Managing your future

Learn these five tips to proactively manage your professional future.

By Erin McConahey, PE, Arup, Los Angeles July 17, 2012

Many in our industry have suffered job loss or job insecurity associated with the downturn in the economy and the slowing of construction work in general. When these cyclic downturns occur and there is less work available, it affords us all the opportunity to think about the future and consider our career development. This article gives some hints as to how to proactively manage your future by looking at five things:    

  1. Everyone is a free agent
  2. You are as good as what you just did 
  3. Every uncertainty is an opportunity
  4. Change the world or be changed by it
  5. Treat your work as a piece of your life.

Everyone is a free agent

This first principle is just a fact of life in modern corporate America. In most work arrangements, you have freedom of movement to pursue work elsewhere at your discretion, and your employer or client has the right to ask you to leave if there is no need for your skills. Any notion of company loyalty is contingent on having enough work and is extended only to the best-in-class employees who can help the firm deliver the work. You need to manage your future as if you are the only one interested in it—because you are. In light of this situation, you must know your value proposition. It is essential to know what value you uniquely and personally bring to your employer and to be able to articulate it in a 30-second to 2-minute “elevator pitch” (i.e., the selling of an idea in the amount of time it takes to ride up to the top floor with an overly busy Hollywood executive).

Exercise 1: What is your value proposition?

  • Review beforehand: In what areas do you find yourself most effective? Least effective? And why?
  • Craft your elevator pitch: Keep it quick, direct, and simple. Use active verbs, imagine the person you will be pitching to, and tell that person what value you bring.
  • Practice your pitch out loud with a friend.

You are as good as what you just did 

The reaction I usually get to the elevator pitch exercise is, “Why should I need to do this? My boss already knows what I do. Good work speaks for itself.” My answer is that your boss is busy and has more important things to remember than what you are doing. People have poor memories and they aren’t generally telepathic, so they will only remember the last thing they heard. To ensure that your boss is aware (if only subconsciously) of the consistency of your contribution, you need to be telling him in bite-sized chunks throughout the year.

Exercise 2: Tell your boss why you are perfect for your target role.

  • Review beforehand: Interview a person who is in one of your future target roles and ask what he or she does all day. Write down the top 10 things that person does and why doing those things is important to the firm/client.
  • Craft your elevator pitch: What recent successes have you had that make you well-suited to this next role? How does this benefit the listener, and who did you influence with your recent success (e.g. clients, colleagues, general public, etc.)? Use numbers where possible to bring credibility to your claims.
  • Practice your pitch out loud with a friend.

Every uncertainty is an opportunity

Most people are reluctant to change and uncomfortable with ambiguity. We all hate the lack of control, the discomfort with status, the fear of failure, and the paralysis that often ensues when confronted with the unknown. But these are the times when we discover our true capabilities and have a chance to grow in ways we didn’t predict. The trick is to see each uncertainty as an opportunity and to have in place some coping mechanisms for dealing with the stress that you will inevitably feel during the transition period.

Exercise 3: Anticipate and domesticate challenges.

  • Review the main challenges that you will face when you enter your next role. What can you do now to prepare? Who will be your key partners in ensuring success? What is the worst-case scenario, and what can be done in mitigation? In the best-case scenario, what would be the benefits to the firm? And for yourself?

Change the world or be changed by it

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “We need to be the change we wish to see in the world.” Philosophically speaking, I accept this aspirational statement but offer a harder-edged corollary for our particular industry: change will happen with or without you.  Whether you lead or chase to catch up is your decision. It is essential that we all stay aware of the significant changes already occurring in the industry related to technology, procurement methods, sustainability concerns, and economic pressures. Besides ensuring our own marketability, confidence, and proficiency in a new portion of the field, it helps us stay on the leading edge. If you help others also prepare for change, then you are seen as a de facto leader because you are sharing a hopeful, positive vision of the future. 

Exercise 4: Change something in your world tomorrow.

  • Brainstorm the top five trends in our industry.
  • Evaluate whether you lead or follow in each category and why.
  • What piece (however small) might you own?
  • What might you need to do to convince others of the need to change?

Treat your work as a piece of your life

Our industry is heavily dominated by deadlines, which can impinge on our personal lives. Besides this fact, the combination of low-cost/low-fee trends, our status of being a subconsultant to others, the prototypical quality and complexity of our work, the conversion to BIM, and the need to constantly cultivate new client relationships make it difficult to do everything that needs to be done during the hours of a normal work week. As such, it is essential that we agree to balance work-life  with our loved ones in order to have as healthy a life as possible. 

Exercise 5: Work-life fit

  • Fill in the Work-Life Fit Worksheet. Review whether there is anything to be reconciled between the two columns.
  • Consider the question: How do we frame the story of our lives to ourselves? To our loved ones? To the people we work for?

Managing your future is up to you; your openness to change and your own thoughtful investment in these practical exercises may reveal undreamt-of opportunities. I leave you now with my best wishes for your future success.

McConahey is principal in mechanical engineering with Arup. She has worked internationally and now leads multidisciplinary design teams on a wide variety of project types. McConahey is a member of the Consulting-Specifying Engineer editorial advisory board and a Career Smart Engineers Conference presenter.