meeting some arbitrary filter.
As employers, we must move away from a tendency to focus on qualifications and hard rules on years of experience, and also question our invisible filter of unconscious biases.
The old rules that worked in yesterday’s world will not work today.
Instead, the world of the future requires growth on both sides – for individuals to own the responsibility for constant development, and for employers to evolve their mindsets regarding what talent and potential truly looks like.
Crystal Lim-Lange is the CEO and Co-founder of Forest Wolf, a future-readiness and talent development consultancy.